Sunday, 2 February 2014

Deception by Fact

Contrary to popular belief, facts do not usually point to a single truth. Most of the time they do not even point in the same direction. We favour facts that are aligned to our way of thinking and present them in such a way that they do (confirmation bias).

We use facts as premises for our hypotheses to prove their validity and to encourage uptake by others. This, however, is an illusion. Most facts are collected after forming an opinion in search of supporting proof. In all cases there is a story that brings them together and ultimately does the convincing as they stand powerless on their own. Consider the following scenario:


  • Bank robber dies in botched bank robber
  • Mother of two dies in bank robbery as innocent bystander in cross fire
  • Bank robber is parent of cancer child

Possible stories:

  1. Desperate parent dies in botched robbery in attempt to get finances for medical treatment for his dying son
  2. Bank robber kills innocent hostage in shootout with police in broad daylight

The idea of an absolute truth requires a complete understanding of all the facts (influences, context, players, history, etc.), an unbiased view as well as black and white values. An idealistic concept at best. This is why we tend to place our faith in the council of many, as they are a representative collective of perspectives. Consider some modern structures:
  • Parliament vs. King
  • A board of directors vs. Owner
  • UN vs. Single country army

In truth our conclusion is a belief based on our biased view of the partial facts we are exposed to. There are of course though different levels of ignorance when it comes to constructing a hypothesis, but we can never claim absolute truth.

Do not be lured into believing in the infallibility of your hypotheses as it will impede your ability to learn from others. We should welcome the opportunity to discover new facts from other people's breadcrumbs. Their bits of knowledge seen through their eyes can open your mind to insights you might have never gained on your own.