Clearly, the debate over fake news and alternative facts is not new. More than a century ago, Mark Twain famously said, "There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics." It's good to remember this as we sink to accepting only facts and information that support our own view. The world of social media, where news can be contrived and published for mass consumption without any basis in reality, simply adds new fuel to the age-old fire. Unfortunately, this seems to incite chaos and promotes our worst behavior.
Applied economists help governments, nonprofits and businesses compile and analyze data to support their decision-making. Our engagements are quite diverse--proposed legislation, industry impacts, urban development, new product lines and process re-engineering, to name a few. It's an interesting and growing field, but not always fun. I have lost friends and clients over the years because my research did not support their position, and I resisted revising my conclusion. Perhaps I took the quote from John 8:32 too literally when I read it etched in stone above Palmer Hall, the social sciences building on the Colorado College campus: "Ye shall seek the truth and the truth shall set you free." Over the years, I have come to realize we never really know the truth, but it's the seeking of truth with a sense of integrity that makes us free - even when the search creates personal turmoil.
The outright dismissal of facts and data by a growing number of people is disconcerting. It's one thing to dispute facts, and it's totally appropriate to challenge conclusions made from factual data, especially if the data is derived from modeling. But to routinely dismiss arguments as "alternative facts or phony science" is disingenuous and indicative of a weak counterargument or laziness. Accusations of partisanship can be equally dismissive, especially when the advisers have a long history of nonpartisan credibility. Groups like the Congressional Budget Office and the Colorado Legislative Council provide a great service to our legislators as well as the public. Using emotional, non-factual arguments is perfectly fine and often prevails over facts. Aristotle's modes of persuasion included ethos, pathos and logos. My profession is all about establishing credibility or ethos while putting forth analysis to derive logical insight (logos) for decision-making. Our clients must bring the emotional or pathos chord to the table...