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Facts are never wrong. However, they are always incomplete. Without context, facts mean nothing. For that reason, we must be careful when we are a consumer of facts.

If you have ever seen a debate on television or the internet, you quickly realize that both sides are usually “informed.” They always have their own set of lock-down irrefutable facts that support what they are saying. Yet when the facts start flying, they generate a lot of heat and very little light.

That doesn’t mean we can ignore the facts. We need to respect them, not ignore them. What does it mean to respect the facts? There are three things we need to do to make sure we get our facts straight.

Always Seek Context

It is important that we know the context. Let me give you an example. Ronald Reagan is often quoted as saying “Facts are stupid things.” Did he say that? Yes, he did. It is an absolute fact that Ronald Reagan said “Facts are stupid things.” That fact taken by itself doesn’t present Reagan in a very positive light. He didn’t like facts.

Actually, what happened was Reagan made a slip of the tongue. Several times in a speech, he used a quote of John Adams that said, “Facts are stubborn things.” One time through, he accidentally said stupid in place of stubborn and then he immediately corrected himself. The full quote went like this. “Facts are stupid things – stubborn things, should I say. [Laughter].” The stubborn fact about the stupid fact that Reagan said that facts are stupid is the stubborn fact that Reagan clearly meant that facts are stubborn and not stupid.

Determine Relevance

All facts are true but not all facts are relevant. Part of the job of using facts is trying to figure out which ones really make a difference on the issue at hand. Now obviously, relevance is in the eye of the beholder. Which facts are relevant? The ones that support my position. Which facts are irrelevant? The ones that undermine my position. That is an awful way to determine relevance.

The problem is that we are naturally drawn to the facts that support our case. We can spot a supporting fact from a mile away but we seldom see the counterarguments staring us in the face. People who take a reasoned, balanced approach to issues actually force themselves to seek out the facts that could be a problem for what they believe.

Don’t Let Facts Make Us Prideful

The more certain we are that we have all the best facts, the less seriously we will do our homework. We may think that our position is rock solid. It also may give us less respect for people who disagree with us.

A question I often asked my kids was this. “What is the best argument against your position” I would tell them that, if they can’t effectively argue against a position, they are not prepared to argue for it. We can’t form an opinion and then let that opinions blind us to relevant facts. If we are proud, it shouldn’t be because we know all of the facts on one side of the issue. It should be because we have actually looked at both sides and then come to a conclusion.

Finding All the Relevant Facts

The best businesspeople I know are quick to listen to those who disagree with them. They may form an opinion but they have their eyes wide open looking for facts that would disagree with their assessment. When the money is on the line, they are more interested in finding the facts than protecting their opinions.

It may be painful when fresh facts prove us wrong. But if we listen to the facts anyway, they can save us from greater folly down the road. An Emmerson quote I often give to my students is that, “Nature delights in punishing stupid people.” When I let my foregone opinions blind me to relevant facts or embrace irrelevant ones, nature has a delightful time.

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Category: , , Friday, January 27, 2017

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