Leveraging Our Differences

Fact-based arguments are overrated

Fact-based arguments

Anderson edited "Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework" (Springer, 2014), has taught at five universities and ran for the Democratic nomination for a Maryland congressional seat in 2016.

There are two problems with fact-based or data-based policy arguments. These problems are not insurmountable, but they are problems that must be addressed.

The first problem with any fact-based policy argument, whether it is a federal or state policy or a policy that is advanced in a company or a nonprofit organization, is that facts alone can never justify a change of action. Facts need values to move them in the same way that fuel cannot drive you to the hospital. You have to put the fuel into a car or a truck or a bus or a motorcycle.

Facts by themselves tell you how the world is. But if you want to change the world, or indeed some part of it, you need a reason or a set of reasons to justify and motivate you and others to change it. And those reasons must concern values of some kind -- justice or liberty or care or God's calling, whatever it is.

The same holds in court trials. A prosecutor cannot convict a defendant with facts alone, even eyewitness reports that the defendant shot someone in cold blood. The attorney, and the jury and the judge, must rely on laws (which are public values) that must be upheld. If you can prove that in fact someone broke the law, then your facts have done the job for you.

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Fact-based or data-based arguments frequently presume that the facts or data alone will guide us in our actions. But without a clear value or set of values to guide us, the facts are inert. The same facts could be used to guide us in different directions depending on the values that we embrace, values which themselves may need support.

If the facts show that excessive smoking can cause cancer, then it must be determined whether the country or a given state is more concerned about promoting the values of economic freedom and economic growth or the values of health and public safety. Indeed, we have not outlawed smoking in any state, but many restrictions have been imposed upon the tobacco industry.
The same value conflicts arise when we are addressing factual debates concerning the coronavirus and public and private decisions that are needed concerning vaccines and masks.

The second problem with fact-based or data-based arguments is that there are frequently rival accounts of what the facts or data actually are. In trials, for example, each side presents and defends their view of the facts. In discussions of poverty, conservative and liberal social scientists present and defend their views of the facts. For every Brookings Institution, there is a Heritage Foundation. In quantum mechanics physicists have a range of factual disagreements about the motion of subatomic particles.

Admittedly, some camps in politics present views of the facts that are so strained and indefensible that it can seem unjustified to call their facts "facts" rather than make-believe or plain lies. Yet in politics there is no tribunal of reality to disqualify arguments given in electoral or issue politics on the grounds that the facts they employ are bogus or fake. In the end, there are only the votes cast by politicians and the votes cast by citizens for politicians and referendums.

The upshot is that both problems with the facts must be addressed by all sides. Having a fact-based argument in itself is insufficient because facts alone don't prove anything or guide any actions. Even if you hitch your facts to values, even widely accepted values, you still must confront others who dispute your account of the facts.

In short, wielding well-justified facts is always a good thing in moral arguments, in political arguments, and in organizational arguments. But having good facts is nothing to boast about. You must defend them vigorously and you must drive them with values.

As Democrats and Republicans continue to struggle over how to address child care, health care, universal pre-K, climate change, and paid parental leave in the social services bill, it is critical for the public to understand that strong arguments for new policies require a combination of convincing accounts of the facts and convincing accounts of the values.