Four Things You Should Know About Facebook and the World

I have lost track of how many years I have been using Facebook.  However, I have not lost track of all the times that people say to me “I never use Facebook (FB) because it is etc., etc.”  They then proceed to give me a litany of reasons why they: 1. Have never used Facebook or 2. Why they think Facebook is useless.  I have found the following four beliefs to predominate among the reasons why Facebook has been deemed as either useless or even dangerous.

  1. Facebook is a waste of time. It has too much stupid stuff and trivia.

I would be richer than Mark Zuckerberg if I had a dollar for every time I have heard “What do I care about what people had for breakfast today.”  Great, you don’t want to know where I went, what I did, who I saw and what I eat?  Use your little finger to scroll down or push delete or go to another site.  I have lots of friends who do care and who want to know what I am doing.  I have had many comments on my FB site such as “It was so much fun to follow you on your trip.”  “I love your postings.”  “Thanks for sharing.”

If you think my postings are trivial, meaningless, inane, or asinine, great.  I respect your opinion.  So “Defriend” me.  Go elsewhere for your trivia.  Find your daily dose of bullshit someplace else.  But don’t criticize something you have never tried or condemn others because you find their lives not worth knowing about.

  1. Facebook can’t be trusted. They will sell valuable information about me.

Facebook is a business first and foremost.  How do you think Zuckerberg got so rich?  FB is full of advertising and advertisers want to know everything about you, so they can sell you stuff you don’t think you really need.  They will convince you that you really need it.  This has been going on since Moses convinced Pharaoh to let his people go.

Do I trust FB not to sell my innermost secrets?  Do I trust Zuckerberg not to share information about me with advertisers, political marketers, vendors, pollsters and other information seekers?  No more than I would trust hanging from the Empire State Building with my wife’s sewing thread.  You must either be deaf, dumb or blind if you think you can trust anyone selling you something or giving you something for free not to have some hidden catch or some gimmick to get more money from you.  Did you ever notice that FB is free or has that escaped your attention?  What is free?  Do you really believe it is free?

As far as information privacy goes, observe the following that I tell all my students and you will probably not have much to worry about.  It goes like this: “If you want to protect your privacy, then do not text, tweet, photo, Instagram, email, voicemail or say anything in public that you would not put up on a billboard in downtown New York.”  Period.  That is the only way that you will protect your privacy today and I doubt even this admonition is full proof.

  1. Facebook is full of lies and “false” facts.

So, you want to make decisions based on evidence, data and facts?  Facebook is no doubt full of bullshit, opinions, innuendo, conspiracies, lies and unsubstantiated claims beyond counting.  The lies on FB are more numerous than the stars in the sky or the molecules in the universe.  However, I will tell you a secret. There is no evidence, data or facts that are 100 percent true.  Everything we know about the world is only based on theories buttressed by repetition or replication.  The more our predictions happen, they more confident we are they are accurate.  However, science in like the weather.  You don’t count on the weather forecaster being 100 percent accurate unless you are a fool.

Throughout history, we have seen theories and facts overthrown by newer theories, newer facts and newer evidence that help better match reality with theory.  The world was once flat, then it was round, now it is more elliptical.  Our knowledge of everything keeps evolving and changing.  Some people see it as a search for the TRUTH.  However, the TRUTH does not exist or if it does, it is only like the wind.  It will blow one way today and another way tomorrow.  Facts, data and evidence have a probability of being accurate.  They will never be 100 percent true.  My father used to say, “believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.”  I have found this to be moderately good advice.  It works very well on FB and on the Internet in general.

  1. Facebook should be a social media and not political.

“John, you are too political.”  “I don’t want to hear your rants and raves.”  “Why can’t you keep your politics out of your Facebook site.”  “Facebook is for family and friends and should not be political.”

The splash page on my FB site now shows a picture of Elie Wiesel and a quote by him that reads “To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.”  He also said, “We must take sides.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”  Before this, my splash page had a picture of Martin Luther King and a quote by him that read, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I believe that living in a society and hence to be social means to be political.  If you live in a society, politics is the coin of the realm that defines the rules and procedures that govern the interactions between human beings.  No one can be apolitical in a society.  To believe so is to lie to yourself.  I put my politics out there.  I don’t care if you like them or if you don’t.  I want others to know that there is someone in the universe who probably feels like they do.

Before Trump was elected, I put up a Hillary sign in my front yard.  My neighbor who was also a Hillary supporter came over to warn me.  She said “John, I would not put that sign up in this town if I were you.  It could be dangerous.”  I decided to talk this over with my wife Karen.  I did not feel that I had the right to jeopardize her safety as well mine.  She said that she supported keeping the sign up.  My decision was sealed by her willingness to risk whatever might happen by putting a sign up in a mostly pro-Trump rural town in Arizona.  A week or so later, one of my good friends who lived nearby saw my sign.  She asked me to if I could get her one.  I did get her a sign and I think we might have had the only two Hillary signs up in our town.

I use FB as a means to share with others who in these rather trying times might have fears of speaking out or who might feel that they are alone.  I want my friends to know that I am political and that I share with some of them the same beliefs, values and ideas that they have.  I firmly believe that we cannot change our present problems or deal with issues by silence.  However, if you don’t like my politics or ideas then you can do as so many others have and simply defriend me.  Frankly, they say we are defined by the company we keep.  I would rather keep company with those who share similar convictions about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Time for Questions:

Do you use Facebook?  Why or why not

Life is just beginning.

“You should protest about the views of people you disagree with over major moral issues, and argue them down, but you should not try to silence them, however repugnant you find them. That is the bitter pill free speech requires us to swallow.” — Julian Baggini

 

 

 

Facts, Data, Evidence and the Search for Truth – Part 4 – What is Evidence?

In Part 3, I tried to explain the second pillar of Truth finding and look at what Data is and what it is not.  We also looked at the difficulties with collecting objective and valid Data.

In Part 4, I want to discuss the role of the third pillar (Evidence) in Truth finding.  Let us start with a standard definition of Evidence from Dictionary.com.

  1. That which tends to prove or disprove something; ground for belief; proof.
  2. Something that makes plain or clear; an indication or sign: His flushed look was visible Evidence of his fever.
  3. Data presented to a court or jury in proof of the Facts in issue and which may include the testimony of witnesses, records, documents, or objects.

If your look at the third definition, you might be excused for finding it somewhat circular.  Evidence is data in support of facts?  I don’t think I have a clue what this means.  The first definition can be easily mistaken for what we called Data in Part 2 and possibly even hard to distinguish from a Fact.  The second definition is so subjective that I am amazed they even listed it.  So what is Evidence then?  Here is my definition.

Evidence is relevant Facts and Data.  There are lots of Facts and Data out there but not all are relevant to our proposition, case, theory, hypothesis or concepts.  Evidence must have relevance to the issue we are studying.  What do I mean by relevance?  Let me give you an example.

crime-scene-evidenceI am working to prepare for a chess match with my neighbor.  I happen to note in the paper the Fact that tomorrow will be a quarter moon.   Does this Fact have any relevance to my playing chess?  I don’t think so.  Thus, I don’t really care that there will be a quarter moon.  As far as my limited cognition or perception, I can see no relevance between the Fact of a quarter moon and my preparing for my chess match.  I could be wrong. We can always mis-perceive the relevance of some information to an issue. This is often done in science and in police work.  We don’t see the connection between two issues and we misjudge the outcomes.  This provides one good reason for diversity and numbers in problem solving.  You have less chance of being blindsided if you have a variety of opinions rather than just your own.

listen-to-all-the-evidenceLet us look at another example where the issue of relevance is more salient.  I am planning to go on a trip to England in 2017.  I want to plan my trip for the best possible time of the year.  I hypothesize that two Facts or Data points are very important to my planning.  The first is the temperatures at various times of the year in England.  The second is the rain fall.  I found the ranges for this data on a weather site and used the information to plan my trip.  Of course, some of the decisions anyone makes will depend on their own weather preferences.  I wanted to minimize rainfall and also keep the temperature in a moderate range.  What I call sweater weather.  Thus, both these set of factors were relevant and important to my planning.  I would call them Evidence to support the time of year that I decided to go.

science-does-not-give-a-shit-what-you-believeOn the other hand, if you like rain, you might have picked a different time of the year than I did.  There were other mitigating factors which played a role in my decision making.  These factors included costs for lodging during the year and transportation costs during the year.  In general, off season times have better rates but are somewhat the worse for weather.  Another factor was the value of the pound to the dollar.  I considered the value of the dollar to the pound post Brexit but concluded that I did not have enough information to effectively evaluate the impact of this data on my decision.  I am assuming that with the volatility involved in the situation, the value of the dollar might go either way against the pound.  My best guess is that I will benefit if I go as soon as possible.  The news has recently noted that after Brexit the value of the pound fell 14 percent against the dollar.  This would mean I could get a significant cost advantage if I purchase anything in England.  I am hoping this situation will continue until after my trip but there are too many variables at play here for me to use this information.  I can only hope.

chain-of-custodyA more common example of relevance can be found by looking at police work.  We are all familiar these days with what is called Forensic science.  I am sure most of you reading this have watched some police show.  As soon as a crime is discovered, the Crime Scene Unit (CSI) is brought in to collect Evidence.  Keep in mind that everything at a crime scene is not Evidence.  Only what may have a possible relationship to the crime.  This can be a real problem.  The CSI unit is going to be limited by their assumptions concerning what might be relevant.  For instance, I doubt any Crime Scene Investigator will care whether or not the light bulbs are “bright” or “soft white” in the kitchen or bathroom.  It is impossible to collect all the “Evidence” of stuff that might be related to the crime.  Thus, relying on experience and training, the police investigators do their best to collect Facts and Data that appear to be relevant to the crime.  The relevant Data and Facts are not just interesting, they are Evidence.  The more they relate to the crime, the stronger the Evidence will be.

bag-labeled-evidence-with-gun-and-handcuffsAn eyewitness can provide Evidence via his/her testimony as to the events of a crime.  The relevance of any eyewitness is high but the reliability of an eyewitness can be much lower.  Second hand testimony is not as relevant as first hand testimony and is thus weaker Evidence.  Testimony that might be compromised by some factors such as police record, bias, discrimination, physical disabilities might be relevant but will be weaker Evidence because the validity of the Evidence is suspect.  That is why lab procedures and chain of custody is so important to police work.  They may have the most relevant Evidence imaginable but if the validity of the Evidence can be comprimised because of sloppy police work, the Evidence will be useless.

The same is true of scientific Evidence.  It must be valid and reliable.  One example of how a Fact was exposed as a lie was in the work on so called “cold fusion.”  Here is an excerpt from a paper on the dubious development of cold fusion in a laboratory:

“One year after the press conference that had garnered Pons and Fleischmann so much attention, the scientific process had finally been able to sort through the evidence regarding cold fusion.  Few groups had found support for the hypothesis, and those few had inconsistent results and could not reliably reproduce their findings.  This lack of replicable evidence was a major blow for cold fusion. The laws of nature don’t play favorites.  If cold fusion works in one laboratory under a certain set of conditions, we’d expect it to work in other laboratories at other times under the same conditions. Hence, lack of reproducibility is a serious problem for any scientific finding, casting doubt on the validity of the original result and suggesting that there’s been a misinterpretation of what’s going on.”  — http://undsci.berkeley.edu/lessons/pdfs/cold_fusion.pdf

evidence-root-cause-acneIt is seldom that findings of Evidence in police work or business are subjected to as much scrutiny as occurred in the so called development of cold fusion.  Perhaps, since this was a finding of great scientific importance, it was held to a more rigorous standard than would occur in many other scientific studies.  I am thinking in particular of findings in the health field, nutrition field and drug field.  In each of these fields we often have much less rigor before results are posted or accepted.   Business is even worse with advertisers spouting outright lies and fabrications.  Little known phenomenon are routinely heralded as being highly reliable Evidence of the benefit of some product or service that someone wants to sell you.   All kinds of spurious Facts and Data are then marshaled as Evidence to support the phony claims by Madison Avenue advertisers.

Next week in Part 5, the final part of this series on Truth, we will look at how one can put the three pillars of Facts, Data and Evidence together to find the Truth.    

Time for Questions:

Can you tell me how you know a true Fact from a false Fact?  How do you decide what to believe?  How much credibility do you put in the news that you hear?  How do you choose the news that you want to hear?  How do you decide who is telling the Truth?

Life is just beginning.

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the Truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real Facts.”  —  Abraham Lincoln

Facts, Data, Evidence and the Search for Truth – Part 3 – What is Data?

In Part 1, I discussed the difficulty with finding the Truth.  It is a quest complicated by the amount of information that we are inundated with on a daily basis.  It is further complicated in that much of the information we find is either erroneous or outright lies.  The average person has never studied information theory in school and is ill equipped to sort through the morass of Data, Evidence and Facts that are presented to them.  In Part 2, I tried to break down the concept of what a Fact is to help people better understand its role in truth finding.  In Part 3, I will try to break down the second pillar of truth finding and look at what Data is and is not and the difficulties with collecting objective and valid Data.

data

What is Data?

I hope to dispel some of the confusion over the concept of Data and make it easier for people to see the pros and cons of using Data.  We have too many people in business, religion, government and the military who do not understand what Data is and who misuse it by quoting statistics and numerical information incorrectly.  One negative result is to confuse people over what is true and what is not true.  An even more insidious result of the misuse of Data is incorrect decision making.  During the Vietnam War, the inflated enemy kills and deflated enemy troop levels led to a total lack of ability to plan strategically for the war.  Thousands of people were killed on both sides by the negligent and criminal misuse of Data and statistics on the part of the military and defense department.

“Former CIA analyst Sam Adams told a federal jury here Monday that Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland caused a “massive falsification” of intelligence during the Vietnam War by imposing a ceiling upon the numbers of enemy troops.”  — Westmoreland Blamed for Faulty Troop Reports : Witness for CBS Testifies General’s Policy Caused ‘Massive Falsification’ — January 15, 1985, RUDY ABRAMSON 

fast_data_brain_treeWhen I started working with Process Management International in 1986 after completing my doctorate degree at the University of Minnesota, I met the famous quality improvement expert and renowned statistician, Dr. W. E. Deming.  Over the next seven years, he had the most profound influence on my life in terms of helping me to understand process improvement, statistics, quality and the use of Data to improve everything from widgets to health care.  Under the influence of Dr. Deming, our company adopted his motto “In God we trust, all others bring Data.”  Dr. Deming also said “Without Data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” So what is Data?  Merriam Webster dictionary defines Data as:  “Facts or information used usually to calculate, analyze, or plan something.”  This definition is very misleading and inaccurate.

In the first place, Data is not necessarily a Fact.  Data is unorganized bits of numbers and calculations which by themselves do not add up to a Fact.  For instance, here is some Data:  3, 4, 7, 15 and 12.  Individually, these numbers do not mean a thing.  As an example, take the English alphabet, which is composed of 26 letters.  Each letter by itself means little or nothing.  Data by itself usually has no meaning or significance.  It must be organized before it will have any meaning or usefulness.

Secondly, Data is not information.  A letter by itself does not provide information of anything nor does a single display of numbers or statistics provide any information.  You must put them together to mean something.  When they are put together in some form of a relationship, they can then be called information.  For example, 2+2= 4 constitutes bits of Data put into an equation that gives me the sum of the individual bits of Data.  Data aggregated in some type of meaningful form becomes information.

“Look beyond the numbers you see to what they mean and understand how the numbers presented may not fully capture the important details you need to consider.”Statistics Abuse and Me by Jay Mathews:

man-data-analytics-chalkboard-ss-1920If we understand what Data is, you have now entered the deep forest.  However, we have a long way to go before we can get out of the forest.  There are numerous obstacles along the way.  Referring again to the concepts of validity and reliability, we must ask ourselves the same questions we asked about our Facts. Is our Data reliable and valid?  How did we collect the Data?  What method did we use to collect the Data?  Are we taking a few samples each day for several weeks or are we taking a few samples for only a few days?  Are we using a random sample or a stratified random sample?  Different methods of collecting Data will lead to different results.  And we are not even talking about interpreting the Data yet.  For instance, when I worked at W.T. Grants cutting shades back in the late 60’s, I was told to make sure I took my measurements with a metal tape measure and not a cloth or plastic measure.  The reason given was that it was easier to stretch a cloth tape measure and get a false result.  This would lead to cutting a shade that was too large and would not fit.

The process of measuring something must also match the purpose or objective.  Dr. Deming frequently used the example of cleaning a table to discuss measurement problems.  Dr. Deming emphasized the need to know “why” something was needed to be done.  If a person is asked to clean a table, how can the person understand the level of cleanliness required without first understanding why they are performing the job in the first place?  If the table is to be used as a workbench, it would require a different level of cleanliness then if it were to be used as a lunch table.  Even more different if it was to be used as an operating room table.  Understanding why we are doing something is critical to determining the appropriate measurement process.   The measurement process will influence the Data we obtain.

Here are several other problems that are commonly encountered when collecting Data:

  • Irrelevant or duplicate Data collected
  • Pertinent Data omitted
  • Different measures of the same object by those collecting the data
  • Erroneous collected
  • Too little Data acquired
  • Insufficient time to collect the Data properly
  • Poor methods of storing or archiving Data
  • Lack of a systematic method for collecting Data

If we have addressed all of the above problems, we are still not out of the forest, in fact, we are probably only about one half way through the forest.  We now face the most daunting and difficult task of all.  We must attempt to interpret the Data and catalog the Data without bias.  A number of movies have been made which illustrate the difficulty of presenting Data or information without bias.  They are all based on what has been labeled as the Rashomon Effect. roshomon-effect

“This is a term used to describe the circumstance when the same event is given contradictory interpretations by different individuals involved. The term derives from Akira Kurosawa‘s 1950 film Rashomon, in which a murder involving four individuals (suspects, witnesses, and surviving victims) is described in four mutually contradictory ways. More broadly, the term addresses the motivations, mechanism, and occurrences of the reporting on the circumstance, and so addresses contested interpretations of events, the existence of disagreements regarding the Evidence of events, and the subjects of subjectivity versus objectivity in human perception, memory, and reporting.”Wikipedia

It is inevitable that any observations we make in life are biased by the prior experiences we have.  Our senses are not infallible measures of sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch.  Each of our senses is infused with the Data that they have already been exposed to.  The prior Data that each of us has already experienced will influence our future perceptions.  Similarly, our brains are also biased by prior ideas and experiences.  We cannot get away from bias.  Sadly, extreme bias leads to a lack of credibility and objectivity.  (We will discuss the concepts of objectivity and credibility in more depth when we discuss Truth in Part 5 of this article.)

I noted earlier that there is no solution or at least I have not found one to our central problem in terms of searching for the truth.  It is no easy matter to find Data, organize Data and interpret Data in such a way that we eliminate bias and insure objectivity.  The scientific method is one system for collecting and organizing Data to test a theory or hypothesis that is invaluable.  The method can be summarized as follows:

  1. Make an observation
  2. Propose a theory or hypothesis
  3. Design and perform experiments to test the hypothesis
  4. Collect Data from the experiments
  5. Determine if the Data, Facts and Evidence support the hypothesis

There are millions of scientific experiments that have been conducted since the founding of the scientific method.  The results of these experiments have helped us to develop civilization and many of the modern conveniences we now have.  Science has added to our health, safety and longevity in so many ways that are beyond dispute.  Without science, we would still be living in caves, dying in our twenties and eating cold meat.  The scientific method is the single most important method for identifying the truth that has ever been developed.

screen-shot-2014-11-05-at-11-50-43-pm-820x1024Unfortunately, the scientific method is not infallible.  It is subject to bias and disagreement over Data and interpretations.  Even more problematic is that the scientific method is not a strong method when it comes to testing subjective theories that cannot be verified by Fact.  For instance, “Is the Mona Lisa beautiful?”   As stated, this is a subjective question that each individual will hold a different opinion on.  However, if I asked:  “Is the Mona Lisa the most beautiful painting in the world?”  I could attempt to answer that question with a bit more objectivity.  I could conduct a survey to see what percentage of people think it is the most beautiful.  Subjective studies are not as strong as objective studies since they usually lead to results that follow a bell shaped curve.  Thus, if we conducted the above survey, we would probably find that a certain percentage of people thought it was the most beautiful painting and a certain percentage did not.  As in politics, opinions of beauty would be all over the place.  This is why politics is so much more difficult to “Fact check” than issues like the atomic mass of hydrogen.  Politics is a very subjective field that resists efforts to test and Fact check.  Some examples that would be difficult to test with the scientific method would include:

  1. Who will make the best President or Leader?
  2. What is the best way to deal with ISIS in the Mideast?
  3. Should we support the UN more strongly in its peace keeping role?
  4. What is the best way to create jobs and stimulate the economy?

Each of the above questions could be stated as a theory, but each would be difficult if not impossible to prove due to the difficulty of collecting objective Data.  By objective, I mean Data that is not biased.  In Fact, it would be difficult to even collect accurate Data to prove any of the above questions.

Where does the above discussion leave us?  I fear the outcome of this discussion will not be satisfactory to anyone looking for some full proof means to find, catalog and interpret Data that is 100 percent accurate, reliable, valid and objective.  The closest we will come to such a process is the scientific method.   Alas, even this method is not full proof and as we all know, science is subject to a great deal of bias and distortion, at least in areas where Data is more subjective than objective.  However, even in areas such as Global Warming where one would think the Data could be found that is objective and reliable, we still find a great number of people who argue that Global Warming does not exist.  This raises the final and most difficult problem to solve before we are out of the forest and that is the problem of denial and delusion.  I will defer this discussion to Part 5.

afrobarometer-data-1Finally, if I have left you with some understanding of the difficulty with interpreting Data, I will have felt successful.  The first step to knowledge is awareness of our cognitive limitations.  We also need to be more skeptical when people present us with Facts and Data.  My father used to say “Believe nothing of what you hear and half of what you see.”  I still consider this good advice.  There are too many fools and charlatans out there trying to convince us of things for a multitude of reasons that will benefit them and not us.  Just as we would not walk down a dark alley in an unknown city by ourselves, we need to exercise caution when presented with Data and Facts.  The more we understand the limits of Data and Facts, the more prepared we will be to make decisions based on Data and Facts that have a higher degree of validity and reliability.  If the Data, Facts and Evidence that you base your knowledge on are not accurate than everything you think you know will be at best a half truth and at worst a total lie.

Next week in Part 4, we will look at the concept of Evidence and the how this concept informs our search for the truth. 

Time for Questions:

Do you understand what Data is?  Do you know what a Bell Shaped Curve is?  Do you trust the Data you see in the news? Do you trust what your local political leaders tell you?  How accurate do you think the news is when reporting information?  What do you think biases your own interpretations of Data and events?  How do you try to be more objective when studying a problem?

Life is just beginning.

“Any time scientists disagree, it’s because we have insufficient Data.  Then we can agree on what kind of Data to get; we get the Data; and the Data solves the problem. Either I’m right, or you’re right, or we’re both wrong. And we move on.  That kind of conflict resolution does not exist in politics or religion.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson

 

Facts, Data, Evidence and the Search for Truth – Part 2 – What is a Fact?

In Part 1, I discussed the difficulty with finding the Truth.  It is a quest complicated by the amount of information that we are inundated with on a daily basis.  It is further complicated in that much of the information we find is either erroneous or outright lies.  The average person has never studied information theory in school and is ill equipped to sort through the morass of Data, Evidence and Facts that are presented to them.  I admitted in Part 1 that I do not have the entire solution to this problem.  Namely, how do we find the Truth?  In Part 2, 3 and 4, I want to describe the three elements of Truth seeking:  Facts, Data and Evidence and then in the final Part 5 show how they relate to the problem of finding the Truth.  We will start by looking at what a Fact is.

facts-not-fiction

Facts:

The common definition of a Fact is something that can be verified.  But the concept of verification is a very difficult idea to pin down.  What do we mean by verify?  Do we mean that we can find other people who agree with the “Fact?”  For instance, most people today would agree that the world is round or at least elliptical.  However, there was a long period in history, when common knowledge held that the world was flat.  Thus, common knowledge is not always a good means of verifying a Fact.  Nevertheless, we often rely on common knowledge as a means of Fact verification.  Most so called Facts are simply things that have become commonly agreed on.  For instance, that Columbus discovered America in 1492.  We are taught this in history but we are not taught that many people would not agree with this Fact.  Common knowledge is a very dangerous form of verification.

It is very easy to accept a Fact as Truth if we forget or ignore the limitations of such verification.  In many court trials, jurors have considered it as a Fact if they have verification by an eyewitness to the sequence of events or people who were present at a particular crime.  History has shown however, that eye witnesses are very unreliable (see How reliable is eyewitness testimony?).  Today we rely more and more on video cameras for verification of certain events.  Even their use has not proven to be the panacea that many have hoped for.

Another means of Fact verification is measurement.  What if we can measure the Fact?  Surely, the ability to measure something should be conclusive proof that a Fact is accurate or true.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  For instance, it is now stated as a Fact that Mt. Everest is 29,029′ in elevation (Wiki).  We can accept this measurement as a Fact but there are two problems with doing so.  First, the height of every mountain in the world is constantly changing.  Weather, erosion and other forces of nature will over time lower some mountains and raise other mountains.  Second, any measurement system is dependent on the accuracy and reliability of the measurement instrument and the process used in the measuring of the particular variable.  A sloppy process of measurement can lead to false or unreliable results.  The OJ trial was a good example of where the jurors refused to believe the Facts obtained from the LA crime labs.

misinformation“The prosecution had expert witnesses that testified that the Evidence was often mishandled. Photos were taken of critical Evidence without scales in them to aid in measurement taking; items were photographed without being labeled and logged, making it difficult, if not impossible, to link the photos to any specific area of the scene. Separate pieces of Evidence were bagged together instead of separately causing cross-contamination; and wet items were packaged before allowing them to dry, causing critical changes in Evidence.”  http://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/forensic-investigation-of-the-oj-simpson-trial/

Take your common bathroom scale.  If you weigh yourself regularly you will notice that you can get different readings on successive times of getting on the scale.  I am not talking about different days but even taking these readings at the same exact time.  Get on your scale, get off again and then get right on again and you will very likely get slightly different readings.  Our ability to measure things has become more and more accurate.  Nevertheless, every measurement system is either subject to errors of validity or reliability.

fact-finding-techniques-1-638A validity error is when we are not measuring the right thing.  IQ tests have been repeatedly criticized for not really measuring the intelligence of a human being or for being biased by many cultural Factors.  Thus opponents of IQ tests argue that they are not valid measures of intelligence.  A reliability error is when our measures are not consistent.   The scale example given above illustrates the problem with reliability.  Most people use a scale to weight themselves and most scales have problems with reliability.  However, if you tried to equate your weight with your health, you would be assuming that the scale could also measure health and this would be a problem with validity.  Scales cannot measure health although health might be correlated to some degree with appropriate height and weight.

A correlation is a measure of how much things vary with each other.  Thus, the amount of grass growth is generally highly correlated with rainfall.  The more rain we get, the more the grass grows.  The amount of money one makes is somewhat but not highly correlated with IQ.  Earnings tend to be more highly correlated with amount of education but this is only true up to a point.  The concept of correlation is a very important concept in measurement.  We are often fooled by thinking that things are correlated when they are not.  This can lead to poor decision making.  Here are some examples of positive correlations:

  • The more time you spend running on a treadmill, the more calories you will burn.
  • Taller people have larger shoe sizes and shorter people have smaller shoe sizes.
  • The more hours you spend in direct sunlight, the more severe your sunburn.
  • As the temperature goes up, ice cream sales also go up.
  • The more gasoline you put in your car, the farther it can go.
  • As a child grows, so does his clothing size.

examples.yourdictionary.com/positive-correlation-examples.html#JFuQhtBXA6whRayS.99

When a 100 percent or 1-1 correlation does not exist, you can always find exceptions to any rule or Fact.  A false correlation is created when people assume two things to be true and related when they are not.  For instance, Trumps claim that a good businessperson will make a good president has no basis in Fact or historical Evidence.  False correlations lead to many problems including delusions, myths, fanatical beliefs and not just poor but disastrous decision making.  Following, I will provide some examples of false correlation:

  • The more one exercises, the more weight one will lose
  • Reading will make a person more intelligent
  • Paying people more will increase productivity
  • A happy worker is a productive worker
  • The longer one is married, the happier they are
  • Lowering taxes will create jobs and improve the economy

Understanding the concept of correlation is critical to measurement and hence critical to Fact finding.  If we assume that measuring anything is the best way to verify a Fact, we must be critical and open minded about the limitations of the measurement system that we decide to use.

bull-spottingBefore we move on to looking at the concept of Data, we will look at two more problems with the concept of Facts.  These are distortion and bias.  Distortion relates to twisting the meaning of something.  This can happen by taking something that someone has said out of context.  For instance, I might be talking at a conference and say something in sarcasm such as “Yeah, I will definitely vote for Trump.”  My words could be repeated verbatim and it would sound like I was endorsing Trump.  It is difficult to detect sarcasm.  To most people reading or hearing my words second hand, it will sound like I am a strong Trump supporter.  Slick politicians and advertisers will often distort a Fact to make it sound like the Fact is supporting their position.

Bias is another major problem with Fact checking or Fact verification.  Sites like PolitiFact have lulled people into thinking that Facts can be checked with great accuracy.  Not only is this assertion mostly false but there is another problem.  Bias will inevitably creep into the process of Fact checking when some Facts are checked and others are not.  Another example will illustrate this problem.  Let us take a debate between Hillary and Trump as our example.  During the course of a 90 minute debate there might be as many as 200 assertions that could be Fact checked.  PolitiFact will not check all of them.  Which ones will they check?  The Facts that might make Hillary look like a liar or the Facts that might make Trump look like a liar?  By judiciously choosing the Facts that I decide to check, I can bias the results for either Trump or Hillary.  Just having the most Facts on one’s side does not insure that one also has Truth on their side.

Next week in Part three, we will look at Data and the how this concept informs our search for the Truth. 

Time for Questions:

Can you tell me how you know a true Fact from a false Fact?  How do you decide what to believe?  How much credibility do you put in the news that you hear?  How do you choose the news that you want to hear?  How do you decide who is telling the Truth?

Life is just beginning.

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the Truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real Facts.”  —  Abraham Lincoln

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

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