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Ideas for context

Some ideas to keep in mind while you are researching and writing for this course.

What is a fact?

A fact is a thing that is indisputably the case, something that has really occurred or actually is. Facts exist and statements are true or false. Facts can’t be true or false.

Facts do not generally depend on our beliefs or desires. Facts exist whether or not anyone thinks about them, proves they’re true, has “alternative” facts, lies about the facts, and so on.

The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability—that is, whether it can be demonstrated to correspond to experience. Scientific facts are verified by repeatable careful observation or measurement (by experiments or other means).

  • Example 1: Gravity. There is such a thing. Gravity is a fact. Gravity exists whether or not anyone knows about it, thinks about it, proves it, or believes it.
  • Example 2: 2016 World Series Winner. Again, there is such a thing. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016. That is a true statement because it is a fact that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016. It will always be true no matter what other team you or I wanted to win. If I have “alternative facts”, I’m either fantasizing or lying.

Even though facts have always existed, until the mid-1500’s, the word itself meant a thing done or performed, a meaning now obsolete. The word was first used in print with today’s meaning in 1545.

Measuring facts with data (almost always a number) and reasoning inductively from that data to a conclusion are developments of the 17th century, a period known as the Enlightenment. Things happened quickly. For the first time in human history, reason became the primary source of authority and legitimacy. People reasoned from evidence to new, revolutionary ideas: liberty, progress, tolerance, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. By 1776, these ideas became the basis of the U.S. Constitution. The Industrial Revolution, again based on fact, data, and reason, brought us modern society.

It took until around 1830, for humans to develop the study of data itself, called statistics.

The Google Ngram graph below shows how often from 1700 to 2008 the words fact, facts, data, statistic and statistics were used in print in English-language books. Note the recent drop-off.

Why the drop-off? Facts don’t come to people naturally. Quite the opposite. Most humans always have and always will understand the world by generalizing personal experiences, which are very biased. In the print, broadcast, and online media, the “news-worthy” events exaggerate the unusual, the short term, and the things that scare people, the dangers. Social media has magnified this exaggeration, this distortion, to an unprecedented scale.

Facts don’t get much attention. While schools do a lot of teaching about facts, learning about them and valuing them are not as widespread. People end up carrying around a sack of things they know that they got as children from family, friends and authority figures like priests and school teachers, usually including knowledge that was outdated even when they acquired it.

How do you know what you know? Because of what someone told you? Because of what you believe? Or because you have looked at the data and thought rationally about the relevant facts?

Some people disagree with the assumptions behind the ideas above:

“Alternative Facts”

“our press secretary, gave alternative facts”

There’s No Such Thing Anymore, Unfortunately, as Facts’

“this is all a matter of opinion … there are no such things as facts.”


What is data?

Data comes from the measurement of facts, both quantitative (statistics) and qualitative (any non-numerical information about facts).

Information is data organized for a purpose. To communicate it effectively to others, you need to present the information within a context that gives it meaning and relevance, and can lead to an increase in your audience’s understanding and decrease in their uncertainty.


Wicked problems (Wikipedia)

A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of the term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Most of the problems that your party’s platform positions will address are wicked problems. They have several characteristics:

  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

The solutions:

  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad, better or worse.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.

Relating to your party’s platform positions, which are solutions:

  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  • The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.

For example, if your party sees wealth inequality as a problem of poor people being too lazy to make themselves rich, you will have a different platform policy than you would if you see wealth inequality as a problem of the rich using their power to further rig the system in their behavior.


Motivated reasoning (Wikipedia)

The processes of motivated reasoning are a type of inferred justification strategy which is used to mitigate cognitive dissonance. When people form and cling to false beliefs despite overwhelming evidence, the phenomenon is labeled “motivated reasoning”. In other words, “rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.” This is “a form of implicit emotion regulation in which the brain converges on judgments that minimize negative and maximize positive affect states associated with threat to or attainment of motives.”

Motivated reasoning is the theory that explains how people on five different sides of an issue can be so certain of their arguments in defense of their positions. Opinions, not reason, serve as the filter through which they weigh evidence.

“Rational” people — the early scientists of the Enlightenment, all of the U.S. Founding Fathers did, most liberal arts college graduates — that is, the educated elite, think facts are facts, that arguments can be won by emphasizing objective unmistakable facts. That’s how NASA put people on the moon. However, people who are rational professionally too often indulge in motivated reasoning.

In today’s society, opinions, passed off as facts, muddy facts to the point of unrecognizeability. The other side simply denies the facts by saying that your reality is simply not true. Is there any way to tell the difference?

Indeed, there is.

learn more: Why We Believe Lies, Even When We Learn the Truth

Example of motivated reasoning that causes harm: missing children

Why do we judge parents for putting kids at perceived but unreal risk?

In the U.S., how many children are killed in cars? about 900 per year

CDC: Too many kids die unbuckled

Despite a 43% drop in road crash deaths of children 12 and younger from 2002-2011, more than 9,000 children in that age group died in crashes during that period.

In the U.S., how many children are killed by strangers who abducted them? 45 per year

Nonfamily Abducted Children: National Estimates and Characteristics

In 2002, about 90 children under 12 were abducted by strangers; about half of the children were killed or not recovered.

Look at that ratio, 900:45 = 20:1. Twenty times more children are killed in cars than by strangers who abducted them. Next, narrow it down. How many children are killed in cars on the way to or from school? How many children are abducted when walking to or from school?

If parents are to be arrested for endangering a child, perhaps it should be for driving them to school, not for letting them walk to school.

The question remains, why do we judge the parents? What do we get out of it?


Moral foundations (Wikipedia)

Moral foundations theory is a social psychological theory intended to explain the origins of and variation in human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, modular foundations. The theory proposes six such foundations: Care, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.

Various scholars have offered moral foundations theory as an explanation of differences among political progressives (liberals in the American sense), conservatives, and libertarians, and have suggested that it can explain variation in opinion on politically charged issues such as gay marriage and abortion. In particular, Haidt and fellow researchers have argued that progressives stress only two of the moral foundations (Care and Fairness) in their reasoning, and libertarians stress only two (Liberty and Fairness), while conservatives stress all six more equally.

learn more: Moral Foundations web


False balance (Wikipedia)

aka false equivalence

False balance is a real or perceived media bias in which journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence actually supports. Journalists may present evidence and arguments out of proportion to the actual evidence for each side, or may omit information that would establish one side’s claims as baseless.

Other examples of false balance in reporting on science issues include the topics of man-made vs. natural climate change, the relation between thimerosal and autism and evolution vs. intelligent design. For instance, although the scientific community attributes global warming to the effects of the industrial revolution, there are a small number of scientists who dispute this conclusion. Giving equal voice to scientists on both sides makes it seem like there is a serious disagreement within the scientific community, when in fact there is an overwhelming scientific consensus favoring anthropogenic global warming.

All opinions are not equally valid.

learn more:

No, It’s Not Your Opinion. You’re Just Wrong

Both sides now


Private goods / public goods (Wikipedia)
In economics, a public good is a good that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous in that individuals cannot be effectively excluded from use and where use by one individual does not reduce availability to others.
Gravelle and Rees: “The defining characteristic of a public good is that consumption of it by one individual does not actually or potentially reduce the amount available to be consumed by another individual.”
Public goods include fresh air, knowledge, official statistics, national security, common language(s), flood control systems, lighthouses, and street lighting.
A private good is defined in economics as “an item that yields positive benefits to people” that is excludable, i.e. its owners can exercise private property rights, preventing those who have not paid for it from using the good or consuming its benefits; and rivalrous, i.e. consumption by one necessarily prevents that of another. A private good, as an economic resource is scarce, which can cause competition for it.

Stealth democracy (Amazon)

People do not like the process of openly arriving at a decision in the face of diverse opinions.


Budgets: Sovereign nations and Family Households

It’s common sense, isn’t it? If it is disastrous for a family to run a deficit, that is, spend more than it takes in, then it is also disastrous for a country to run a deficit.

Perhaps not.

How The Federal Budget Is Just Like Your Family Budget (Or Not)

based on data

what politicians say what economists say
based on ideology and superstition  based on data
former President Obama: “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions.  The federal government should do the same. … Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t.”

former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio: “Every family in America has to balance their budget. Washington should, too.”

Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J.: “You know, every family in America understands the necessity of a balanced budget.”

current House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.: “This is how every family tries to live in good times and in bad. Your government should do the same.”


Nobody understands debt

You can see that misunderstanding at work every time someone rails against deficits with slogans like “Stop stealing from our kids.” It sounds right, if you don’t think about it: Families who run up debts make themselves poorer, so isn’t that true when we look at overall national debt?

No, it isn’t. An indebted family owes money to other people; the world economy as a whole owes money to itself. And while it’s true that countries can borrow from other countries, America has actually been borrowing less from abroad since 2008 than it did before, and Europe is a net lender to the rest of the world.

Because [the national] debt is money we owe to ourselves, it does not directly make the economy poorer (and paying it off doesn’t make us richer).

video: Government Budgets Are NOT Like A Household

True or False?

Just like a household, the government has to finance its spending out of its income or through borrowing.

The role of taxes is to provide finance for government spending.

The national government borrows money from the private sector to finance the budget deficit.

Persistent budget deficits will burden future generations with inflation and higher takes.

Running budget surpluses now will help build up the funds necessary to cope with the ageing population in the future.

All are false!

St. Louis Fed: “As the sole manufacturer of dollars, whose debt is denominated in dollars, the U.S. government can never become insolvent, i.e., unable to pay its bills. In this sense, the government is not dependent on credit markets to remain operational. Moreover, there will always be a market for U.S. government debt at home because the U.S. government has the only means of creating risk-free dollar-denominated assets.”

The government can never run out of dollars. It can never be forces to default. It can never be forced to miss a payment.