Opinion: Why do facts fail?

OPINION: In the winter of 1999 I could be found huddled in one of the now-demolished weatherboard cottages clinging to the site of Kelburn Hill. The wind whistled through that building like a tent pitched on the South Pole. I was attending criminology classes given by Prof John Pratt.

Last week I was at an event with John discussing inequality in New Zealand. We discussed what has changed in criminal justice policy in New Zealand in the last 20 years ago.  Depressingly, very little.

What works in crime prevention and in the treatment of offenders has been mostly ignored by politicians, policymakers and the public. John observed, rather dryly, there has been a lot of fear-based rhetoric and nastiness directed towards experts.

Why have we got so little traction on what works to prevent crime? Why have we not improved the lives of people who both commit crime and their victims (often the same people)? Why do politicians, people in business, people in the public not see or act on best evidence? (And yes, there is good evidence and poor evidence.) Why do facts not only fail but get trashed and abused while misinformation prevails?

In my new book A Matter of Fact I lay out five reasons good information is not seen or believed by people. They are not all what you would assume.

First, we assume that putting good information into a public space is enough to build quality public conversations. In general, many people hold to the idea that people carefully weigh new information. That we examine the opportunities and risks before deciding what to do, like a perfect (theoretical) economic model. We assume that if people make a decision not supported by evidence it means they need more, or better, information.

But consider this. We have known for over 100 years that we prevent deaths in healthcare settings when professionals wash their hands. Yet we could prevent over 70 percent of hospital deaths in the US if doctors and nurses washed their hands. Knowledge infrequently transfers into action even amongst the very well-informed.

Second, information is overwhelming us. We are not in a post-truth world. We are in a world in which we are suffocating under the weight of all the information available to us. We have little idea of who or what to trust. We have democratised the availability of information but we have not done the same with tools to help people sort the good from the bad, the trustworthy from the unreliable. In Uganda, they've developed an innovative tool to help children and parents identify false information early in life.

Third, misinformation flies, and from many sources. Misinformation has always been with us. People spread it for many reasons. These range from a Machiavellian manipulation of democracy through to enjoying a good bit of gossip. And sometimes those things collide.

Opinion: Why do facts fail?
Photo credit: Getty.

Take, for example, the lies told about Barack Obama's place of birth (the birther rumours). These most likely started as nasty in-house gossip within the Democratic Party. Others then spread them, including now President Trump, for their own political gain. Yet, our information landscape has changed. This means misinformation and disinformation (intentionally false information) flies faster, stronger, longer. We also see the same incorrect material often. Repeated information, especially that designed to polarise, is much more likely to embed.

Fourth, we ignore the values underpinning our 'fact-offs'. We may think we are arguing over facts. In reality we are often having an unacknowledged contest over what we value most. We filter new information and facts through our values and beliefs. This is how we decide the relevance and trustworthiness of new information. If we keep talking about facts, or deny that there are values at play in information, it is hard to resolve disagreements.

Finally, we talk instead of listening and including. Talking is not the same as communicating. Communicating means finding ways to make social and emotional connections with people. We talk to people, tell them our expertise, or consult on what we have already decided on their behalf. People's desire to consider new information in such circumstances is slim.

But there is plenty that people can do - people in positions of power like scientists, researchers, communicators, journalists and concerned citizens. We can create an environment in which people see, believe and act upon good information.

It rests largely on how we translate and share good knowledge, and whether we use evidence-based tools to help translate good information. Or whether we continue doing more of the same hoping it will get us different results.

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is an academic and author of A Matter of Fact, a new BWB Text. In it she explores how to help people see, believe and act on good information in a post-truth world.

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