February 22, 2004

Do facts matter in political arguments?

Patrick Crozier | General Points (not just transport)

Yes, I know it's a long way from the layout of the Bilbao Metro but last week I did make the rather bold statement that "facts don't matter". I have been having second thoughts ever since.

I think a lot depends on the nature of the fact and the nature of the person being argued with. There is no point in attempting to convert someone whose mind is closed. In this case neither facts nor ideas matter much.

But if you are dealing with someone who is interested in your opinions then it is a different story. Although I had been a libertarian for some time when I heard about the existence of education without the state and 19th Century private welfare provision I was still very glad when I did. In this case although the facts did not change my beliefs they did make them stronger, more sure-footed.

It is worth bearing in mind that often you are dealing with both types of person. The person you are directly arguing with is often an implacable opponent but the audience may well be far more sympathetic. So, facts matter.

The nature of the fact is also important. A fact that few people are aware of or are difficult to verify eg the prevalence of interlocking in the late 19th Century, is much less useful than facts that almost everyone is aware of eg the collapse of the Soviet Union. Almost as good, if not better, is any fact that the person you are arguing with has brought to the discussion. One of my great delights is being able to deploy facts given to me by political opponents such as Christian Wolmar and Adrian Vaughan.

One final point. Facts are only useful if there is an agreement over what is good and what is bad. When we talk about transport we tend to make the assumption that moving about the planet is a good thing. This is at very least questionable and is one of the reasons I am very glad that Transport Blog has a category called "Staying Put".

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Comments

"... but the audience may well be far more sympathetic..."

Or at least reasoning in good faith. Information and good arguments are useful for them and are satisfying to use.

Posted by back40 on February 23, 2004

An obvious exception to the 'facts don't matter to a closed mind' idea is that a factual destruction of their position does tend to solve your personal exposure to their wrongheadedness. If you've demolished them on the facts, even if they don't get persuaded to go to your side, they tend not to further annoy you with their opinion on the subject. This has its own value.

Posted by TM Lutas on February 23, 2004

Perhaps the argument can be sharpened a little by introducing some economic terminology into it.

There are two components to understanding the world: facts and theory. Both are necessary. Without theory, facts make no sense - we cannot distinguish between cause and effect or coincidence. But without facts, we cannot tell whether our theories are correct or not.

Most economic goods have the property of declining marginal value: increasing your consumption of eggs from 100 a week to 101 a week increases your utility by a smaller amount than if you raised your consumption from 10 to 11.

We can postulate that facts and theory also have declining marginal value. As we gather more and more facts, the benefit of gathering yet more declines and at some point we should give up the quest for facts and focus our efforts on developing our theories. The same reasoning applies if we interchange 'facts' and 'theories'.

I don't think I would go so far as to say that "facts are pointless". However, I think it could be argued in many cases that the marginal value of facts is relatively small for the reason that too many people disdain theory. However, they have to have a theory to make sense of the facts, even if they don't realise it; they just don't put much effort into thinking about whether the theory is correct. Any new facts which come along will either confirm their theory or confuse them and be forgotten.

This observation suggests that the marginal value of theory might be small as well (we already have plenty of theories as well as facts) and what's important is people's opinions about theory - it's better to concentrate our efforts on persuading people that theory is important.

I think I've now waffled enough about the theory that the marginal value of more theory has declined sufficiently that I should turn my attention back to the facts: Have I clarified matters or confused them? (The answer to that question won't test whether my theory is correct, but might tell me if its marginal value is as high as I think it is.)

Posted by Andy Wood on February 23, 2004

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