The devaluation of factual evidence

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Written by Donald H Taylor on 22 January 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

Don Taylor urges us to seek evidence amid a world of false claims and doubtful statistics

A new phrase was coined last year that should strike fear into us all. If you watch the news, read the papers or spend any time on social media, you will be familiar with it. We now, apparently, live in a ‘post-factual’ world.

Don’t believe it.

Facts are real and they crucial to our daily lives. When you open the box containing a new pair of shoes, you expect the size and colour of the shoes inside to match what’s printed on the outside. The shoes’ size and colour are facts. The statements about them will be right or wrong, and if reality doesn’t match the claim you’ve a right to demand your money back.

Facts have not disappeared. Something more subtle and worrying has happened. Some facts – particularly scientific and political facts – have, quite suddenly, been devalued. But this does not happen by itself. It happens when someone creates a non-fact, an invention which is then backed by online supporters, until the momentum builds behind this non-fact and it insinuates its way into more reputable forums, channels and media which report it, simultaneously lending it credibility and amplifying it. ‘Post factual’ is one way expressing this. I prefer a blunter word.

Lying.

It is deliberate lying by the person creating the non-fact. And it is complicity in that lie by all those who unthinkingly reproduce, echo and amplify it.

We do not live in a post-factual world. We just live in a world where, apparently, it’s okay to lie, probably because people are too lazy, busy or scared to call you out on it. And once momentum behind the lie builds, the truth is on the back foot, fighting to regain prominence in people’s minds.

We can’t do much about lying in the world of politics, but we can confront it in our own world of L&D. Not only can we confront it, we must. We must spot it, call it out, and – politely, but firmly – hold people accountable for what they say. This is particularly true in the world of pseudo-scientific claims, dodgy statistics and other mumbo-jumbo. Against all these, there is a simple phrase which we should wield, calmly, but consistently.

That phrase is a question: “What’s the evidence?”

Some half a million web pages will tell you images are ‘processed 60,000 times faster than text’. But they are not. This ‘statistic’ has been lazily recycled by marketers, presentations specialists and, sadly, L&D professionals, but has no scientific basis. What’s the evidence? The trail ends not in a scientific paper, but a 1982 advertising section in Business Week according to extensive research by Alan Levine.1 That’s no evidence at all.

As well as asking for evidence, we must not be complicit in the recycling and amplification of existing lies. We must, always, ask the question of ourselves, before we slip something we may sincerely believe to be true into a presentation, a blog post or a tweet. And, unpleasant though it may be, we must be prepared to be called out when a lie slips through. Because there is no neutral outcome here. If we pass on an invented ‘fact’, we amplify it and add to confusion around the evidence we use to support our practice.

No true professional would willing lie. In a busy, noisy world where facts are increasingly seen as an inconvenience, we owe it to ourselves and to our profession to demand the truth.

Reference

  1. http://bit.ly/2gtGdZx
About the author

Donald H Taylor is the chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute and a regular blogger for TJ follow him at @DonaldHTaylor and each month in TJ magazine. This opinion first appeared in the January edition of TJ.

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