On Fake News, Narrative, Science, and Truth

Fake news and the demise of truth is one of the leading news stories of 2017. The front cover of Time magazine last month asked: Is Truth Dead?  Recently the value of statements made by politicians seems not to lie so much in whether they are true, but in the fraction of voters that will believe them to be true.  This is a dangerous development in our country, and as a friend commented to me recently, it seems that civilization itself is fraying around the edges.

But I want to consider in this new world of Fake News and Alternative Facts, that the biggest issue may not be the increasing presence of false narratives in social media, but rather in the abuse of true narratives.

In both media and academia, Narrative and Science are constantly vying in our minds to help us make sense of the world, to understand what is true.  Narrative is far more adaptable to subjective experience.  Science is good at producing more objective and generalized theories and empirical facts, but what is true to the individual me is largely going to be defined by my interaction with the world.  The fact that NAFTA has almost certainly had a net neutral impact on total U.S. employment and probably increased wages slightly in some industries is irrelevant to a white, middle-aged male who has had his job moved to Mexico.  The airtight logical proof and most carefully executed empirical study are irrelevant; the truth to him is that NAFTA is a job killer.  This contemporary view of truth fits neatly into our post-modern culture, which relegates truth to individual experience.  In the end, truth is all about my perception of it.  Truth to me is all about me and my story.

Science is powerful, but Narrative, whether based on truth or falsehood, is even more powerful in shaping opinion and spurring human action, more powerful than even the best scientific data in influencing how people think, how they vote, and how they use their money.  As I describe in more detail in a post for the World Bank impact blog, this has been demonstrated by psychologist Paul Slovic in a series of papers (200720082010), most famously in an experiment with Save the Children, in which about half of subjects received a message containing factual information on poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, while the other half relayed the tragic narrative of one impoverished girl in Mali.  Contribution rates were more than twice as high among the subjects given the narrative.

Narrative is a powerful weapon, used in roughly equal measure by those on the right, the left, and sometimes in between, to win the hearts and minds of people toward a viewpoint or cause.  I will give two examples both related to globalization, immigration and foreign investment.

At a campaign speech in Kinston, North Carolina, then-candidate Donald Trump recounted the following:

In January of last year, Grant Ronnebeck, 21 years old, magnificent young man, was working at a convenience store in Mesa, Arizona when he was viciously murdered in cold blood, shot point blank by an illegal immigrant with a long and vicious criminal record. People said please don’t let him into society. They did, and he killed Grant violently.”

There is little reason to doubt that this anecdote is true and a horrible tragedy. Nevertheless, the anecdote is grossly misleading in that it sharply conflicts with the broader facts—from a scientifically based data collection process—that crime rates are substantially lower for immigrants than non-immigrants.  And they are not just a little lower, they are a lot lower. The U.S. Census 2010 American Community Survey, for example, finds incarceration rates of non-immigrant males to be 3.3 percent; for immigrant males, the rate is less than half, 1.6 percent.  Among the lesser-educated population in the U.S., the incarceration rate among native-born men is 10.7 percent according to the U.S. Census.  For Mexican men in the U.S. it is 2.8 percent.  Yet the President’s narrative of a single incident has trumped (pun intended) what good data tells us about the truth regarding the relative prevalence of immigrant and non-immigrant crime.

Equally disturbing is how the power of narrative is harnessed by those on the left, even to ignore or override the results of more careful research.  Foreign investment in developing countries, for example, has been generally found to exhibit positive economic impacts on local economies, although the degree and nature of these impacts represent a continued and thoughtful area of serious investigation.  But grisly narratives of abuses in sweatshops have been used to advance the idea that foreign investment in developing countries generally has harmful effects on the local population, and even that foreign investment represents part of a nefarious global conspiracy against the global poor.  (A much more serious analysis of the impact of sweatshops can be seen in the recent NY Times piece by Chris Blattman and Stefan Dercon.) Those on the left who disparage the misleading narratives of the right need to listen to their own critiques.  While individual experiences and anecdotes are important, it is foolish to formulate policy by them.

The power of narrative is accentuated by what psychologists call confirmation bias.  Human beings are much more likely to believe a story if it fits a person’s preconceived idea about how the world works.  Therefore even a false narrative (fake news) is likely to be adopted as a personal truth by someone on the hard right or hard left who has a definitive and calcified worldview.  So as social and political polarization increase in our country, fake news is much more likely to become real news to an increasing number of people.

Good science, like good religion, are about the same thing, humbly seeking, discovering, and understanding Truth. Bad science and bad religion are also about the same thing, curating a set of carefully selected facts and narratives that create a reality consistent with how we wish to view the world.

Every semester that I teach graduate econometrics at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit Catholic university, I start with a lecture about Truth.  You cannot be a good scientist unless you love Truth.  To be a good scientist, your love of Truth must be greater than your love of making new discoveries, publishing research articles, or any other goal of your research.

Science is about discovering the nature of those Truths out there that indeed exist.  In most scientific fields like my own, it is about discovering and utilizing scientific tools to obtain estimates of the Truth that are unbiased and as precise as possible. Somewhere out there, there does exist an average effect of immigration on non-immigrant Americans.  There does exist an average impact of foreign investment on people in developing countries.  There does exist an impact of human activity on global climate change.

The irony of scientific estimations of these phenomena is that, while good studies use techniques that produce an unbiased estimate of the effect of A on B, statistically speaking these estimates are virtually always wrong.  But if they are unbiased, with an increasingly large sample size, the scientific estimate will converge closer and closer to the Truth about the relationship.

But the irony is that while the best scientific analysis of data is almost never true in the strict sense, it typically offers a more meaningful understanding of the world than the individual narrative, which may be 100 percent true, but a misleading outlier.   This is one reason why some have argued that watching the news actually makes people dumber.  It is because to attract viewers, the news focuses on outliers, strange happenings, and outlandish events, because this is what makes these things, well…news.  And while most of these accounts aren’t rightly put into the category of fake news, they also deceive us in our understanding of the world, which is better captured by reports of statistical averages.  However, because reports of statistical averages are boring compared to outlandish stories and events, the latter make up the greater fraction of our news.

Unfortunately, a focus on the personal narrative, the anecdote, the outlandish, and the outlier have also attached deep roots into academia, principally although not exclusively, in the soft social sciences. I refer to those academics in colleges of Arts & Sciences across the country whose work is neither art nor science.  It is an academic effort that is not primarily directed to understanding what is true, but instead devotes itself to marshaling a series of well-articulated anecdotes in support of a foregone conclusion that is consistent with the researcher’s social and political views.  No better than some of today’s politicians, these academics appear to have listened carefully to their 9th grade English teacher, who told them to write their papers with a thesis sentence and three “real good” supporting statements.  For 9th grade this is fine; the problem is an inability to move past this.

The crafting of carefully selected anecdotes into a narrative of how the world works is scorned by serious researchers, but it can powerfully influence the thinking of students, people on social media, and even some in the real media.  There is a fine line, or perhaps no line at all, between this kind of biased academic work and narratives carefully culled by politicians to stir up voters and win votes.

Fake news and bogus narratives are bad, but often can be easy to disprove.  It may be the deceptive use of true ones we should worry about more.

Follow AcrossTwoWorlds on Twitter @BruceWydick.

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