Facts: How reliable are they?

Facts are what we know today says David Deutsch in his book, The Beginning of Infinity (opens in a new link).

Background

David Deutsch is a British Physicist who states that science, or any endeavor at understanding, is a search for explanations. During our search we gain new information and that information often refutes what we previously thought we knew. In other words, what we considered factual is no longer true.

This is hardly how we view what we call facts. When we hear the word facts, we assume that the information is reliable and immutable. But a simple examination of what we hear in daily news reports demonstrates just how fragile and unreliable facts are.

Here are some examples to illustrate this point.

Examples

I used to be an avid viewer of the Nightly Business Report which reported on the various financial markets. I’d often hear the reporters say that the market was down on profit-taking and I’d wonder “How do they know? And how is it that everyone, or even the vast majority, of sellers made money by selling that day?” And how were they able to find so many willing, and apparently naive, buyers?” 

The reality is that “profit-taking” was a convenient way to explain the unexplainable. There are as many reasons for selling as there are people doing the selling and many of these sales are made on raw emotion, not the fundamental strength of the company or the economy.

We hear reports of unemployment being down while the number of new unemployment claims are up and we wonder “How can that be?” Both are factually true given how these numbers are calculated. Further investigation shows that there are competing views on how these calculations should be made to offer a more accurate set of “facts.”

In a similar fashion, we hear that the consumer price index is up, but rarely which components are driving rising prices. It’s also been long debated that what comprises the consumer price index isn’t representative of today’s consumer spending. So while the index is, in fact, up, it isn’t necessarily a good measure of what consumers are experiencing.

In Discrimination and Disparities (opens in a new link), economist Thomas Sowell, repeatedly demonstrates how emotional beliefs and visions differ from economic reality. Yet, we are repeatedly sold these beliefs as facts…even though data shows them to untrue.

Sowell cites that prior to the enactment of minimum wage laws, employment was essentially equal between black and white teens. When the minimum wage was instituted, there were fewer jobs for teens and those jobs went disproportionately to white teens. Over time that inequity diminished because the minimum wage failed to keep pace with inflation.

In a similar fashion, studies have shown that black-owned banks in black communities were, on the whole, more stringent in their underwriting practices than non-black owned banks. By the way, Sowell is black.

So what does this mean for you and your kids?

For you

It means that we all should stop accepting things as being factual. Instead, we should remind ourselves that what we’re hearing is, at best, what we know today. At worst, unsubstantiated beliefs and philosophies that need to be explored to understand how accurate they are. 

In other words, we need to be more skeptical of what we hear. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t open to hearing the information. It means that we have to question what we’re hearing.

Take heart in knowing that questioning, in its best form, is not confrontational; it’s exploratory. When your questions are presented in the form of “I want to understand…,” you don’t create resistance or animosity. Instead, you encourage both your listener and yourself to explore what on the surface makes sense so that you can both feel more comfortable using the information to guide you.

For our kids 

You can teach your kids to employ healthy skepticism by questioning facts. In doing so, you’ll teach them to prepare themselves with appropriate substantiation before accepting “facts.” Also let them know that these are the facts as they exist today. As new situations arise, as the next level of understanding is achieved, it’s likely that their facts will no longer hold true.

This simple lesson will help them become more thorough in their investigation of what they see and hear. That will help them protect them from the shysters of the world as well as open their minds to seeking new and exciting explanations for what they experience. That’s a lot of benefit from a simple exercise.

Let others know that you love them by sharing this blog post. They’ll appreciate that you care.

I love hearing your thoughts and experiences, please share your experiences in a comment.

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2 Responses

  1. bill prenatt

    Dale, I love that your articles are so thought provoking!

    I attempt to intentionally differentiate between what I know and what I think I know when I’m making important decisions or communication with others
    .
    What I know is defined as what I have experienced personally or what trusted sources tell me to be true. I take everything else with a grain of salt and scrutinize information that I just think I know.

    At the end of the day, it is important for me to be seen by others as a reliable source of accurate information to be true. When I share my thoughts with others, I attempt to communicate how accurate I believe my information to be accurate.

    • dfurtwengler

      Bill, sound practices all. I also know that you and I both use questions more often than statements of fact. I’m convinced that the reason we do so is that we both know how limited our knowledge is. Questions enable us to honor our experiences and current knowledge while being completely open to new information that may alter our thinking. Thanks for sharing your approaches to assessing and sharing information with our readers. They’ll benefit immensely from your insights.

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