Facts don’t speak for themselves

Facts don’t speak for themselves.

Whenever anyone says they are “fact-checking” something, don’t believe it’s some sort of litmus test on the validity of what someone says. It’s just another way of framing assertions about the world, and it’s usually devoid of serious critical thinking about the topics at hand.

For example, when Donald Trump said the inner cities have never been worse, it’s probably possible to show that’s not the case. Maybe the murder rate is lower than it was in 1961. Or the jobless rate is lower than it was in 1958. Or the poverty rate is lower than it was in 1979. Whatever.

Media outlets love to do this—point out little “facts” that show Donald Trump is wrong. “Fact-check.”

But when Trump says the inner cities have never been worse, he doesn’t mean literally worse on every measure. He doesn’t even mean worse on most measures. He means that from his perspective, and (he probably thinks) from the perspectives of many other people, the inner cities have never been worse. It’s all a matter of perspective.

If I say my life has never been worse, who is to tell me I’m wrong? If I feel that way, it’s true. My friends can say, “Look, you’re making more money now than you ever have.” Or “Your new baby is happy and healthy – things have to have been worse.” But those things are just facts. Facts alone carry no weight. Facts must be interpreted. That’s the point of debates.

The inner cities have never been worse. That’s not a statement of fact. It’s a statement of opinion. And everything we say is a statement of opinion. Even facts like “the earth is spherical” are meaningful only insofar as they inform some further claim we’re trying to make (what’s the point of just saying “the earth is spherical”?).

Trump’s opponents try to damage him by pointing out these little facts that he supposedly gets wrong. But the problem for her is that 1) Trump doesn’t care, and 2) neither do his supporters. What Trump and most people care about that the inner cities are horrible and hellish. That’s it. Pundits hold up little flashcards showing him to be wrong, but he’s only wrong insofar as people don’t agree with him. For the media to prove him “wrong” in this regard, they essentially need to convince people that inner cities are not horrible. That’s a tough battle to fight.

Some lessons here for you, as you try to win debates and negotiations in your own life and work:

  • Focus on what your opponents believe and frame facts in that way.
  • Pose your arguments not in terms of this-is-true-about-the-world-and-you-simply-cannot-not-believe-that, but rather in terms of this-is-how-I-and-others-feel. The latter is more powerful than the former.

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