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Previous posts have explained why it is silly to look to facts as if one of them was a magic bullet which would reveal the Truth. The facts matter but in combination. This post notes that, sometimes, even properly-weighted facts may not be enough.

For example, people have been debating whether or not there is a price bubble in Canadian residential real estate for nearly a decade. To a true believer on either side, the fact that the price is “high” is no longer important, either because it is added proof that prices will crash in the very near future or because it reveals some previously-unconsidered explanation.  As a researcher, I can say that it is hard for experts to identify bubbles in advance.

Weights matter when interpreting facts because debating the correct weights opens a new dimension to the discussion.  When arguing with somebody who attaches radically different weights to facts than you do, having the important facts may not be enough to convince somebody.  Communicating effectively, not just analysing correctly, turns facts into wisdom and action.

Communicating clearly is not easy, especially when the facts are both surprising to the audience and unpleasant.  When people are suitably motivated, communicating the facts alone may not be sufficient.  In a real estate context, the most common version of motivated reasoning is somebody who advocates for a project that they have wanted for a long time.  Independent of the facts, the advocate thinks that they see something that others do not and the advocate is not willing to listen to negative evidence.  The advocate gives high weight to facts which others consider unreliable and gives 0 weight to evidence which opposes the “right” conclusion.  So, without knowing the “right answer” which weights are appropriate?

Motivated reason also explains why some people believe conspiracy theories which have been debunked repeatedly and why some people use high pressure sales tactics.  Or, the “yes, but …” style of arguing: to every objection, the advocate says “yes but …” as if introducing this extra bit of information at this stage (i.e. not earlier) is a magic key sufficient to overwhelm anything that others might say.

Attaching weights is one way to prevent this style of argument.  Instead of trying to refute a fact, arguing about the weights allows a new fact to be combined with other facts and a person’s opinion to evolve.

To some extent, communicating is storytelling and the reason to collect facts is to tell a non-fiction story.  Communicating effectively gives surprising facts a high weight to help the audience understand why it is surprising-and-true.  This statement is worth noting since one of the most outstanding communicators of facts died recently.

Facts matter, even in this supposedly post-truth world.  They are not easy to work with and the implied conclusion is not always what you want, but facts should not be ignored.  They have real consequences.

PA

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