Anderson’s Paradox

Anderson’s Paradox: In politics, facts are opinions, and opinions are facts.

 Huh? Welcome to modern American politics. Read on.

Facts are Opinons.

Al Franken has a standard phrase in senate speeches and political interviews: “You are entitled to your own opinions, but you aren’t entitled to your own facts.” I’m a big fan of Al Franken, but I think he’s wrong. In a digital age where the “facts” are often presented by corporations, political groups, hero pundits, and other motivated interests, we have a hard time of knowing just how honest a fact is. Does global warming exist?  Depends on who you ask. Each side has their own set of “facts” to prove their opinions.

Show me a set of “facts” to prove that the Democrat’s health care plan will ruin America, and I will show you a set of “facts” to prove that it will save America. Show me a set of “facts” to prove that the economy is getting better as a result of Obama’s strategic efforts, and I will show you a set of “facts” to prove it is getting worse. What the internet provides in terms of “facts” is great, but what it lacks in terms of “truth” is even worse.

There are three causes of the “facts are opinions” paradox. First, we seem to have great confidence in our scientific thinking, despite a complete lack of training or awareness of the scientific process. In just a few seconds, we can read and interpret graphs, charts, tables, and data sets and walk away with what we think is a conclusive understanding. Second, we tend to enjoy great leaps of logic that begin with soft data and end with hard truths. We do so largely based on ethos rather than logos. Our affirmation or rejection of internet-based data is more often based on “who” is telling us that this data is true rather than the “what, when, where, how” and most importantly “why”  they are telling us this is true. Whatever filter we use to dismiss data from villian-source seems to disappear when we readily accept data from hero-source. Third, we tend to start with the conclusion and end with the data, and the internet gives us plenty of fuel for our fire. Every home with an angry person armed with a thousand facts to prove the Democrats wrong is countered by an angry person armed with a thousand facts to prove the Republicans wrong. Neither person will accept the “facts” of the other, and both persons believe their “facts” to be the Truth.

Oh sure, you believe that your facts are better than my facts, but if I can make the same argument, then we are at an impasse. In the last thirty years, the quantity of senate and house votes has made a much bigger difference than the quality of their arguments, regardless of the controlling party.

In short, 1) the internet has made it impossible for us to discover the truth when there is any competition for opinion, and 2) the facts and data we often accept as True are acceptable for reasons other than science or fact, and 3) even if we did possess the Truth, nobody would believe us except for those who already do.

So I’m no longer interested in facts. I can’t trust facts anymore, they are too opinionated. What I DO trust are opinions, and I’m increasingly convinced that the path back to political civility isn’t through facts, but opinions.

Opinions are Facts.

Our opinions stem from our values, and partisan politics is simply a juxtoposition of values. If you strip a political argument of  hyperbole, fear, smokescreens, and other “facts,” what remains are values. Republicans value security and economic freedom. Democrats value liberty and social freedom. Consequently, much of what we call partisan politics is simply an effort to protect and preserve the values that we believe to be most important. The health care debate, for example, is really a debate about economic freedom – either from the government or from corporations, and the health care system itself is simply the point at which these competing values clash. The same is true for the environment, education, international conflict, and whatever else may dominate the evening news.

While I’ve lost faith in our ability to debate the facts, I have a great deal of confidence in our ability to debate our values. Unfortunately, we tend not to debate our values because we perceive them to be unchangeable. We’ve also redefined “values” to mean religious convictions, which is unfortunate. For whatever I may or may not believe about religion in America, I think we ought to be clear that religion should support our values and not the other way around. To presume otherwise is to falsely believe that if there is no religion, there can be no values.

So what could our nation look like if we put down our facts and picked up our values? What if we debated the health care legislation in terms of whether a government for the people is more important than a government of the people? What if the gay marriage debate started sounding more like a debate about which rights are unalienable? Messy at first, for sure, but I suspect that minds are more likely changed – including my own – by focusing on internal values rather than external facts.

Why This Matters

Modern political debate seems to reject personal opinion and rely heavily on “facts” that are neither reliable nor useful regardless of their validity. Doing so has created an impasse with no hope of resolution. Both sides believe that they have a monopoly on Truth, and neither side seems particularly interested in hearing what the other side has to say.

We tend to shoot each other with our “fact guns” and then wonder why nobody is falling down, so we call our targets too stupid to understand how convincing our bullets are. Maybe our facts aren’t nearly as powerful as we think them to be. Perhaps it is because we presume that we all share the same values, which we do not. We don’t all share the same values, and until we acknowledge this, we aren’t going to make very much progress.

You think I’m too stupid to understand that this health care legislation will bankrupt our nation. I think you are too stupid to understand that our health care system is bankrupting our nation. Both of us are armed to the teeth with facts, and neither of us show much sign of budging. Both of us value economic freedom, but one of us wants freedom from an oppressive government while the other wants freedom from coporate greed.

Like two ships passing in the night, we are both advocating for economic freedom but from completely different vantage points. You want economic freedom from an oppressive government, and I want economic freedom from the unregulated health care industry. Maybe it’s time to talk about civil rights (protection OF the government) versus civil liberties (protection FROM the government). If we found some common ground on this debate, we could apply those values to the case in point.

In order to determine what is right or wrong, we must depend more on our internal values than our external facts. Let’s eliminate the hyperbole, fear, smokescreens and other “facts” and start addressing our core values that support our opinions. If it’s right, we ought to do it. If it’s wrong, we ought not to do it. We are capable of determining right and wrong not by analyzing facts, but by comparing values.

This is my resolution for this year. I’m going to stop trying to debate facts and start trying to compare values. To be honest, I don’t know what that always mean or look like, but I think it is a start toward resolving our greatest conflicts.

Your thoughts? Please comment!

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One response to “Anderson’s Paradox

  1. TED has a good talk about the roots of conservative and liberal values.

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html

    In a nutshell, both conservatives and liberals use harm/care and fairness/reciprocity in their value systems, but liberals are less concerned with ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity in their value system, while conservatives view the latter three values as being quite important.

    The current debate has become ridiculous in large part because of the difference in valuation of authority/respect. Conservatives respected Bush, and they don’t respect Obama. When Bush legislates in ways that are antithetical to conservatives harm/care and fairness/reciprocity values, their authority/respect value ends up trumping and they fall in line.

    Liberals don’t value authority that much. Look at how many are jumping ship and criticizing Obama once they realized that the health care bill was basically a big bailout to the people who caused the health care mess in the first place, with incidental benefits to harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.

    Conservatives see Obama trying to legislate, and it doesn’t even matter if their lives would improve thanks to his ideas, because they don’t respect his authority.

    I don’t really see a solution, unfortunately. Obama will never be respected by conservatives, unless he abandons most of the values that liberals value, and even then that might not work.

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