Blog / Opinion: Facts are meaningless

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I recently made a controversial statement during a presentation: facts are meaningless. The audience responded with nervous laughter, probably wondering how to digest this remark. But in our business of working with social change, this landscape means that we need to consider our work in this context.

When I talk about meaningless, I actually mean “meaning less.” In other words, facts today have lost their value. When someone states a fact, and that fact is contrary to our understanding, it would seem logical that we would change our opinion. Instead, we are seeing something far from that. Facts do not have an impact. Why?

I feel like there are several reasons nowadays why the impact of factual information is diminishing. There has been an explosion of information that has created a number of responses. Traditional institutions such as media and government are seemingly misusing facts. Finally, the impact of visual language and the very nature of our brain is changing. All of these lead to my thinking that facts are meaningless.

First, there are too many facts to keep in mind because of the ever-increasing flow of information. To set the context, the actual amount of information will increase 29 times by 2020. This “info-whelming” environment means that the chances of knowing any one particular fact is becoming harder and harder. What does this lead us to do? 

One solution is to put facts in a context. I think a story can be considered a context. Stories are a way to reach people, and are seemingly the new essays of our generation. They are considered to be more true and authentic than news or a scientific article, which in the best light, should be objective. Yet stories from a personal point of view are relative and not objective. They may contain facts, but are more focused on subjectivity. Do we give them the weight that we would a scientific article? In my opinion, yes, but they often don't carry the same accuracy.

This desire to tell stories has driven the rise of blogs. Blogs are often personal opinion ascribed as facts. And I’m aware of the irony of saying that blogs are contributing to this when I’m writing on a blog.  But I've tried to footnote and be as accurate as I can. (Let me know if you disagree.)

Blogs have created a veritable tsunami of stories and opinion, but are hardly the only avenue for this personal expression. Social media, such as Twitter and Facebook have created multiple platforms for people to share, discuss and pontificate. Yet the same liberating publishing ideals of access to anyone and freedom from gatekeepers that these Web 2.0 websites encourage have also created a flurry of contradicting opinions.

In the face of these contradictions, some people rely on their friends and followers for insight and recommendations, instead of recognized experts in a field. Our equalization of personal opinion and expertise undermines claims of any real expert. The reality is that today anyone can call themselves an expert on anything online, and it is left to the reader to determine the validity of those claims. For me, it’s simply easier to ask a friend what they know about something instead of trying to find it myself. This focus on a more social network of personal recommendations means that we seem to be less trusting of what in the past has been a key source of factual information: the media.

We have seen that media has become more biased, especially in the large market of the United States. The impact of a supposedly unbiased media actually being biased has created a difficulty in determining truth as evidenced by the decline in trust of the media. Compounding the problem has been the inability of journalists to spend the appropriate time and energy in tracking down information and fact checking. Viewers and/or readers are left with sometimes a very distorted perception of the news. 

And media is not the only factual institution that has suffered this decline. I also believe that the notion of truth, as in factual explanations for circumstance, have been distorted by politicians too. It seems common to have a politician completely deny something, only to come back a few days later with a complete reversal. The suspicion and disbelief that we have for politicians, formerly respected and admired, have given us a wider sense of disbelief for any expert. 

I hesitate to structure this as a political left versus political right debate. Yet I cannot help but notice that the political right in the United States has often used opinion as a substitute for facts, or has so severely distorted a fact that it is meaningless. In a recent survey, 74% of respondents said that news took one side or the other. This is not to say that politicians are not truthful, but some seem to be out and out lying. As Darrell West put it in the UK Guardian, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry’s television ads are "blatant misrepresentations […] They are much more egregious than what we've seen in the past. Typically candidates have tried to be close to the truth because they know journalists are paying attention, but with all the problems of the news industry, politicians have concluded they can get away with murder." 

And the unfortunate reality is that this appears to be the case. The people behind these factually incorrect ads are hoping that we believe what we hear. And if we don’t believe it? There are enough blogs saying the same thing that support these untruths that it seems like a losing battle. 

One battle that we do seem to be winning is in science. It almost feels like we have lived in an era of miracles. We communicate regularly through satellites that send messages thousands of miles, answer questions with quantum computers and can tie particles together mysteriously through entanglement. There are so many startling discoveries through scientific process and intellectual insight that we have almost suspended our disbelief. This is fertile ground for stories to grow.

This suspension of disbelief could be called magical. It is a way of imagining a situation and simply believing in it in order to make it so. Steve Jobs’ wife’s reaction to Jobs’ insistence on having non-traditional treatments for his cancer was to call it “magical thinking.” While this was very successful in Apple products, it was a complete failure in his treatment of cancer. Yet this kind of magical thinking is reflected in what I believe to be a societal trend. For example, this is evidenced by the popularity of the book, “The Secret”, which purports that whatever you experience in life is a direct result of your thoughts.

A new area of science is examining this irrational phenomenon. Behavioral economics has given us an understanding into the lack of belief in facts. What it states is that we are not rational beings that are thinking about the betterment of ourselves economically, as in Adam Smith's invisible hand, but in fact we are very emotional creatures, responding irrationally. There is a key piece to this to be learned. It is that people are irrational, so in a way the denial of facts is less surprising in this context.

The reality is that we have become a feeling world where the strength of someone's voice, the look in their face, and the twitch of their eye, gives more to our belief in whether what they are saying is true, than anything they actually say. The impact of television on a politician’s image has long been known. John F. Kennedy discussed this as far back as 1959. I have been constantly surprised by the impact of visual typography on whether people believe something or not. Perhaps it is the generation Y dependence on visuals that has landed us in this place, but the notion of appearances is even more important today than ever.

Yet, perhaps the search for visual aids to understanding gives us insight into our search for authentic statements. When I think of authentic, I am really referring to the reader’s personal reaction to something that is read or watched. It is that feeling that the person is right, not whether they are factually correct. Right versus wrong has become a philosophical debate instead of a scientific exchange of knowledge.

Another aspect of our interpretation of facts is the physical changes that are going on in our very brain. A recent research report showed that the impact of Google on fact retention was alarming. Students that were instructed to write down a fact and told that it was either going to be saved or deleted, recalled the supposedly saved facts much less than they did the ones that would be deleted. This is no surprise to anyone in our modern era. Given the infowhelm we face every day, we seem to have become choosy about which facts to remember.  Why remember any fact when you can just Google it at any time? As researcher Betsy Sparrow points out, the Internet has become our primary external storage system. "Human memory," she said, "is adapting to new communications technology."

Google’s search is in large part based on “relevancy”. You are likely to have something displayed to you if other people have considered it relevant to your search. Relevancy has nothing to do with accuracy. In other words, perhaps if 9 out of 10 people found a link to be relevant, then you, as the tenth person, will have it displayed first. Google does not differentiate in any meaningful way an objective opinion versus a subjective one. How could it? It is beyond the structure of a search engine. But far from being a Dewey decimal system of the Internet, Google actively creates and shapes our understanding of issues.

“We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Her notion is that the brief and to-the-point writing style of the web weakens our ability to read longer and more complex books and reports. We become “mere decoders of information.” Instead of understanding and interpreting text, and making deeply rich connections, we are disengaged

Further compounding the issue is that online communities are often self-referential. Google searches return searches that are relevant to you, not to a wider sense of the public sphere. This can create a self-referential feedback system. In other words, by searching for something that you already believe, you will find other things that validate and support your position. In fact, co-founder Larry Page once described the “perfect search engine” as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” This is increasingly obvious in debates such as climate change, where both sides increasingly seem to be talking into an echo chamber.

There is no answer to this increasingly disconnected world. While we are technically and socially evermore connected, we are disconnected from facts. The explosion of information, the decline in trust in our traditional institutions, the increase in visual language, and the physical changes in our brain have all contributed to the fact that facts are meaningless. How is that for an oxymoron? Perhaps my audience knew better than I did that this is true; and their laughter, far from being nervous, had the hollow ring of despair.

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