The problem with ‘facts’

Tim Harford has a terrific article in the current issue of the Financial Times magazine about the current ‘post-truth’ hoo-hah. He starts in an unusual place — the way the tobacco industry reacted to the research in the early 1950s that smoking caused lung cancer. Summary: the ‘facts’ didn’t carry the day — or at any rate took an awful long time to have a major impact.

“The facts about smoking — indisputable facts, from unquestionable sources — did not carry the day. The indisputable facts were disputed. The unquestionable sources were questioned. Facts, it turns out, are important, but facts are not enough to win this kind of argument.”

The piece leans heavily on the work of the Stanford historian Robert Proctor who studied the tobacco case closely and coined the term ‘agnotology’ — the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced. Proctor’s book (a collection of essays edited by him and Linda Schiebinger) is Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance

The instinctive response of those of us who care about the truth, says Harford, is “to double down on the facts”. Hence all the recent initiatives. But,

“will this sudden focus on facts actually lead to a more informed electorate, better decisions, a renewed respect for the truth? The history of tobacco suggests not. The link between cigarettes and cancer was supported by the world’s leading medical scientists and, in 1964, the US Surgeon General himself. The story was covered by well-trained journalists committed to the values of objectivity. Yet the tobacco industry lobbyists ran rings around them.”

How? By deploying several tactics:

  1. Appear to engage with the issue, promising high-quality research into the question, but (of course) not delivering.
  2. Complicate the question and sow doubt: lung cancer might have lots of causes.
  3. Undermine serious research and expertise. Autopsy reports were merely anecdotal, epidemiological research was merely statistical, animal studies were irrelevant to human physiology.
  4. Normalisation: the cancer story was old news. Couldn’t journalists find something interesting to write about?

So can we see these tactics returning in our contemporary politics? Answer: yes. Harford cites a famous 1969 internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company which contains the phrase: “doubt is our product”. Because “doubt is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means for establishing a controversy”.

He adds:

“Doubt is usually not hard to produce, and facts alone aren’t enough to dispel it. We should have learnt this lesson already; now we’re going to have to learn it all over again.”

So what’s wrong with the strategy of fighting lies with facts? Harford sees three.

  1. “A simple untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts simply by being easier to understand and remember.” e.g. the £350m for the NHS used by the Leave campaign in the Referendum debate. “When doubt prevails, people will often end up believing whatever sticks in the mind… Once we’ve hears an untrue claim, people can’t simply unhear it.” So the lie-and-rebuttal strategy won’t work There are even studies showing that “repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick”.

  2. Facts tend to be boring. This is one reason why fake news and untruths stick in the mind — they seem interesting or striking. (And we know from the Buzzfeed study that they were more shared in the 2016 campaign.) So “in the war of ideas, boredom and distraction are powerful weapons”. This is why (as Gary King and his colleagues found) the famous Chinese “50c army” don’t get into arguments of any kind. The strategic objective of the regimes to distract and redirect public attention”. Trump understood this intuitively. Harford claims that the tobacco industry also understood the value of distraction — so they funded interesting research in areas not at all related to lung cancer (like the work that won Stanley Prusiner a Nobel prize). Much more interesting than boring old stuff on lung cancer.

  3. The truth can feel threatening if accepting it means that you have to rethink your own behaviour.

So it’s a depressing picture. Facts are toothless, boring and dull — and they can provoke a defensive reaction in the people who most need to hear them.

Is there a solution?

Harford cites a study exploring the role of scientific curiosity (rather than scientific literacy). What the researchers found, Harford reports, is that “while politically motivated reasoning trumps scientific knowledge” it appears to be negated by scientific curiosity. Scientifically literate people are more likely to be polarised in their answers to politically-charged scientific questions. But scientifically curious people were not.


”We journalists and policy wonks can’t force anyone to pay attention to the facts. We have to find a way to make people want to seek them out. Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning bit it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find boring or confusing.”

So what we need, Harford thinks,

“is a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science — somebody who can create a sense of wonder and fascination… at the workings of our own civilisation: health, migration, finance, education and diplomacy”.

Someone like Tim Harford, for example?