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Thinking Out Loud

The Evidence of Things Seen

by Michael Jinkins | May 02, 2017

The Evidence of Things SeenWhy does the irrational govern people's decision-making more than reason?

This was one of the topics discussed over dinner recently with my friend Gerardo Marti. Gerardo occupies the L. Richard King Chair of Sociology at Davidson College and is pretty brilliant. Our conversation that evening ranged across topics cultural, political, economic and religious, with a five-minute tutorial on the difference the combination of variations of grains makes in the production of a particular beverage native to Kentucky.

As a seasoned sociologist, Gerardo knows that reason doesn't govern the decision-making of even those of us who think ourselves highly rational. While recognizing this fact, we kept circling around questions like: "Why are people often determined to act upon their assumptions, rather than to attempt to discern the facts of the matter through disciplined study, even when they know their assumptions are not really reliable?" And "Why do people choose to deny reality when confronted with clear evidence?"

The conversation reminded me of an essay I read last spring in The Economist. Fortunately, because I am something of a packrat when it comes to past issues of this newspaper, I was able to retrieve it fairly easily. The title of the essay is "Ignorance isn't bliss," and it appeared in the May 28, 2016, issue on the “Buttonwood” feature column (p. 64).

Here's how it starts:

"It is not the 'unknown unknowns' that catch people out, but the truths they hold to be self-evident that turn out to be completely wrong. On many issues, the gap between public perceptions and reality is very wide."

The writer gives several examples.

When asked by a research group to say what percentage of the population of the United States currently is made up of immigrants, Americans polled answered: 33%. The correct figure is less than half that: 14%.

One poll conducted in Britain found that citizens of that country believed that 24% of the people living in the United Kingdom are Muslim. The correct figure is: 5%.

When Britons were asked what areas of expenditure represent the largest portion of the national budget of the U.K., 26% said foreign aid was toward the top. In fact, health services, pensions and education rank toward the top of government spending, while all foreign aid combined totals just 1% of the national budget.

And asked what percentage of teenage girls get pregnant each year, Americans polled said 24%, while the actual figure is 3%.

All of which might simply be chalked up to a lack of good information or an inability to think numerically. But, in fact, many people when confronted with reliable data gained through the most careful and unbiased research simply refuse to believe it.

The author of The Economist essay writes:

"Reasoned presentation of the facts may not help since the source of the information, whether it is the government or the mainstream media, will always be suspect. Those advocating that Britons vote to leave the European Union in next month's referendum [this essay was written before Brexit was approved by British voters last summer] ... dismiss warnings about the economic impact from the IMF, OECD and Bank of England on the grounds that, 'They would say that, wouldn't they.'"

Too late the British public learned that it was not the mainstream media or the "establishment" sources of information that distorted the facts to win their case, but the proponents of Brexit who thought they were safe in their exaggerations and in making misleading statements because they never expected to win. And they certainly didn't believe they would have to clean up the mess they helped to make.

I'm often on Paula Poundstone's side when she questions the source of some ludicrous sounding "finding" of some unnamed and unknown "researchers" quoted on the NPR radio comedy contest, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Paula is always the first to express incredulity about the reliability of the latest study.

And we all know that political experts (the talking heads, the pundits, the self-appointed and partisan arbiters of public opinion) we often see on the endless cycle of television "news" are accurate in their predictions at roughly the same rate as a blindfolded chimpanzee throwing darts at a stationary target. See: Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment, Princeton University Press, 2005.)

But there are knowables. There is such a thing as a fact. And, as former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, while we are entitled to our own opinions, we aren't entitled to our own facts.

So, why do we act as though we are?

Sometimes the answer may be as simple as a lack of discipline, as when short-term pressures overrule long-term goods. Sometimes it might be greed, as when private interests trump public goods.

Sometimes the answer may be that we are so embedded in our partial view of the world, our provincialism, or localism, or tribalism that we just can't or won't see the whole. Sometimes it may be fear that keeps us from confronting facts that run against long-cherished myths. And sometimes, while well-meaning, we may be misled by partial information or wishful thinking. Although we hate to admit it, sometimes we may fall victim to a confidence trickster, to someone who pulls the wool right over our eyes.

Maybe Jack Nicholson's crusty character in the movie, A Few Good Men, was right. Sometimes at least some of us "can't handle the truth." But, if as Jesus is reported to have said, the truth is what will set us free, then maybe we ought to find ways to overcome whatever the opposite of the better angels of our souls are so that we can see the truth when it is standing in front of us. I wonder if that's possible.

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