“People that say that facts are facts — they’re not really facts . . . there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd . . . are truth.” Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump surrogate.
Last month, I was mildly disturbed to learn from the media that my profession of auditing, as well as the professions of science and journalism and medicine and to some degree law, have all been rendered irrelevant by a society that has elected to disregard fact and truths that emanate from facts, and embrace opinions posing as truths and rooted in thin air, grown in the hothouse of anger and ignorance.
Such was the result of the election postmortem in which the Forces of Trump declared that facts no longer matter. It’s what people choose to believe, by whatever means they come to their beliefs, dubious or otherwise. You have to give them their due; their election results have validated their hypothesis, at least in the short-term.
But in the short or long-term, ‘truths’ must ultimately reconcile with reality, or they are not true. Reality trumps belief.
I’m not worried about job security. But my job and those of my colleagues in various organizations and capacities become more difficult when we operate in a world where our stakeholders demand the facts they want to hear to comport with the beliefs they cherish, rather than the facts they need to know in order to define the truths that will sustain them.
My profession of auditing is about reconciling ‘truths’ as have been reported in financial statements to supporting facts, and reconciling those facts with reality. Reality is the key here. It is immutable. It can be ignored for only so long, but eventually, it dominates. See sub-prime mortgages, LIBOR, pension plan assumption of returns s on investment versus realized returns, unemployment statistics versus household income, the Boomer generation’s retirement aspirations versus asset accumulation, military budget versus military power effectively and conclusively applied, health spending versus health outcomes.
Let’s do a brief overview of the information ecosystem as it has evolved with human-kind. In the beginning, all that humans needed to know confronted them directly and often overtly without any subtlety or obfuscation of intent: hunger, climate, illness and injury, bigger predators, or more aggressive predators of kind from two caves down the road. Threats were immediate; responses were immediate or irrelevant; outcomes were immediately determinable and of little interest to anyone but the subject and his immediate dependents.
But we evolved, dare I use that term. We learned from experiences that informed our understanding of our environment, limited as it was, and we explored options. Our experience became intelligence, accumulated information that we could draw upon with the same utility as stone tools. Intelligence gradually replaced emotion as our considered response to events that confronted us. And as intelligence grew, we concluded that we could control events to our preferences rather than be at their mercy.
Eventually as we became more complex societies, probably due to facing more daunting challenges that could not be overcome alone, we determined the need to share information. Our languages and means of communicating evolved with the scope of our experience and the sphere of our social engagement.
Information at this stage became more symbolic as it was shared beyond the bounds of an individual’s personal experience or observation and confirmation. And the more symbolic it became, the greater risk that it diverged from the reality it represented. So if I had two shiny rocks in my hand, I knew I had two shiny rocks in my hand. But my shiny rocks might not be the same as the fella’s downstream, and without some reliable way of differentiating them and explicitly communicating what each of us has, we really haven’t communicated very much. Facts matter.
The rest, as they say, is history. Trusting that you can see where my primitive example is going, I won’t belabor it, but will get to the point.
Our sustainability as individuals and as a society is based on an informational paradigm that goes something like this:
Sustained existence depends on productive action against forces of decline and deterioration.
Productive action depends upon proven theories or ‘truths‘ of how the universe works (scientific law and principles, public policies, law, social customs, business models).
Truths depend upon a system of facts and logical relationships among those facts that inform actions which understand reality and reliably achieve intent.
Facts are symbolic representations of realities that we seek to understand and communicate in order to relate to them in intended ways.
Reality is immutable, irrefutable, and will ultimately trump (small t) all else.
But over time, a problem has developed with this paradigm. As our world has become more complex and our spheres of dependency have expanded, we have depended on ever-growing networks of intermediaries to give us the facts that we depend on for truth and guidance for actions that we hope to take for our sustainability, and hopefully our prosperity beyond the barest requirements of our existence. And to repeat, those facts are symbolic representations of reality, not to be confused with reality itself.
So what could possibly go wrong with this? First, we may not gather all the facts we need. Second, the facts we gather may be imperfect representations of the reality they purport to represent. Third, the intermediaries we rely on for facts may be incompetent or deceitful in providing information we can relay on. Finally, we may choose to exercise concerted ignorance to the facts that do not comport with our preferred beliefs or ‘truths’.
When facts are compromised or disregarded, our sustainability is at risk. When the truths on which we take action no longer comport with reality, there will be a collision between our expectations and reality, often referred to with the euphemism ‘unintended consequences’.
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We should distinguish between truths and opinions.
Opinions can exist free of facts, dangerous as that is. Truths cannot.
Truth: “the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality”
Opinion: “a: belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge b : a generally held view”
For example, I may have an opinion that my pension fund will be able to meet projected obligations based on an assumed rate of return of 8% over time, but if historical facts inform that I am only earning 3%, and known information does not provide credible basis for a prudent person to reasonably expect that 8% or better will be achievable in the foreseeable future, then my opinion on the assumed rate will not matter against the truth of realized (real) rates of return.
Facts do not always fully or accurately represent reality.
And Truths and Opinions are not always supported by complete and accurate facts.
But truths and opinion without complete and accurate facts will inevitably collide with Reality.
And Reality will always win.
I hope we have enjoyed this respite from facts in 2016. 2017 awaits, as does Reality.
In our next exciting episode: Escalating Ignorance in the Information Age