Facts, Data, Evidence and the Search for Truth. How do we know what to believe anymore? – Part 1

truth-2I watched several shows the other day in which Trump supporters were interviewed.  People are as curious about his supporters as they are about Trump.  Given the unquestionable fact that Trump is a greedy sexist racist hate monger, why would anyone support him?  The assumed knowledge is that his supporters are a bunch of ignorant losers:  people who are uneducated or at best semi-literate.  However, the data and demographics do not entirely support this conclusion.  Many Trump supporters are intelligent educated and literate people.  These are also people who believe in the United States of America and care about their country.  What then persuades or convinces them that Trump is the right person for the job of POTUS?  His qualifications pose a questionable proposition that would seem to fly in the face of all known facts in the entire universe.  This dilemma strikes at the heart of the matter.  We do not know what to believe any more.  What is a fact?  What is evidence?  What is objective data?  Where can we find facts that are truthful (not really a redundancy)?

I think about my graduate students at the college where I have taught for many years.  These are students who are working on an MBA and are highly literate, highly educated and highly intelligent individuals.   Many of them already hold very well paying jobs and responsible positions in successful companies.   Nevertheless, the challenge that I continually face is to teach them the difference between facts, data, evidence and truth.  Despite their literacy, few of these students understand the difference.  This is a scary situation.  If these highly educated students do not understand the difference between these concepts, how can we expect the many uneducated members of the general public to understand and comprehend the essential elements of truth finding?  I say essential because facts, data and evidence are the three pillars of truth.  If you do not have these, you cannot find the truth.

liesSeveral problems make the issue even more complex.  In academia, we are dealing with a subset of life in which there is much less confusion over the truth since no one is deliberately trying to distort, lie or sell us anything.  There may be stupidity, lack of knowledge and even ignorance by many scientists and professors but the greed motive is much less tangible.  I am not saying it does not exist, but for most of my teaching career, I cannot think of anything I have ever tried to sell to my students and make a profit on.  I can say with some confidence that this is also true of all the instructors whom I have ever known or worked with.  The same situation does not exist outside of academia.  The marketplace is a vicious jungle when it comes to searching for the truth while academia is a tame zoo in comparison.

When we enter the marketplace and even more so in the political arena, the motive to convince us of something relies much less on elucidating the truth than it does on obfuscating the truth in order to sell us something.  Wells Fargo Bank wants you to open a credit account.  They don’t care whether you need it or not.  Volkswagen wants to sell you a car even if they have to hide the truth about pollution levels.  Every politician in America wants you to vote them into office.  They don’t want you to know the real truth about their competition or that they do not have all the answers to the problems facing our country.

Companies and politicians have a vested interest in hiding the truth from you.  Stories like Miracle on 31st Street where Macy’s sent people to Gimbels are few and far between and exist mostly in fantasy.  Similarly, stories about politicians with ethics such as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” have become legendary because they depict a reality that seldom exists.  Most politicians will promise you the moon to get your vote and most companies will not tell you the truth about cigarettes, drugs, food or anything else unless forced to do so by some form of government regulation or mandate.  It does not matter whether it will kill you or not as long as you buy it or elect them.

trump-versus-hillaryFinally, we come to perhaps the biggest ruse of all.  If anyone is searching for the truth, they will eventually enter into the Fourth Estate.  This hallowed ground is defined as:  “A societal or political force or institution whose influence is not consistently or officially recognized.  Fourth Estate most commonly refers to the news media, especially print journalism or The Press.” (Wiki).   Thomas Jefferson believed that the two pillars of a democratic society were an educated citizenry and a free press.  Mark Twain was somewhat more skeptical about the power of the press and information to inform people when he noted that:  “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.”  The truth seeker has been taught since early childhood that in the domain of the Fourth Estate is to be found the truth.  Little do they know the quagmire they have entered into or that the role of truth finding in the Fourth Estate no longer exists.

Today, the major purpose of the news (whether print or digital or video or audio) is to sell.  Sell, sell, sell, sell and sell some more.  Sell junk, sell drugs, sell expensive credit cards, sell stuff and more stuff.  Stuff you don’t need, won’t need and will probably never need.  The job of the media is to convince you that you do need stuff, that you desire stuff and that you cala_verite_par_jules_joseph_lefebvren not possibly live without stuff.

I once thought that journalists were a group to be respected.   This was based on the knowledge that they had often risked their lives and their reputations to bring us the truth.  Today, journalists are little more than pimps for advertisers.  They have sold their souls to the devil, descended into hell and may never come out again.  The measure of a journalist is not how much information they provide to the public but how many advertisements they can sell.  The changing role of journalists has made it even more difficult for people to find the truth.  Nothing in the news is remotely objective or unbiased any more.  Every paper, every station has their spin on things.  The spin is determined by who owns and controls the media.
Take polls for example.  As we go into the final days of the 2016 US presidential election, you can find polls that favor one candidate or the other candidate.  If there are seventy polls, half may favor one candidate and half may favor the other candidate.  There is no truth even in these so called unbiased statistical polls.  Many of my friends have suggested that the news media want the race to be close because this keeps people tuned in.  Much like a sports match, we would rather watch an event that had a pair of evenly matched contestants.  My friends have suggested that the news seems to do its best to insure that first one candidate gets major media attention thus elevating them in the polls and then it switches to the other candidate providing them attention that elevates their poll numbers.  I am not a big conspiracy theorist but this theory does seem to have some merit to it.

78-trump-debate-lies-758x426Regardless of whether the media intentionally want to keep the race close or not, there is no denying that the candidate who is the most obnoxious, the most outrageous and the most sensational will garner the most press.  Trump has been well aware of this and has continually manipulated the media into providing him billions of dollars in free advertising.   The fickle public seems to swing from one candidate to the other depending on who they see in the news.  Trump has undoubtedly benefitted from his ability to keep the press absorbed with his every utterance regardless of how inane they are.  He can tweet at 2AM in the morning and be assured that Fox News will carry his tweet on the 7 AM morning news.

stupid-trump-supportersHow then can we blame the general public, educated or not, of being uninformed or misinformed when most of our society is conspiring against them finding the truth?  It is a trap that I have fallen into when I have railed against the stupid, illiterate and uninformed Trump supporters.  Sadly, they are not to blame for their reliance on Trump to give them the truth.  The have certainly not found it in academia or the Fourth Estate.  I have some solutions to this issue but I do not have the entire answer to it.  I do have part of the answer.  It is quite clear to me that one must understand the difference between facts, data, evidence and the role of these three elements in helping to shape the truth.   In Part 2 of this blog, I will go into the subject of Facts in more depth.  In the following parts, I will cover Data, Evidence and Truth.

Time for Questions:

How do you know what to believe?  Who do you trust to give you unbiased information?  How much do you trust the news?  Are you satisfied with the quality of the information you get from journalists and the news?  What do you think we need to do to improve the quality of information the American public receives?

Life is just beginning.

“There’s a danger in the internet and social media.  The notion that information is enough, that more and more information is enough, that you don’t have to think, you just have to get more information – gets very dangerous.” — Edward de Bono

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. chronocide
    Dec 19, 2016 @ 08:09:21

    Hello, I appreciate your article and your understanding of the degradation in the media. I also appreciate that you did not totally condemn all trump voters as “deplorables”. I am a white southern male, I have a high school diploma and some trade school. I was a blue collar worker until a car accident disabled me. I am what many would consider “redneck” or “hillbilly”. However I am not racist or homophobic. I take each person as they come(I am not against gay marriage, their right overrides another’s feelings). I don’t believe I’m an idiot either. My point is many people in my “demographic” were faced with an impossible choice (notice I said trump “voter” earlier, not supporter). Frankly, the dems could have nominated a box of rocks and won, but they put up the one soul on this planet that a large portion of people would have rather kissed a rattlesnake while taking a wire brush to a wildcats’ ass than vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton. I believe the woman is anathema to the U.S. as a free state. We may have shot ourselves in the foot, by trying to avoid shooting the other foot. I personally would not condemn the E.C. for blocking trump, so long as the alternative is not Hillary. I didn’t like her the first time she was president. I swear by all that is holy and precious to me, I don’t care if the person is a black Asian gender reassigned female, so long as they promote a strong and FREE America, they have my vote. Freedom, people, not feelings. Thanks for whomever takes the time to read my rant that took a left turn somewhere in there. I am simply frustrated at being declared racist illiterate scum. (I’ll have you know I know how to use a book and have done so in the past) for making an impossible choice. This election is unique in that it wasn’t”vote for my candidate” but “stop the other candidate”.
    P.S. the electoral college is sound. Jacking with the constitution is extremely dangerous. It sets precedent for seriously altering our freedom and way of life, and usually not for the better.

    Reply

    • johnpersico
      Dec 19, 2016 @ 15:56:40

      Thanks for your comment. Very well said. I hope many readers will regard your comments and reasons. I think they are quite rationale. I will say I disagree with your opinions on Hillary but we are both entitled to our logic for voting. Mine said that the Republicans waged a smear campaign on her for 8 years as they knew she would be the main choice for the Democrats. Constantly calling her a liar was part of their strategy. With that said, I voted for Obama 8 years ago and not Hillary so that gives you some idea that Hillary would not have been my first choice. However, I think we need major changes in this country and I do not see mainstream Republicans or Democrats in power bringing them about. I will support term limits and I hope Trump pursues that. Will Trump bring a Positive or Negative change, because I think change can go either way. I will hope the change he brings is positive doubtful though I may be. ON the other hand, I like many others in this country am fed up with politicians and politics as usual. I would vote them all out if I could, so maybe Trump will really drain the swamp. I hope so.

      Reply

      • chronocide
        Dec 19, 2016 @ 20:05:44

        I truly thank you for your time and consideration. You are very correct in that we need changes, I believe more so in our leadership. When you have 3rd and 4th generation politicians, beurocrats and others in office or positions of power long enough to remember when Moses lobbied- they have become so disconnected from the public it’s become more plausible to reach mars than to actually reach them. Plus a rampant epidemic of craniums lodged in their respective colons. To say it will be a chore is an understatement.
        On Trump. The man is not stupid. He’s made billions and managed to stay out of prison. I think (hope and pray) that possibly his posturing and tweets and such are more calculated than they appear. I have developed a tenuous idea that he may be pulling a rope-a-dope on his opposition and the fed in general (I pray not the people) to keep them off balance in general. He is a businessman, not a politician. So I hope something good comes of it. It will definitely be interesting to say the least. So I suggest we all get in, buckle up and hope we cross the finish line in one piece. Barring that, alive and active brain scans. Thanks again and truly, have a happy holidays.

  2. johnpersico
    Dec 23, 2016 @ 21:50:01

    Thanks Chronocide. I am planning to enjoy the ride. Have a Very Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday and a Happy New Year. May you and your family find good health and much happiness in the coming year.

    Reply

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