, , , ,

This American election campaign is an odd one for facts.

Many supporters of a Trump presidency like the idea that Trump “tells it like it is” and that  Trump does not use polite code words to hide reality.

Others have noted that we have entered a “post-truth political era” in which fact checkers state that a politician’s lie is so bad that it is labelled as “pants on fire” or “four Pinnochios”.  Some people try to assert that feelings and perceptions are kinds of fact.

It is hard to find a memorable lesson from this teachable moment, since some of them repeat what should be obvious.  Some commentators have noted some more subtle lessons. 

Start with the obvious.  Facts matter because we have to live with reality.  You can try to debate the nature of reality, which is what Trump’s opponents have tried to do after an obvious lie.  If Trump were to win, the effects of a decision depends on matching the decision to the situation.  This is true regardless of how much one might wish for an alternate reality or for the outcome to depend on the sincerity of the intent.  It is much harder to change the situation to match a particular decision.

Matching a decision to reality is one reason why successful companies invest so much in market research.  Learning is why so many people in the real estate business talk with others as a normal part of their jobs.  The analysis part requires them to separate vague rumours from reliable facts.

Every discussion should start with an agreement that facts are relevant; if you can choose which facts to consider then equality implies that others can choose which facts they want to use.  So, it seems like a constructive debate is replaced by a pair of monologues.  If so, then the only way to resolve the debate is to play pure power politics: the most aggressive or powerful person wins.  But remember, reality is the most powerful actor.  Always.

Some people confuse facts and opinions.  Opinions may be based on facts but opinions are not facts.  As said by a politician from a previous era: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

As somebody who works with evidence to search something more than the obvious, it amazes me that this issue is even debated.  Ignoring facts is the banana which is at the top of a very dangerous slippery slope.  It can slide into prejudice of many kinds, because prejudice is often based on ignorance.

Unfortunately, facts do not come with a quality certificate.  There is room for debate about what is true and what is false.  The mistake many people make is to ignore unresolved uncertainty. A constructive debate is not only about the current facts but also about how to find new and relevant facts.

It is rarely easy to collect evidence or to know what evidence is relevant.  Facts are not isolated.  Nuance and context can matter.  That fact shows why it is important to have good research skills and be able to work with evidence.  As others have noted, the cost of the cheap alternative (i.e. not collecting relevant evidence) can be very high.

In a business setting, distinguishing true vs. true under certain conditions vs. uncertain vs. false is a valuable problem solving skill.  Our students learn about evidence-based decision making because good decisions benefit society and their future employers.

Politicians lie a little or a lot often but, usually, there are consequences. There seems to be something new and scary about the lying seen recently.  Some of it is due to new technology and some of it may be due to popular attitudes toward “experts”.

The serious issue is that many people are disengaging from the facts: new technology allows people to hear only what they want to hear to a degree that was not possible before.  (As a bit of advice, you might want to clear your cookies and history from your electronic devices so that Google or Facebook or whoever is tracking you does not always show you the same stuff.)

While Canadians have access to reliable sources of facts, observing Trump’s election campaign offers some insight into the difficulties which others must deal with.  In some places, the evidence is manipulated.  The Economist magazine has given up reporting on inflation statistics for Argentina.  Lots of people do not trust the numbers on growth in the Chinese economy.

Opinion polls may be the best teachable moment.  Some polls said that Trump won the debates and others said that Clinton won.  The lesson is that not all facts are of equal quality.  In this case, it is well-known that certain kinds of polls can be manipulated by outsiders. [1] [2] [3]

To understand this effect fully, the best and most common place is in a statistics class.  Such classes talk about the mechanisms by which pollsters reduce the effects of manipulation.  Those classes do not teach that the size and direction of manipulation bias varies with the motive of the manipulator.

One lesson to learn from these teachable moments may be that facts are annoying, even if their meaning is often debated.  Still it is worth repeating; facts matter.

Since everybody probably agrees with that thought, in principle at least, there is a more important lesson.  Most of us probably think that others are the only people who ignore unpleasant facts.  So, the more subtle lesson may be that everybody could benefit if they searched for contrary facts intentionally.

Searching for contrary facts is particularly important in an industry where many people worry that the price of property is high because of a self-fulfilling prophecy.