Monday, November 9, 2009

The fantasy of the fact

The fantasy of the fact – the evidence is always partly what we need it to be; the other part is theirs!

Torrey Orton

November 9, 2009

The evidence is often partly what we need it to be, unless we are arguing against ourselves. Even then there is a self-fulfilling bias towards our perceived self-interest. So, the facts cannot be determined without a determination of accountabilities. That is, only on very special occasions, or concerning very neutral matters, can the facts by untainted with the interests of the argument. Even academic facts are often disputed in much the same way as ones of public interest. The accountabilities here are the purposes and powers of the contestants, plus their personal needs. So, for example, it is surprising to see a very smart and thoughtful thinker pretend that there are neutral facts in the euthanasia debate. Christopher Pearson would have churches or pro-life groups commission new surveys with "non-emotive language" to ascertain public mood on matters self-terminating. Who could judge "non-emotive" non-emotively?

Thus, much political discourse these days is concerned to shift the accountabilities. Watching our parliamentary process is like watching a collection of fighters with no memory for the sides of issues they have been on and hence no shame about the sides they take over time. The present confected boat people threat is an instance. There is increasingly no other side at all and, hence, decreasingly decisions which are accountable – they are too short term to be effective (see Brian Caldwell in the AGE 021109 on the Federal Government's "education revolution" and time).

We know that ideas come positioned by our natural inclination to prejudge an argument on the back of our perception of its provenance. This may be condensed into useful economic mantra like: "When buying beef in Paris, read the provenance label before judging the visuals before you". This natural inclination is expressed by the pointing out the facts which the other side(s) have avoided, misread, misrepresented or just failed to acquire from the point of view of one's own facts. Such a move, which appears to be neutral, scientific, and balanced, can be just another tactic in the struggle the facts are meant to clarify, expand or conclude.

This is a serious problem for evidence-based, evidence supported or similar practices of various descriptions. It is most obviously a problem in political discourses because they are positioned to defeat the other and at once avoid accountability – the artefacts of a spun world. For other discourses – professional, family, religious – where personal interests are also at stake and accountability cannot be obscured, what constitutes the evidence is disputable for other reasons, too. One example of this is here:

"Rogers Smith, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who has been active in the "Perestroika" movement, said that the question should determine the method. If you want to test cause and effect, "quantitative methods are the preferred way to go," he said, but they can't tell "how political phenomena should be understood and interpreted" — whether a protest, for instance, is the result of a genuine social movement or an interest group, whether it is religious or secular."

There, nicely poised, is a fundamental problem with science: that as you become clear about facts, you cannot sustain a similarly clear interpretive picture about them, the picture which gives them meaning by placing them in a worldview. The science Smith is talking about is intrinsically uncertain in two other key respects: (1) predictions are approximate, until they have happened; and, (2) the probabilities established by statistics are, even very high ones, never apply to a single case. A tipping point can be assumed to occur eventually, like the farmer's rain, but the second, minute and hour of which day in what place and by whose agency cannot.

It seems I am arguing a relativist line. I would, but not as the only line. My concern is that in large scale, complex public policy and action domains, the possibility of shared understanding and commitment is declining with the rising failure of the scientific to convince us. The more science we have the less we can understand. This leaves us in the hands of our leaders and they are tainted in matters of public trusts.

For me at this time my wonder is how we can find or create appropriate common grounds in some of our major life domains – health, education, and the key challenges facing us across them in climate, fuels, foods, finances...


  1. This is a somewhat slippery slope into postmodernistic 'everything is relative' 'there is no such thing as real' thinking.

    The challenge seems to me to be learning how to articulate the accountabilities - or how to require the articulation of accountabilities - along side the articulation of supposed facts.

    Keeping a sense of history is one way - it really is irresponsible that more isn't being made about the similarities between the current refugee situation and that overseen by the previous government - but it only deals with part of the problem.

    Perhaps we all need to wear a hat on which are published our particular predelictions?

  2. I look forward to pursuing this over lunch...especially the question of articulating accountabilities and blding sense of history...