11.25.2013

Absolutely


http://www.fatherjames.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/truth-2.jpgWhat I first learned at Fels and have had reinforced for me in my consulting job since then is that there is no such thing as purely apolitical analysis in the worlds in which I circulate.  Maybe in science, engineering, or health care, there is a right answer and a wrong answer, and all one needs to do is be smart enough to get to the right answer, and then the whole world will gladly accept your work as true and right. 

But in the public arena, the numbers and the facts are explored, crunched, and presented in a certain context.  There is no escaping that context, because there is no pure right answer or wrong answer, simply opinions and perspectives and pros and cons.

On the one hand, this is deeply troubling to me.  On a moral level, I believe in absolute truths.  And, on an intellectual level, I believe in the power of data to tell the truth.  It is unnerving that no one cares what the right answer really is, and is willing to discard facts if they don't support their position.

On the other hand, this is deeply intuitive for me.  I believe that there are two sides to every story, and that there are merits to both sides.  And, I believe that the power of narrative trumps the power of numbers, in that what people really want to know at the end of the day is not whether 2 + 2 is 4 but rather something that can be boiled down to them in the form of an anecdote or life example.

I grew up being really good at math, so much so that I entered in and won many math competitions.  In that world, the problem at hand was known, the data points handled to me on a platter, and the task simply to determine the right way to the right answer.  For many people, this is how the whole world should work.

But it's not.  We dismiss things that have been proven when they don't fit our preconceived notions of what we imagine to be so obviously true that to think otherwise is blasphemous.  Consider how Ray LaHood, US Transportation Secretary, reacted when presented with evidence that child car seats are unnecessary after a certain age, or how Mitt Romney was castigated for suggesting that smaller class size wasn't the best way forward for struggling schools.  There was a little bit of a blip around President Obama's proposal for universal pre-K - little bit because the few who suggested this a poor way forward were roundly mocked, even though more and more evidence is piling up to support that position

What's a citizen and a consultant like me to do?  Do we no longer care about rigorous and fact-based analysis because no one cares what the right answer is anymore?  Is changing the world no longer about what's real and is rather all about having the most tightly crafted message and most carefully polished campaign?  To put a religious spin on things, are we truly in a post-modern era in which there is no such thing as absolute truth, only gradients of beliefs different groups hold to at varying levels?  And, if this is true, is this a historically awful reality or is it all really so bad?

I don't know.  (I say this a lot at work, so I've gotten comfortable with the phrase.)  Over time, I do think that the right way wins out, even if it is mocked at the time.  (For example, care to wager who will have more wins over the next five years: the low-budget Moneyball A's with their advanced metrics and counter-intuitive methods, or the high-spending Phillies, who rely on scouts and on big contracts to veterans on the decline?)  I also think that what you really want is depth of analysis AND a powerful narrative message, and that you're not in a good place if you only have one or the other, analysis alone being unconnected and unpersuasive and messaging alone being unmoored and flawed.  That's how I'm going forward.


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