Just the Facts, Ma’am

As Spirited Reasoners, we want our information raw and unvarnished, so we can evaluate it ourselves.  We don’t need someone else’s spin.  So why is it, then, that it is not just other people who put their spins on things?  Why is it that we insist on putting our own spin on the “facts” we propose?

Perhaps it is our fascination with courtroom litigation that has allowed us to fuzz the distinction between advocacy and reason.  I practiced corporate law for nearly fifteen years before opening my own solo office in what seems like a past life.  At the time, I felt that I had not had sufficient courtroom practice to serve my clients successfully as a litigator.  Therefore, prior to engaging in courtroom litigation, I completed a week-long program offered by the Washington State Bar Association for beginning litigators.  I recall the opinion of the instructors in that program to the effect that juries are more likely to be impressed with facts expressed in a clinical fashion rather than opinions expressed in an emotional fashion.  I recall this being exactly the opposite of what I expected, and exactly the opposite of the manner in which attorneys are most often portrayed in the movies or on television.

I hope my instructors in that course were correct.  And I hope they would still be correct if they were teaching that class today.  I wonder, however, about the correctness of their assessment whenever I observe the behavior of our political parties or the apparent effectiveness of  vapid negative advertising.  Doesn’t it seem as if we have digressed as a society to the point where emotional arguments are more effective than those based upon reason and facts?

As a child, I recall the (then) famous line of Sergeant Joe Friday in the television show. Dragnet.  Sergeant Friday would sometimes encounter a witness whose hysterical recounting of an experience would evoke his classic response:  “Just the facts, ma’am.  Just the facts.”  Followers of that show admired that sort of no-nonsense approach to the search for truth.  They understood that our emotions (and biases) often hide or color the objective facts.

I believe Spirited Reasoners should be satisfied with an approach no less objective in today’s political environment, where tweets, counter-tweets, emotion, and noise have come to replace rational debate based upon factual evidence.  We should look carefully at the relevant facts surrounding each issue.  And when the facts are insufficient to form rational conclusions, we can state that conclusions are not yet warranted because our investigation is incomplete.  This type of approach requires discipline, but we can become capable of that level of discipline if we are not capable already.  Education in the proper exercise of critical reasoning skills is available in many universities, but is required in too few universities.  It needs to be expanded as a required course of learning in our grade schools and high schools.  The survival of our civilization may depend on it.


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