How Facts Backfire

“How Facts Backfire” is the title of a Boston Globe article that I recently received.

Authored by Joe Keohane, it poses one of the insoluble problems of democracy: how much ignorance can democracy survive and how do we know when it’s ignorance vs “another viewpoint.” I think, alas, that we can do a lot better, but… the nature of “facts” makes solving once and for all this conundrum impossible.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyland, to explain why “facts…were not curing misinformation.”

It’s certainly easy as this campaign winds down to agree with the author. And it certainly makes “obsessive” democrats like me nervous. Aha, “in the end, truth” may not win out??? I’m stuck as usual with the Churchill quote: “democracy is a flawed idea; until you consider the alternatives.”

Of course, we also need to define some terms: are facts the same as information and is information the same as truth?

But it’s also an article that sets one thinking about how schools can make us more open to the idea that we may be wrong–and willing to explore it for a while, without fear, without quickly answering back! I admire those who do it “by habit”–it goes along with being a good listener. But it’s a habit we can work to develop or one we can toss out if it’s too dangerous. For most schools, teachers and parents I think it may be too dangerous, except on the edges. What would it look and sound like in the average classroom if we wanted to make “being wrong” less threatening??

2 Responses

  1. In my last teaching job, I was teaching reading in a struggling high school to special education students. They were often silent when I asked a question until I made a habit of telling them that there was no right answer-that I was looking for opinions. The difference was inspiring. What they lacked in basic skills they made up for in critical thinking.

  2. Truth is not always facts. We use facts to make a point but we can tweak facts, data, to suit our point of view. I know facts are facts but how we use them, especially for the good of others as well as ouselves (I suppose), is what matters. Think about data crunching machines/organizations that collect acres of data/facts, year after year, but they never accomplish anything. Often these data collection agencies feature highly paid fact collectors who annually proudly tell us the same facts that everyone knows but little else. So data matters but if data is only used to fill in the blanks in some impersonal system to make a case for the latest system’s strategy for whatever…what is the point?

    And yet, data can be very useful if allowing one, a teacher, information about a student, to shape a teacher student relationship better. I think it is great to be able to “not know” and be comfortable with that fact, it is important to say that one size does not fit all, that one answer is not the fact, or the truth , that there are many pathways to arrive to “the truth”. But information, informed information still matters, especially in teaching kids and adutls to be able to think wisely as well as critically. Information. So how can facts be useful, but also see for what they are, vulnerable to abuse, perceptions, points of view, and all other means of narrative making so common among us well and not so well intentioned human beings? There is no such as absolute truth, really. One is true for one at some point in time is not so for another person…we have these varied experiences in this world that shape our perceptions, attitudes, values and yes, even the idea of truth.

    I remember working with a group of teachers in Europe not long ago and one of our academic goals for the year, in an IB school, was to help kids “master” the nature of ambiguity in all matters human and academic. It was not an easy goal, but remarkably fascinating. So maybe arriving at a point in one’s life where ambiguity and not control is what we value in teaching and learning, we will continue to find conflict in the ways people use and undertsand facts.

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