Facts are bite size pieces of reality. There is no such thing as an “alternative fact.” If you start to believe there are alternate realities, it will make you crazy because there is nothing you can depend on.
2 + 2 equals 4. The sun rose this morning. You need oxygen to breathe. These are facts. You can count on facts to be true and to remain true.
Ideally your conclusions are a result of a clear line of sight back to the facts. However, you can get into big trouble if…
- … if you don’t take the time to carefully verify whether the information is true.
- … if you don’t consider enough facts before drawing conclusions.
- … if you disregard facts that conflict with your beliefs, aka cognitive bias.
- … if you outsource your critical thinking and allow others to draw conclusions for you.
Become a truth detective and get the facts, just the facts, before you try to make sense of them.
Facts become disinformation when they are combined with lies.
Disinformation becomes the basis for illogical conclusions that appear logical.
And even if you haven’t bought into a full-blown conspiracy theory, you still end up with a distorted sense of reality.
From Distortion to Polarization
When you accept too much disinformation without verifying the facts, you get caught in a distortion field. When enough people join the same distortion field, they become a group. The group filters all new information through their shared beliefs, which creates an echo chamber that strengthens the group distortion. The group’s existence is threatened by ideas and people that conflict with the distorted viewpoint that holds the group together. Information that conflicts is quickly dismissed. People who do not share the viewpoint are rejected. However, any information that supports the shared view is readily accepted without question.
Recipe for Group Distortion
• Take a few facts and sprinkle generously with lies.
• Repeat frequently and loudly, while it ferments.
• Meanwhile create distrust around facts that conflict with your desired conclusion.
• Half-bake the mixture and then, share widely.
It’s easy to see this when you are looking at a group you don’t identify with. But if you are hoping that one of those people will read this article and recognize themselves, consider this: one of them is probably reading this article, hoping you will recognize yourself.
When you look at the level of polarization that is occurring today, especially in the United States, it’s likely most of us have accepted some distortion. I would go so far as to say, the angrier you are at those who do not hold your view, the more likely you are to be entrenched in group distortion.
Seven tips to surface and verify the facts.
The truth is not relative. But to find it, we need to be ruthless and relentless about verifying the facts. It’s a cop-out to say it’s not possible to determine the facts. It’s true that there is a tremendous amount of disinformation being presented as fact, on the news, in print, and on social media. But facts do exist, and here are seven tips to help you dig them out.
- Seek the data behind the information presented to verify its truth. For tips on how to dig out the facts, read Accuracy on the Internet.
- Check the validity of a research study before you assume the results are true. For information on how to evaluate a research study, read How to Easily Evaluate Research.
- Read what’s behind the headlines. Carefully read the entire article with an open mind. You will often find information that contradicts the message in the headline.
- Remember seeing is not believing anymore. Technology has advanced to the point that it’s possible to create fake photos and videos that look remarkably true. It requires investigating the source.
- If all your sources are sharing the same information, it does not necessarily mean it is true, especially if all your sources have the same orientation. Check for the facts behind conclusions, even when you trust a source.
- When it’s not possible to uncover enough facts, be willing to say it’s not possible to draw any conclusions at this time, and keep an open mind.
- Recognize the difference between an opinion and a fact, and take opinions with a grain of salt. Be willing to take other’s opinions into consideration, but seek the actual facts, and just the facts, so you can do your own thinking.
It takes a little time and effort to dig for the facts. But what’s the alternative? We live in the age of information and the floodgates have been opened. Our task is to learn how to live successfully in this age. If you’re not willing to do the work, your only other choice is to outsource your thinking, and hope you don’t get caught in a group distortion field.
Thanks for this article, Jesse! It couldn’t have come at a better time. The disinformation on the internet is a real disgrace. When I was a chemistry student 30 years ago, I had the privilege to get lessons from one of Belgium’s most renowned philosophers, Etienne Vermeersch. In his very first lesson to us he said the following: “As scientists you may only believe what you can (mathematically) prove!” I have not forgotten this … 🙏
A wise man and good advice to be discriminating in what we believe. Thank you for adding to the conversation, Gert.
Hi Jesse – this is enlightening thank you.
I am not sure where or when I took this up but I often remind people (and myself) that ‘facts are friends’.
Very important to understand a fact from an opinion.
Scary times when many of those in influential positions offer information (dis) that has only sprinkles of facts.
and unfortunately, news headlines are often opinion. Thanks for reinforcing this point. “Facts are friends!”
Thank you for your wisdom Jesse. I get so many questions from clients around the world asking about the lies they read delivered as truth. I also see in my coaching how people are holding on to their stories for dear life, as if the facts are too harmful to their daily life to believe. The greater the fear of the unknown future, the less they want to explore their inherited beliefs and gaps in their logic. We get there, but it takes patient and compassionate coaching to create even small cracks in their stories.
Good point about how entrenched we get in our stories, and how that reinforces the meaning we attribute to events. A lesson I am committed to continually challenge for myself.
Thanks, Jesse, I have been reviewing some of the things that I have written in the past and see a lot of evidence that my point of view was quite distorted. My conclusion is that it is very important to be humble, to stay open to new information as it becomes available, to be able to say “I was wrong.” Albert Einstein was a role model in that respect. When asked about his religion, he said that he would always push science (i.e. the facts) as far as he could, but that it would never be far enough. When he reached the end of his understanding, he would call that “God.”
Wonderful advice: be humble, stay open to new information as it becomes available, and be able to say “I was wrong.
Solid advice, and how do we deal effectively, thoughtfully and compassionately with those who refuse to consider the facts, hard evidence? Closed minds are like close parachutes in that they don’t work very well.
“The group’s existence is threatened by ideas and people that conflict with the distorted viewpoint that holds the group together.” I have dealt with these individuals and groups for many years and while not easy or comfortable, I believe we must engage where and when we can and keep some kind of dialogue alive to move forward.
I agree that we must engage where and when we can and keep some kind of dialogue alive to move forward. Thanks for your wise thoughts, Gary.
A timely and relevant blog as are the blogs to which it links. Evaluating data is habit for doctoral researchers and academics. In today’s world of open source information, it needs to be a skill learned during grammar school.
I agree, Fay. Although non-academics will not become statisticians, we can learn to do a good cursory overview and avoid being influenced by obviously misleading “research.”
Preparing a small article for the French Supply Chain Magazine (30 000 readers) to be based on Fabulous fallacies by Tad Tuleja and fake news by the lame duck POTUS, I wonder whether I could use your “path from Facts to Conspiracy Theory” sketch? If so, do I have to document your authorization and how?
Many thanks in advance.
BTW, obviously “félicitations pour cet article”
Thanks for your inquiry. I just sent you an email. If you don’t receive it, let me know.
Thoughtfulness that the world needs, said with the force of truth and love. Thank you.
Thanks for your kind words, Ira.
This was truly an eye-opening article! An excellent reminder of the need to think critically, now more than ever – and to fact-check everything!
I agree Barbara. Critical thinking is one of the most important skills we need. Wish schools focused more on teach it as a core skill.
Spot on. This will allow me to better articulate my critical thinking and analytical skills training when I present it. I, too, would like to use the ways of making sense picture (as mentioned in someone else’s comment). Thanks for a short, powerful article.
Glad it was helpful, Roy. I’ll email you privately about permission for use of the graphic.
Thank you, Jesse. I find your reminders actually calming. The complex, interconnected system — from which we select and interpret facts, draw conclusions and determine actions — is (mostly) the same world, experienced in different ways.
To piece together facts with another person starting from a different place takes an exertion of energy and caring. And, it usually goes best if I start with their facts and then add mine. I remember a weekend of politically charged conversation, where my family members said, “It just takes so much work to tell you what you don’t know!”
I told them I felt the same, and then we mused about whether that was the real question — would we invest the work to “re-weave” a shared understanding of some little corner of the world? We decided it was worth it. It felt glorious just to get there.
A wonderful example of how to find a point of connection with others who see things differently – finding some facts you agree on and going from there. Thanks for sharing this, Elizabeth!
This is such important advice since there is so much misleading information all around. I have found that some well meaning family members or friends receive some information and take it as fact and pass it on. In those cases where it just didn’t seem reasonable to me I research it and usually find out it is not true. I have gone back to let the person and others that have also received the information know that the information is not true and share the facts. I sometimes feel like I am being the “police of facts” but I also know these are good people and I feel obligated to let them know the true. Unfortunately it can sometimes be uncomfortable.
It’s so easy to get frustrated with people who simply accept incorrect information without questioning it. Thanks for the reminder that “these are good people.” Blame isn’t helpful. Many thanks for deepening the conversation, Joyce.
Great article Jesse! Love the clarity of terms and concepts. Where do you think ideologies fit into all this? It seems for many people ideologies serve as simplifying lenses thru which they look at complex reality but unfortunately the lens distorts and colors everything for the observer while it provided some comfort from not needing to handle complexity. Thanks.
Appreciate your thoughts on ideologies, Praveen. It does seem they have become away to avoid dealing with complexity. Ideally, ideologies create a framework for understanding reality. But it seems that these days, many are so wedded to their ideologies, the ideologies have become a framework for shaping their reality.
Great article, Jesse. Thanks so much for sharing!
I wrote a post last December, “Protect Yourself from Bad Information.” I challenged the reader to determine how they get information. Here are a few points that I made.
• Get information secondhand or secure it from its original source?
• Listen to people because you like them or because they’re respected and reputable?
• Determine whether the information is opinion or fact?
• Believe something is true because it’s well presented or based on its merit?
• Determine whether the message is one-sided or presents both sides of the issue?
Thanks again for an excellent post. Well done!
Those are great questions we should all be asking ourselves.
For those who are interested in taking a look at Frank’s article, here’s the link: https://www.franksonnenbergonline.com/blog/protect-yourself-from-bad-information/
Many thanks for sharing your good thinking, Frank!
Brilliant. Incisive. Clear. AND compelling. I am sharing far and wide. Thanks, Jesse, for being such a great thinker who can take the fog of “stuff” and point us to where the facts are hidden.
I believe this is the single most important issue we must tackle because facts form the basis for the discussions we need to have around all the critical issues we are facing. Many thanks for sharing the message of this post, Eileen!
As I read this post, one of my favorite quotes kept singing in my head. From Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”
Great quote! Many thanks for sharing it, Wally.
I also think it is very important to
1. Determine sample size–exactly how many people responded a certain way.
2. The exact questions that were asked. The way a question is phrased can greatly influence the answer.
Good things to consider. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Paul!
Truth does begin with facts and how we honestly combine / use them. BUT I strongly suggest there are far fewer facts than we would think. What we do have is beliefs / statements that have very low uncertainty. Indeed, we have constants (such as Pi = 3.14159….) that are not facts because they now have an uncertainly approaching zero because they have been measured so very many times. If we did an experiment to do measurements and use them to calculate our ‘constant,’ we would not get the published value of the constant – because of the uncertainties associated with our efforts. But if we did the experiment repeatedly with due diligence to use good procedures, the overall representative value of all our results would approach the published value the more times we did it. Because of uncertainty of the representative value getting smaller and smaller.
When we are using results that have not been proven to be facts, we need to acknowledge the uncertainty of the results (as well as the match between the specifics of the efforts leading to the results and the specifics of our efforts to use those results – likely not a match) in our discussion of a likely useful outcome.
Hi John, Thank you for your thoughtful perspective. I agree with your point that we need to take into account the likelihood of a result being repeated in order to determine whether it is a fact. It’s easier to identify facts in actions that have occurred in the past. In practical terms, if I was wearing a red blouse yesterday and you tell people it was blue, it would not be true, no matter how loudly or how many times you said it. This is what I am trying to get people to focus on in my post – to use critical thinking based on accurate information.