Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Facts Problem

We've had much discussion about living in a post-fact society, but I'm not sure we really appreciate just how much trouble the whole business of "facts" is in.

I don't mean the obvious public signs, like a national Vice-Presidential candidate who simply lies his way through a nationally broadcast debate. I'm not talking about how many of us keep our head buried in the internet bucket, listening to nothing but the echoes of our own voices.

I think our problem is deeper than that.

We've seen, for instance, something now called the replication crisis, the growing discovery that many landmark (and not-so-landmark) studies are simply one-offs, research completed exactly one time and attempts to replicate the results have either not been made, or have been made and turned out to be unsuccessful. Keep digging and you find that many "facts" about what constitutes "normal" for human beings are just plain non-factual.

The institutions that are traditionally the center of fact-discovery, or the kind of research that lets us Know New Things are in trouble, beset by everything from financial to ideological problems. Billionaires like the Koch brothers now hire professors to present the preferred set of "facts" to students. With tenure a thing of the past, professors and scholars will feel more pressure to avoid coming up with "facts" that might make anyone uncomfortable. And the pressure on colleges and universities is to replace coursework with micro-credentials, with simple competency-based tasks which can by their very nature only be defined in terms of what we already "know." You can't create a competency-based performance task built around the creation or discovery of new knowledge. You can only recycle.

At the same time, we are trying to build facts about things we cannot know. We cannot know what is going on in another person's head, in their thoughts, their feelings-- but education reformsters want to quantify that and attach a number to it so that we can kick it around as if it is a fact. Every day brings one more article that tries to bandy about facts about something for which no facts can be generated. Here's just one example from Education Next-- an article trying to consider the facts of what disciplinary techniques produce good results, as if there's a way to know the connection between how an eight-year-old is scolded for punching a classmate and whether or not that child thirty years later will be a good, decent, responsible adult. In education we want to know so many things that cannot be known, and so we insist on making up "facts" as proxies, numbers that we can claim correspond to actual facts. We talk about "student achievement" as if the numbers attached to the idea are facts, when they are just test scores from a single badly-written, narrowly-focused standardized test (perhaps fed through an unproven and unreliable equation).

Meanwhile, our own government has defined down what constitutes a fact. The definition of "evidence" used by the feds and enshrined, among other places, in the Every Student Succeeds Act includes demonstrating a rationale-- in other words, any half-baked argument I've ever made on this blog can be counted as "evidence." The last federal policy paper I looked at said that "research-based" includes any "conclusions or conjectures" from experts in the field, so I guess "facts" stop just short of wild-assed guesses, but not by much. And really-- if conjectures and rationales qualify as research and evidence, then how hard is it to be an "expert" in a field, particularly a field like education where we swim in an ocean of facts that are not actually facts.

Look, education has always been short on facts. Experimenting on children is Bad, so we've mostly held back on that. And studies conducted on a group of sophomores at one particular university aren't exactly broadly helpful.

But we live increasingly in a fact-starved world, a world in which facts are not only beaten and thrown down the stairs until they look like a ball of silly putty run through a blender, but we aren't even all that interested in looking for facts in the first place. And because we are a People of Irony, the fewer facts we use, the more we insist we are data-driven and evidence-based.

Hey, I'm a good old-fashioned "truth is more important than facts" any day. But it's really hard to get to the truth when your facts are not facts, and we are increasingly paying a price as a society for swimming in a giant vat of bovine fecal matter and pretending we're beating Ryan Loche (who may be an ass, but he's a fast ass) in an Olympic pool.

The scariest thing is not that we are ignorant of what the facts are. The scariest thing is that many of us don't even know what a fact is.


  1. Some wisdom from the Philosopher might be appropriate here:

    "Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs." (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Section 3)

  2. Not so much a comment as suggested reading:
    Monthly Review
    Home › 2016 › Volume 67, Issue 10 (March) › The Opt Out Revolt

    The Opt Out Revolt
    Democracy and Education
    by John Bellamy Foster

    [Just a taste! dns]

    In the United States today, the age of monopoly-finance capital and neoliberal politics, all aspects of social life are being financialized at breakneck speed, while the economy as a whole and employment remain lackluster….

    At the center of this juggernaut is elementary and secondary education, which receives over $550 billion in annual public spending, equal to the GDP of Belgium, ranked twenty-fifth worldwide in national income.1 The new copyrighted Common Core State Standards, and the accompanying standardized tests run by two multi-state consortia in conjunction with testing companies, are “high stakes” not merely for schools, teachers, and students, but also for the vested interests of capital. The latter seek by these means to: (1) form a labor force of cheerful robots; (2) eliminate critical thinking from schools; (3) generate immense profits for the education industry and information firms; (4) end teacher tenure, seize control of classrooms from professional educators, and break teachers’ unions; (5) privatize public education through charter schools and other means; (6) facilitate private profits and financial speculation through control of government education funding; (7) merge education for large sections of the poor and racial minorities with the military and penal systems; (8) decrease the role of democracy in education while increasing the corporate role; (9) create databases with detailed biometrics on almost everyone, to be exploited by corporations; and (10) manage the population in what is a potentially fractious society divided by race and class.

  3. And here in Maryland legislators just passed a law allowing folks to change the gender on a birth certificate with no indicator that the document was amended. Talk about having a loose grip on facts. A birth certificate is supposed to be a factual document. Not in Maryland.

  4. We ARE living in a fact-free environment in many ways.

    My favorite illustration of this involves a very minor issue: Deflate-gate!!!

    Pressure/Temperature = Pressure/Temperature (temps in Kelvins)

    This has been known since, oh, only the 17th century.

    Brady's case was NEVER decided on anything that even resembles the way the physical world works.

    When batshit crazy decisions are made that ignore indisputable facts, imagine what happens when there is no baseline of truth.