The truth about facts

15 Jul

It’s easy to fool yourself that if people just knew the facts properly, they would all switch to your view (because your view is the right one, obviously, otherwise you would have switched yourself), but opinions are more social than rational. The normal approach in politics is to fool yourself into thinking that the opinion you already have is the correct one by selective use of facts, as shown by results discussed in Ezra Klein’s text How Politics Makes Us Stupid. “‘What we believe about the facts,’ [Dan Kahan] writes, ‘tells us who we are.’ And the most important psychological imperative most of us have in a given day is protecting our idea of who we are, and our relationships with the people we trust and love.”

The conclusion goes much deeper than having the public accept scientific evidence. It means that bringing facts is not the way to make someone willing to change their position. A much more effective way is to make it less threatening for them to change their identity, or to allow them to switch their views without changing their identity. Not a revolutionary insight perhaps. Some political strategists, like Tony Blair, have long been successful using it. But for me, Kleins text gave the insight a depth it didn’t have before. (Everybody should read it, by the way, and draw their own conclusions.)

The path to wisdom lies in not succumbing to the threats posed by changing your views. Threats to your identity, your social comfort, and your livelihood.

When Johannes Kepler stole Tycho Brahe’s astronomical data after Brahe’s death, it was in the hope of confirming the theory that he had given years or decades of work. But what Kepler found was that the data didn’t quite fit. His reaction wasn’t, which I believe most people’s would have been, to try to explain the mismatches away, or bury the data. He accepted the facts, threw his theory away, and started anew, which eventually lead him to inventing gravity (yes, inventing it). This tenaciously honest rationality is my ideal, in science, politics, and otherwise. I’m afraid I don’t always live up to it, but then, I am only human, and Kepler is a legend.

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