Facts are Stubborn Things

When making his defense of British soldiers during the Boston Massacre trials in December of 1770, John Adams 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.  It is recreated below in the fine John Adams miniseries from HBO based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of our second president.


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 the overarching bias blind spot 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. If we are going to avoid it at all, we are going to have to (a) be constantly on the look-out for it; (b) remain skeptical of your own conclusions; (c) institute a careful process to look for and keep looking for our own errors;  and (d) institutionalize accountability (since, as Dan Kahneman emphasizes, we so readily see others’ flaws more clearly than our own). Stories are terrific and often helpful.  But they are dangerous too. May we all (and always) stubbornly insist on a fair, accurate and balanced marshalling of the facts to support every argument we make or consider.