Friday, March 21, 2008

Facts matter   posted by Razib @ 3/21/2008 04:24:00 PM

Over at my other blog I flogged Jamie Kirchick somewhat for what seemed to me a pretty obvious misrepresentation of basic facts. You might think these "gotchas" are picayune, but I don't think they are at all. Do you remember back in 2002 when Colin Powell misspoke about the "Sunni majority" of Iraq? These are not easy slip ups to make if you have a good model in your head for the situation on the ground in far off lands, rather, they indicate a thin network of contingent data. Scratching below the surface of the CIA Factbook is important. Knowing that 40% of Yemenis are Shia is an important fact, but knowing that most of these 40% are Zaidis, stereotypically the "most Sunni" of the modern Shia adds more nuance. Many of the rest are Ismaili, who are the "least Sunni." The smallest of the Shia groups are Twelver Shias. This is the largest of the Shia sects, and probably the most typical one in terms of compromising between Ismaili distinctiveness and Zaidi banality. It is the group dominant in Iran, the Gulf and Lebanon. Does this matter? If you think geopolitically in terms of the Shia Crescent, it does. Does thinking geo-politically matter? I'll leave that up to you.
When we're talking about science there's a lot of precise and fixed background information we're working with. Not only are there facts, there are strong theoretical frameworks which give you "free information" and that you can use in your heuristics. Unfortunately there aren't that many robust theoretical frameworks on the scale of area studies. Facts matter because they're the only guides you have in making proximate decisions. Conclusions will differ between people because of different interests and alternative normative frames, but an agreemant on known background facts is essential for elevating the level of discussion above that of two blind people discussing the merits of Monet vs. Picasso (no offense to the blind readers of this weblog!). I don't really mind differences of conclusion based on varied norms or self-interest; but the casual pig-ignorance of very smart people on topics which they feel qualified to offer an opinion on irritates me because mitigation of a dearth of facts is relatively easy if you have the marginal time. My own experience is that the denser the network of facts the easier retention becomes. At a particular density threshold I suspect there is an increase of the marginal value of the fact in terms of discerning patterns and trends, though diminishing returns kicks in once we've attained all the perceptual power the human mind can expect.

Many times I've criticized people for using a very weak analogy, or relying on fallacious background facts. These are critiques of process, and I can tell people get frustrated by this, they want to get to the conclusions and argue over the ends instead of the means. I think this is totally wrong-headed; imagine if someone wanted to discuss particle physics without taking the prerequisite mathematical & science courses (you encounter such retards regularly actually). Personally I would much rather listen to a well argued case or position at variance with my own than a weak case which buttressed a personally held opinion (my favorite form of masturbation is sexual). It is ultimately a game where we need to look beyond individual battles, and focus on the war. The long forever war to understand the world around us predicated on good faith and particular principles which keep the ecology relatively clean. For an appropriate equilibrium to be maintained cheaters must be punished lest they invade the ecosystem.