Facts (and Minds) are Stubborn Things

When making his defense of some British soldiers during the Boston Massacre trials in December of 1770, John Adams (later the second President of the United States) offered a famous insight. “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”  Legal Papers of John Adams, 3:269. In a similar vein, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that “[e]veryone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

I have often warned about our proclivity to and preference for stories to the exclusion of data (for example, here, here and here). Because stories are so powerful, we want the facts to be neatly packaged into a compelling narrative. Take a look at John Boswell‘s delightful send-up of this technique in the TED context below.

 We crave “wonder, insight [and] ideas.” Facts?  Not so much. As Evgeny Morozov puts it:

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

Felix Salmon’s excellent discussion of this argument in the context of Jonah Lehrer’s sad case (interestingly put into context here), which decries the use of “remixed facts in service of narrative,” establishes clearly (if unsurprisingly) that the facts are frequently too stubborn to fit neatly into a narrative-driven format — whether TED talk, blog post or bestseller. According to Seth Mnookin and reiterated by Salmon, “Lehrer had “the arrogance to believe that he has the right to rejigger reality to make things a little punchier, or a little neater.” Felix perhaps goes beyond Morozov to argue “that TED-think isn’t merely vapid, it’s downright dangerous in the way that it devalues intellectual rigor at the expense of tricksy emotional and narrative devices.”

To be clear, I am entirely in favor of using narrative to illustrate concepts. I am also in favor of making difficult concepts, and science in particular, more accessible. Moreover, there are many TED-talks I find inspiring, illuminating and useful. However, the issue and the danger is in forcing uncooperative (“stubborn”) facts, what Morozov calls “messy reality,” into a glib narrative in ways that simply don’t fit.

We are so susceptible to this problem (and our overarching bias blindness generally) that we fall prey to it often and don’t recognize it. Indeed, Snopes would not exist without our propensity for not letting facts get in the way of a good story. But even ascertaining the bare facts is far more difficult than we tend to think. As William James put it in The Will to Believe (1897): “Roundabout the accredited and orderly facts of every science there ever floats a sort of dust cloud of exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and irregular and seldom met with, which it always proves more easy to ignore than to attend to.”

We are utterly convinced that our senses are open windows through which we experience the real world as it truly is. But all of what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell is a re-creation by our brains – a useful model (guess) about what things “out there” are really like. To paraphrase neuroscientist Chris Frith, each of us is an invisible actor at the center of his or her world, which is designed to be a “map of signs about future possibilities.” Therefore, “[w]hat you’re experiencing is largely the product of what’s inside your head,” says psychologist Ron Rensink. “It’s informed by what comes in through your eyes, but it’s not directly reflecting it.”

In other words, the brain uses a variety of shortcuts to “sift through [the] superabundance of detail” around us (per V.S. Ramachandran and Susan Blakeslee). “At any given moment in our waking lives, our brains are flooded with a bewildering array of sensory inputs, all of which must be incorporated into a coherent perspective that’s based on what stored memories already tell us is true about ourselves and the world.” Accordingly, our default structure is to invent narratives to live by (initially) and then interpreting our experiences in light of these pre-existing narratives. These stories provide easy-to-remember frames of reference wherein we are typically exceptional, heroic, moral and right. Whenever necessary, we misinterpret “facts” or even invent facts out of whole cloth to fill-in the gaps in our knowledge or to explain what we don’t understand.

Sufferers of Korsakoff’s syndrome provide a marvelous (if unfortunate) example of this phenomenon. These people suffer from the inability to transfer short-term to long-term memory due to a thiamine deficiency, often related to excess alcohol intake. When asked a question, they simply invent wonderful and often entirely plausible answers which change each time the question is asked, because they don’t remember what story they told previously.

Cognitive psychologist Richard Warren from the University of Wisconsin recorded himself reading the sentence, “The bill was passed by both houses of the legislature,” cut a middle part of it out of the recording and replaced it with static. When played for subjects, nearly everyone reported hearing both static and the full sentence. Moreover, they couldn’t report when the static had occurred. The auditory system in the brain filled in the missing piece so that the sentence seemed uninterrupted. You don’t perceive blackness every time you blink, do you?

As reported in New Scientist, “We’ve known since the 1960s that memory isn’t like a video recording — it’s reconstructive,” according to psychologist David Gallo of the University of Chicago. The concept of “autobiographical memory” is not a true and accurate record of your past — it is more like a jumble of the remembrances of others, old yearbook and diary entries, photographs and newspaper clippings. “Your memory is often based on what you’ve seen in a photograph or stories from parents or siblings rather than what you can actually recall,” said Kimberley Wade, a memory researcher at the University of Warwick.

Within days of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, psychologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago asked a sampling of people where they were, what they were doing, how they heard the news and who they were with at that time. A year later they asked them again. More than half of the participants had changed their story on at least one count — while still expressing supreme confidence that their memories were accurate. Other studies confirm these results.

None of us starts our thinking or even our observing with a blank sheet of paper (so to speak). As Quine has shown philosophically (using his metaphor of the “web of belief”) and as vast quantities of research have shown practically, anyone sufficiently motivated to hold onto a conviction can always do so and usually will. All of our fact-finding and analysis is done in connection to our overarching beliefs and viewpoints — the stories we live by and the ways we see the world. Our attitude is often on the order of “Don’t bother me with the facts; I’ve already made up my mind.”

This problem is hardly a new one. More than half a century ago, Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger described the issue pretty clearly in the opening lines of his book, When Prophecy Fails. “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

To wax philosophical for a moment, there is a longstanding dispute on the nature of truth. Correspondence theory asserts that something is true to the extent that it corresponds to reality (from Aquinas). That’s pretty much the way we usually think about truth to the extent we actually think about it. Unfortunately, even straightforward facts require interpretation to have meaning (as my masthead proclaims, information is cheap; meaning is expensive). Worse, most things in life — including most of the really important things, like morality and justice — cannot be established to any degree of relative certainty. They must be argued for.

In that context, a coherence theory of truth makes sense.* Truth is ascertained by its level of coherence to a set of specified propositions. Thus one who values equality over freedom generally will tend to favor a policy that increases equality even if and when it inhibits freedom. However, the trouble here is that there is no way to come up with a set of foundational propositions without using correspondence and, more fundamentally for practical purposes, no way to adjudicate disputes about truth in this context, even in theory (why should one necessarily favor equality over freedom or vice versa?). In other words, our undergirding propositions (often narratives and beliefs) can be and often are wrong and usually disputed, throwing a monkey wrench into the whole works. Moreover, because reality is so “messy” we ought to be extremely skeptical about very high levels of coherence. I tend to doubt anyone who spins every item of fact into a neat little package supporting his or her point of view.

And therein lies the rub. Our brains are designed to operate using coherence theory without requiring that the underlying propositions be true (even to the extent possible). We start with narrative and belief and spend our time trying to cram the facts (as we see them) into our preconceived notions about the way the world works. Facts may well be stubborn things essentially, but our mental mindset ( a less redundant concept than you might think) means that they are not nearly stubborn enough. That’s because our minds are far more stubborn still.


* The pragmatic theory of truth (from James) holds that true statements are those that work for us and meet our needs better than their alternatives. For these purposes, this approach has the same difficulties as coherence theory.

A much earlier and shorter version of this piece appeared here.


29 thoughts on “Facts (and Minds) are Stubborn Things

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  2. Another excellent article. Is it even possible to establish a truly objective think tank or research organization which could fairly evaluate various laws and regulations using some objective analysis such as the scientific method before they’re passed, or is this just out of the realm of possibility of humans. I supposed if we really had objective analysis and representation by our elected officials, there would be no need for two or more parties since all decisions by them would be reached through objective analysis resulting in the correct or best approach.

    • Since even agreed-upon facts require interpretation to be actionable, there would still be plenty to argue about. For example, there is an inherent conflict between liberty and equality. Reasonable people can and do differ about the best proportion of each. But I would love to see *any* politician demand that ideas s/he supports generally actually work before enacting them into law and would further love for politicians to be willing to admit errors when things don’t work out.

      But I’m not holding my breath.

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  4. Am I the only one who finds it absolutely hilarious that Felix Salmon, in his essay on Jonah Lehrer, TED, and the narrative dark arts, characterizes Jonah Lehrer as “a creature of TED”… but then is forced to argue in a series of postscripts that it’s unimportant that Lehrer has never actually given a TED talk. Because, you know, his compass is missing. Also, danger!

    Narratives over niceties, indeed.

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  8. Excellent post – relates strongly to Kahnemans “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” The ease at which our minds can construct a coherent story to ‘fit’ the evidence presented is a fallacy of the System 1 part of our thinking.

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