Although the information age is said to have begun in the latter part of the twentieth century, one could argue that we are now experiencing its peak, since almost everyone has access to a small handheld device with all the information ever gathered, right at their fingertips. This abundance of facts has made the world easier to understand and made people less likely to be fooled by false information—at least in theory. An argument that would have lasted several hours with no conclusion in the 1990s can now be ended in seconds with a Google search that shows the cold, hard facts.
However, this hasn’t made us all more likely to reach agreements. From competing pandemic countermeasures to the merits of Xbox versus PlayStation, society seems to be inclined to divide itself in two and each side sees the other not as people looking at the same issue from a different angle, but as unintelligent or morally corrupt. So maybe there’s more to being right than being factually correct.
Too Much Information
We evolved in much simpler times, when we only interacted with a limited group of people and reacted to a relatively small number of events and new pieces of information. There was no time for context, no possibility of gathering deeper knowledge, so our brains were formed to instinctively draw conclusions from the available data. Conclusions lead to decisions, and any firm decision is statistically more likely to lead to a successful outcome than hesitation. So those who were able to make definitive decisions based on limited information lived to spread their genes.
Many modern studies claim that social media causes depression, especially in young people. People usually post positive things about themselves on social media, but the viewer has no way of knowing what percentage of their lives is actually happy and positive. Maybe it’s only 15%—but they only show you that 15%. That’s the only piece of information your brain has to work with, so it instinctively draws the conclusion that the person in question has a much better life than yours. That distorts the picture.
The enormous amount of data freely or cheaply available on the internet and the human mind’s instinct to quickly come to conclusions based on the limited available evidence has made it relatively easy for any interested party to gently nudge an audience into reaching a certain conclusion by only showing them the pieces of evidence that lead to that conclusion. That evidence often consists of cold, hard facts, but not only do they not paint the whole picture, but they mislead.
The Fake War on Fake News
It’s not surprising that the institutions that are most likely to use this trick to manipulate their audiences into drawing wrong conclusions are those that used to hold monopolies on information. Almost all mainstream media are inundated with fact checks and are waging an all-out war on fake news. There are even fake news watchdog websites, which analyze and fact-check current news. At first glance, this is a huge positive. For the first time in history, politicians and other public figures can’t bullshit their way through speeches and statements, as their bogus claims will be immediately debunked. However, fact-checking can also be manipulated to favor one side over another.
The easiest way of using these technically accurate fact checks to deceive the public is by fact-checking only one side of the discussion. Right-leaning news sources tend to correctly scrutinize the left, while cutting their own side some slack. Leftist news sources correctly emphasize inaccuracies in right-wing messaging, while ignoring their own side’s faults. At the same time, they each point out the other side’s extremists, incorrectly describing them as more numerous than they are. Yes, Donald Trump is often a bullshit artist and yes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s views are often economically illiterate, but you won’t hear both these statements from the same news source, although both are based on cold, hard, irrefutable facts.
There are ways to produce technically correct fact checks that are faker than the news they are trying to disprove. Donald Trump recently claimed that the 20 most dangerous cities in America are all Democrat-run. Then the Washington Post issued an “analysis piece” with the title: “Trump keeps claiming that the most dangerous cities in America are all run by Democrats. They aren’t.” Many people won’t bother to read an article if the title tells them what the story is, and the story here is obvious: yet another Trump lie. The Washington Post is factually correct that not all of the 20 most dangerous cities in the US are run by Democrats—one is run by a Republican and two are run by independents.
The third and dumbest tier of fake hunts for fake news is taking something that was obviously not meant to be interpreted at face value, treating it like straightforward information, and denouncing it as false. A satirical news article called “Ocasio-Cortez Appears On ‘The Price Is Right,’ Guesses Everything Is Free” was swiftly fact-checked by Snopes.com, along with tens of other obvious pieces of satire. During the 2016 run for the US presidential election, Donald Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton acid-washed her email server, deleting thousands of potentially incriminating pieces of evidence. NBC News quickly deemed the statement false, explaining that Clinton’s team used an app to delete the emails, instead of a corrosive chemical.
The problem with the bias of the so-called fact-checking sites is that major social media websites tend to rely on a select few sources of content verification. If Facebook or Twitter uses left-leaning fact-checkers—which they do—reality will be hidden behind the propaganda of those who are tasked with determining what is worthy of being called the truth and what is not. There are doctors who oppose masks and lockdowns, but you won’t see their opinions on social media, as their opinions are deemed fake news and effectively banned.
When you hear a statement like “a woman makes 79 cents for every dollar a man makes,” you may instantly draw the conclusion that women are paid less for the same jobs. Why wouldn’t you? The 79 cents/dollar is a cold, hard, statistical fact. However, another cold, hard fact—of which you may not be aware—is that the statistic was produced by adding the incomes of all full-time male and female employees and coming up with two averages. It completely ignores overtime, life choices, hazard pay and other reasons for this difference in earnings. This method of deceiving an audience by using accurate facts removed from their wider context is used to convey information about most controversial issues.
Using accurate numbers to draw inaccurate conclusions is one of the most frequent ways of nudging the audience into forming their opinions in a certain way. One Guardian article, for example, claims that Amazon only paid $3.4 billion in taxes over the past decade, despite profits of $26.8 billion, meaning that their tax rate was just 12.7%. Someone with a passion for hating other people’s success might see this as definitive proof that the rich are not paying their fair share. It’s right there in black and white! Except it’s not.
The methods that Amazon uses to lower its tax rate are numerous and complex, but the most important one is heavily reinvesting profits into research and development. This allows the company to constantly get stronger, increasing its share price and attractiveness to new investors, while improving its products and services. This is how stuff gets better, how cars become safer, how phones work faster, how everything becomes cheaper and better value for money than it was fifty or even ten years ago.
And speaking of things getting better, a very common way to promote the argument that the wages of Americans have stagnated over the past 40 years is to adjust average earnings to inflation rates. The results do indeed show that wages have not risen since the late 1970s, when adjusted for inflation. Isn’t this cold, hard, statistical fact an obvious sign that the US has been unproductive over the past few decades? No.
First of all, money has no intrinsic value—not since the gold standard was removed. So getting the same number of pieces of paper as you did 40 years ago doesn’t mean anything. The only thing that matters is how much of your limited time on earth you have to spend working in order to afford to buy product X or service Y. Not only are we working less as a whole, but almost everything costs less now, in terms of the number of working hours needed to buy it, than it did four decades ago. A rough estimate shows that what took 60 minutes of work in 1980 now only takes 21 minutes of work to purchase.
Not only do you need to work far less to afford most goods and services, but everything is significantly better than it was 40, 30, 15 or even a few years ago. Everything is safer, easier to use, better looking, with more functions, cleaner for the environment, more durable, and so on. How were companies incentivized to make things better over this period of time? Mostly through competition and tax exemptions for the research and development of better products and services. If you want to make the argument that companies are not paying their fair share, you can point out their low tax rates—but that is far from the whole picture.
Overrated, Not Unimportant
Of course, facts are important. They are the puzzle pieces we use to understand objective reality. They have become the building blocks of modern society, as we have moved away from dogmatic religions and superstitions and created metrics that we can use to accurately measure everything around us. But if you build a wall with a door and a window in it, it will look like a house if you observe it from a specific angle. View it from a variety of perspectives and you’ll quickly spot the illusion.
When taken out of context, either deliberately or through ignorance, facts can nudge a person towards a less accurate conclusion than she would have come to in their absence. When you don’t have much information, you can either accept your lack of knowledge or use your intuition to come up with a plausible scenario. When you know you lack facts, you will tend to feel a certain humility and openness to new information. But when you are in possession of an accurate but incomplete set of facts, it will be very hard to convince you that the information you have is only a small part of the picture. That was a house: you saw it with your own two eyes. There’s no way that was simply a wall that looked like a house from your limited point of view. That would mean that you were fooled—and your brain doesn’t like that conclusion.
Most news outlets and influential public figures choose a certain side of the house and obsessively present it to their audiences in the hope of convincing them that what they see is the whole picture.
There’s no easy way to avoid the onslaught of real but incomplete information, but one way to get at least a ballpark estimate of where the truth lies is to always remember that there are two extreme points of view on most issues. This is not usually a question of right and wrong, but of one wrong and another wrong, at opposite sides of the spectrum, with the truth somewhere in the middle, constantly shifting. Each extreme point of view contains accurate facts about the opposite extreme and they feed off each other endlessly. That is why facts are overrated.