The Ruse of Experts, Data and Facts

In today’s politics we are deluged by experts with data and facts. Experts come in all political persuasions and positions. There’s oh, I don’t know, a few thousand experts that seem to show up everywhere. There’s the think tanks, of course. And government agencies certainly. Also policy groups and professors and councils of these and those experts, like “The Council of Economic Advisers.” There’s authors who write books by the score. Not to mention the pundits who give us their opinions like James Carville and Gary Wills. So many experts that it would take a telephone book to list them all. But, too, there’s probably a rough finite number to them. Like I said, it’s about just a few thousand, let’s say, 10,000.

These experts all have their political positions – there’s left leaning and right leaning and centrist and center right and left center and probably right up the middle, too. There’s also the “non-partisan” or “bipartisan” groups. Recently there was a “no party” group of political experts. All these experts constantly tell us their opinion on the matters of the day. If there’s nothing important, they make something up, I think. So, for every expert one could call up on your side, I could of course call up an expert on my side. And we’ll have dueling experts. Who’s right? Why, my expert of course, without a doubt. Right?

Experts come with data. Reams of the stuff. Such a plethora of numbers and quantifying and measurements of the public pulse and condition has never drowned a society like ours. Oh, not just America, and perhaps even less here than in Europe. Europe has it’s swarm of experts. Often ours reference or get together with theirs to share their findings – to show that things are the same or different on either side of the Atlantic. Experts abound in Asia too, and the more they join the modern world the more experts show up. Something about the modern world and experts I think.

The data they come with is gathered by them, they say, with great precision and thought and their data is solid. Even if the other expert’s data contradicts the first set of experts, the reality is, both sets of data are exactly, always, apparently, just what we need to make decisions. For instance, suppose Romney had one – he’d have come into the White House with his own experts, of course, and all Obama’s experts would be gone – at least from the White House. When not in our House, they’re in their house and the house that modern government built. They never seem to retire or go home or on to productive pursuits. None seems to go to art or music, or any other talent. None seems to have a hobby they might pursue after they leave power. No, they move their office over a few blocks and are now lobbyists because they know the halls of power. Louis XIV had the same thing in Versailles. This or that noble expert was out of favor, so he just moved down the hall, or perhaps went home to his chateau to brood on getting back into the halls of power.

The experts of late also include Hollywood stars and entertainers, and many are called into Congress and committees and think tanks and talk shows to give their well considered expert opinion gained in between parties of 1%ers and entertainment making and picking out a wardrobe that might get them on the cover of People magazine. Yes, they are experts. Lady Gaga is an expert, I’m told, on gay issues. I guess, beats me. What does she know? Maybe she has some data.

The data, oh, yes, reams of the stuff – and everyone is quite sure they have it, in whatever quantity they need to make a policy – only – they don’t. They can’t. For data is misleading always. First, there’s the way it’s gathered. Any two similar studies will come up with different data if done by different people in different places at different times. That’s how different experts come up with different data on the same issue. Say Cato v Brookings – these two institutes, invariably variably described as “right” or “left” or “conservative” or “liberal” or nonpartisan and always above board, for the good of the nation, of course. Yet, they gather data on the same subject – say, Poor People. Yes, they probe deep the depths of poorness. The data is legion – and not the same. Why? How could it be? Isn’t the “fact” of poorness the same for everyone? That is – an oak tree is an oak tree – and if Cato and Brookings go to the oak they will both come back with a data set that’s the same, yes? No. Apparently they will come back one measuring the bark and roots, another the sap and leaves – and thus, presto, two different oak trees and now we must make a policy decision about oaks.

So, we go look at the poor – and the word itself seems to be malleable. Are they urban poor or rural poor? Are they poor in goods or cash? The poor are said to be both hungry and overweight. The poor are said to have nothing but also the latest gizmos. I live in what could be characterized as a “lower income” apartment complex – certainly it’s one of the least expensive nice properties I could find – and the numbers of satellite dishes hanging around is amazing. Dozens of ’em. And everyone seems to have a cell phone. The elderly look well cared for, healthy even, with walkers and wheel chairs and I see people with clip boards and packages making regular round robin visits. I see that all the grossly obese have wheel chairs, often with quite some speed – I must scurry out of the way. Still, even the president just said the poor are without. Without what? A new Ferrari? The parking lot is filled with late model cars – the only beat up jalopies seem to be either work-horse vans or classics to be restored. Poverty? It’s so richly middle class, calm and nice that I wonder what the president is talking about.

Where are these ghettos filled with poverty of such dimensions that urgent government action is needed? Beats me. The inner city, I guess. I live in a city of a million people without an inner city I guess. Maybe there is one. I’m new here, I haven’t found it. I’m sure though, there are experts who can tell me right where it is, right down to the zip code. But rarely do I see the fact mentioned that the “poor” of today are simply not the same folks as they were even just 20 years ago. That most of the poor of then are now moved up, and the new poor are poor for different reasons. I would suppose that the poor could be broken down into subgroups – you know, temporary poor, permanent poor, male and female poor, poor marrieds, poor unmarrieds, poor old and poor young. Each for a different reason. Even poor because of medical issues, psychological issues. Well, we certainly need a program to take care of the poor, yes? Which poor and which program seems to get lost in the data.

Meanwhile, data on climate – oh yes, we are all of a sudden filled with data on climate. A generation ago we had no satellites, so what we are observing now today, and can pour out data on, might well be exactly what was there two generations ago. We have no clue to what we previously the climate. Oh, we can guess. But that’s not data. And an ice core or two doesn’t suffice for the world. And every time someone looks at a different ice core the theory is adjusted, the data don’t line up – they’re not the same sets of Facts – oddly enough. When several teams of experts examine different cores and come to different conclusions then the data and the facts are not really known, yes? Oh, sure, “some data” is known – I do not deny that “Some data” we know. But to say this is the end of the data trail is nuts.

Then too there’s data on the economy. That issued the banks and the government is always data that is squeezed into sausage, seasonably adjusted and weighted for this and that probability – by the time you have to adjust your data to get a truer picture – your picture is not data – it’s a nice picture, art even. But it’s not a fact. A platypus is a platypus – that’s a fact. But don’t come and tell me you have to take the bill of the beast to make it one. And that’s what adjusting, weighting, seasonably tweaking the data is – the reordering of facts that are found to be facts that are liked. Where’s the data you started with? Now that would be data. If you have to adjust it, you either didn’t do it right, or you’re admitting that the data you wish can’t be procured – so you’re guessing. Sometimes guessing is good, even necessary, or all that one can do – but at least admit that you’re guessing.

Indeed, that’s the problem with data – it comes with so many provisos – and “facts” too – oh, facts are just floating around the air to be plucked and used as required. Don’t like a fact? Don’t use it in your argument. Hell, to hear some people say it, you’re not allowed to use an inconvenient fact. Why, yes, even liberals do this – why, I hear they made a movie about inconvenient facts, yes? Yet, they claim they are immune to the possibility of inconvenient facts against their view – for those facts come from the right.

Yes, the left and the right, the media and the blogs, everyone is arguing over the facts and the data and presenting theirs and dismissing the others. Which shows, beyond doubt – that neither one has the whole story. They both are somehow, for some purpose excluding facts and data they don’t like, so they can get what they want. I often don’t know what they want – but the misuse of facts – or, the failure to admit you don’t have all the facts is rampant in our society. It’s bizarre. At least admit you don’t know. But, now, that would tarnish the expertness of the experts. Experts are supposed to know stuff now. Though some ancient philosopher or two said that the more he knows the more he realizes he doesn’t know. But that sage advice is long on the wayside. No, we got experts with a fact. And that’s that.

And the point to all this is – whenever you see a fact or data immediately question it. To not question it is folly. To simply accept some expert on TV or radio or the internet or print is ludicrous. These experts are no more expert than anyone else who wanders around wondering about the things of our world. Sure, they might know a bit more on the subject – but they can’t know it all. And no matter how hard they might try the reality is is that there are some facts unknowable yet, there’s some data hidden and not seen, there’s some data not sought in the big picture you’re trying to paint, and many facts and data are counter-intuitive to what is presupposed.

A book could be written on the facts and data that were claimed to be fact and data and then shown to be wrong. Why anyone thinks the new set, the current set, is somehow immune from questioning is beyond me. All facts and data are suspect, because we are not perfect omniscient info-gathering machines. We are limited in what we can know, or what we know at the moment.

Sure, quote me a fact or some data, but don’t swear to it and then tell me that no other facts or data are to be considered. Which is something I’ve heard of late, since the reelection. It’s as if, that’s it, progress has finally reached the end and we shall go no further. It’s absurd.  

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