Daniel Patrick Moynihan is thought to have first uttered the famous line: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This is a post about the need for facts to be assembled without a point of view.
One of the attributes of academia that, in my opinion, ensures its continuity is a sharp separation between the viewpoint of the human beings involved in assembling facts and the outcome of the fact-seeking.
Now, before I am attacked by the constructionist side of my brain: I am fully aware of how the cultures of disciplines act as a lens that focuses on some facts more than others. I accept that the dominant conceptual framework of a field can blind one to facts that contradict well-honed assumptions. I know how difficult it is for a lone critic to have impact on the accepted paradigm.
However, I also know how every field thirsts for new ideas, new approaches, new facts that extend current understanding. Each field rewards the new. All scholars believe their job is to get closer to a perfect understanding. Each work attempts to add the new. In addition, the dialectic among alternative conclusions, active peer review, and field debate are also deeply embedded in most academic fields. I am certain of nothing more than that we are critical of others’ work. We are suspicious of work that appears to have been too heavily manipulated by the author’s point of view. We are suspicious of over-stating or over-interpreting. Reputations depend on letting the material guide the outcome, not the predispositions of the scholar. The “facts” produced by the research must stand on their own.
At the societal level, democracies depend on a continual flow of facts about their current status. What portion of the population is employed for pay? What is the income distribution across households? What subgroups suffer health conditions at higher rates? How is the price of everyday necessities changing? What portion of the population is victimized by criminal acts? On this score, most modern nation states have constructed a similar divide between the units that collect information for common good uses and those in control of the reins of government. Most don’t let the political ideology of the current elected leadership affect the production of such information. The collection of those facts should be a dispassionate one.
These numbers are useful to a society only if they are credible to large portions of the populace. Credibility has both technical and socio-emotional features. For the large portions of the population, however, the technical aspects of such information are unknown or not easily understood. Hence, trust is the basis of credibility. Without trust in the authoring organization, these numbers have little value in a democracy. One source of trust is the separation of the production of statistical information from political interference.
Hence, just as in the academy, the collection of facts at a nation-state level must be driven by a “disinterested” search for the truth. “Disinterested” here means that investigator is indifferent to the outcome of the fact gathering. Just as in academic research, the continuous search for a better approximation to truth is the motivation of the author.
Societies that lose the ability to collect information in such a manner risk creating a citizenry that loses trust in the information itself. Without trusted information, the chances of an informed citizenry guiding the democracy are limited.