Former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer has done a good work of public service by making freely available a 140-page digest of current USA budget and demographic data. He did so because, like millions of other citizens, he could not find that data years ago when he made a search for it.
His response was to create the website USAFacts.org to make the data easier to find. Users can search by specific data that interests them, or they can do as I did and download all of the current data in PDF format.
Not everyone believes that Ballmer’s project will do much good. Andrew Cunningham, over at Ars Technica, sits firmly in the camp that believes “facts don’t change people’s minds.” Those who believe that way usually cite, as Cunningham does, psychological studies which do suggest that, when confronted by facts, people do tend to stick to the facts and the mere notions they had received before.
My response to Cunningham’s argument, however, is to disagree with it, mostly because those studies measure short-term views, not long-term thinking. I disagree with it also because, over the long term to which I refer, changes in our thinking as a whole do occur, and they occur because people do, finally, accept the truth of a set of proffered conditions.
How many examples would you care for me to cite? Every major step in human advancement has come because those who had once opposed the facts eventually yielded to them: the operation of our solar system, the flatness of the earth, smallpox vaccinations, evolution, segregation laws: the facts that gave us the truth about each of these propositions were deeply opposed by millions of people until the weight of the factual evidence became so overwhelming that the verifiable truth could no longer be ignored. Facts do change people’s minds, but it takes time for them to do so, and resistance to those facts will always be offered. Resistance does not invalidate those facts. Confirmed scientific fact is true whether one believes in it or not.
Cunningham is, I believe, one of those millions of distressed millennials who, because half the electorate did not accept his set of facts in the last Presidential election (the set of facts that supported the nomination of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders), has given up on the use of facts at all. I hope I am wrong in that belief. To give up on the effort to accumulate facts and to broadcast their meaning through public channels and debate is an act of intellectual suicide. We can afford a few intellectual suicides among individuals (good-bye, Bill O’Reilly; farewell, Keith Olbermann), but we dare not take that course as a part of humanity as a whole. And we haven’t. Billions of people the world over still rely on facts to get them through their days, and they are open to the acceptance of new facts as those come in. Many of those people–in Europe, in China, and in India, to name only three large places–have a much firmer grasp on the facts than we do in every field I could name. Ballmer’s website is a small but worthy effort to foster a more informed and enlightened American public. I hope you’ll take the time to study at least a little of the data he has collected for any field of government that interests you.
[Postscript on paragraphs three and four above: the main reason people are not immediately convinced by the “facts” of a case is “facts” often stand as the accumulated data related to a set of conditions. The data may react to those conditions and it is the result of the reaction that persuades people, not the facts themselves. Yet, the facts have to be there, and we have to keep searching for them, or the reaction won’t happen. For example, in the eighteenth century, Edward Jenner could explain the effects of his smallpox vaccine until he was blue in the face (and he did), but it was not until people actually saw their children and their neighbors recover from the disease that they accepted the facts that lay behind his treatment.]