Johan Fourie: Facts, not emotion should govern debate

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - OCTOBER 23: Students during a march to the Union Buildings on October 23, 2015 in Pretoria, South Africa. University student from around Gauteng and Limpopo, opposed to tuition fee increases, marched to the union Buildings where President Jacob Zuma was scheduled to meet with vice-chancellors and leaders of students councils to discuss the increments. (Photo by Gallo Images / Nicholas Rawhani)

One thread that runs through all the major events this year, from #FeesMustFall to Brexit to the US election, is that emotion trumps empirical truth, that feelings have conquered facts. We are living, it seems, in a post-empirical apocalypse.

Despite sound evidence that zero fees are an impossible request or that Brexit will hurt the poor, or that Trump can be dangerous, those making the decisions ignored the facts. The protests continued, Brexit happened and Trump won. Tired of the promises of the ‘establishment’ or the ‘elite’, the protagonists acted on their feelings, their emotions. Voters who favoured Brexit or Trump talk of ‘feeling’ excluded, frustrated for not being heard. Mention facts that oppose their views (eg. that Americans have never been this well off or that immigrants contribute significantly to the economy) and it is often dismissed as creations of the ‘mainstream media’ or ‘experts’. In South Africa, discussions of the university pass-through rate and budgets are met with sniggers of ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘white monopoly capital’. It’s as if the general mood is shouting: Don’t try to convince us with your fancy numbers, we’ll say and do what we like regardless.

Granted, this is an oversimplified interpretation of what were (and are) far more complex events. But my sense is that on both the left and the right, empiricism – the quest for evidence to support a hypothesis – is dying. And this scares me.

Let’s take another example: the demand for decolonised education. Let me be frank: there is a need to decolonise the curriculum. How is it possible that a student can graduate at a South African university with a Masters in Economics and not know about M-Pesa, or the economic consequences of slavery in Africa, or South African competition policy regulations? Curricula must be contextualised to the African situation.

But the thing is, students – even those vehemently demanding decolonised curricula – are often ignorant of their own continent, and its history. In a second-year class test earlier this year, a third of my students could not identify Botswana on a map. Seriously? Botswana? Decolonisation demands more empirics, not less.

Decolonisation done right can be a wonderful thing: using the best methodologies and techniques that science has to offer applied to African questions. I think of the wonderful work my colleague Nox Makunga is doing by using Khoisan knowledge to identify fynbos species that help with the treatment of cancer. Or the work of Servaas van der Berg and his team in identifying the binding constraints in South Africa’s schooling system. Or let me take my own area, African economic history: without statistics uncovered in colonial sources we would not know that wages in many African cities in the mid-twentieth century were higher than almost everywhere in Asia. Yes, Africans have not always been the poorest: it is a myth we have now overturned with empirical evidence.

Once we start unearthing verifiable facts, the world becomes slightly more understandable, and even predictable. Here’s another example from economic history. Nico Voigtlaender and Hans-Joachim Voth argue in a recent paper that Hitler’s popularity was a result of the construction of the Autobahn, Germany’s impressive highway system, after his election in 1933. Using newly collected data, they show that building highways was a major contributing factor in boosting support for the Nazi dictatorship. And this was not because the new construction projects employed a lot of people: instead, the highway project signalled ‘economic competence’ and an end to austerity measures, so that many Germans accredited the recovery to the Nazi dictatorship. They show, for example, that support for the Nazis increased particularly strongly in areas with greater radio availability, which was a major source of propaganda.

Empirics make the past understandable, but it is also a warning for today. One of the few programmes Trump has insisted on since his election is a focus on America’s crumbling infrastructure, particularly the highways. And we know his popularity is partly a consequence of his social media campaigns.

The only way our understanding of the world around improves is if we collect evidence – hard, empirical truths that can be verified and replicated by other scholars. That is the scientific approach. Without evidence, we are left with only conjectures and our feelings about those conjectures. And this is dangerous, because it means that only the feelings of those who are able to shout the loudest – the bullies – count.

Data science is not perfect. When data analysts make mistakes – like wrongly predicting Brexit and or Trump’s win – data is often dismissed as pure hocus pocus. The old joke goes: when a climatologist wrongly predicts the weather, she gets a stronger computer; when an economist wrongly predicts the economy, she gets fired. Data scientists should instead learn from their mistakes, improve their models and algorithms and continue to make progress in understanding the incredibly complex thing that is human behaviour.

To avoid a dictatorship of emotion, we need to keep a critical mindset. We need to question, investigate, think critically, and make sure we don’t just accept or retweet or repost statements without verifying they are, in fact, truths.

But more importantly, we need to equip our next generation with the skills to participate in the world of empirics, in the world of Big (and small) Data. We need to embrace statistics – and not only in the hard sciences. We especially need more and better statistics courses in the social sciences and humanities, where the actions of humans require us to be more careful in our predictions, but not less rigorous in our empirics. In all fields from psychology to history to political science, the benefits of a more statistical approach – sometimes called the digital humanities – is gaining ground.

This means that we need to encourage high school students to choose the more difficult mathematics. We need them to learn code, because they will need it for basically every degree that will be in demand in the next decade. More fundamentally, we need to give them access to an ever-expanding world of online education where they can learn these things easily and affordably.

To understand the complex world we live in, and make it better, we need empiricism to rise.

14 thoughts on “Johan Fourie: Facts, not emotion should govern debate

  1. These are wonderful ideas. However, the problem we have in South Africa is that the majority of the population has already been conditioned to act on their emotions rather than rationally. What I observe in South Africa is an inherited culture of victimhood. A victim’s actions provide enough reward to sustain the victim type of behaviour. This means that when a victim’s behaviour is rewarded, he will maintain the behaviour. These rewards may include the right to empathy and pity, the lack of responsibility and accountability, righteousness, or even the relief of being punished, which only affirms their victimhood.

    Victimhood is therefore not always based on the real situation in which the individual finds himself. Indeed, it can be an emotional response based purely on perceived injustices.

    The motivational factor associated with victimhood is external locus of control. It has been shown that students with external locus of control have a lower success rate in academics. Therefore it’s not just a question of simply pointing out the hard facts to these students. The facts are not as rewarding as the results they get from acting on their emotions.

  2. An easy read. Just one thing – when turning to empirical data and statistical data let’s make very sure that the data is verified by independent sources and not sources that have simply accessed the same data under scrutiny. Much of the hubris surrounding the US elections is not based on fact but on hearsay repeated as often as required to be accepted as fact. Classic Marxist methodology. In the South African context we must define what the de-colonized facts are such that those who shout the loudest and bully their way to acknowledgement are accorded no more air-time than those that provide a tested factual basis. I note that the article does not mention engineering and associated fields, maybe because such arenas already deal in facts, statistics and local constraints. It is indeed noted that it is in the fields of political and social sciences that much of the RSA hubris is concentrated. I wonder why?

  3. The problem is that the concepts being debated are not defined: they are themselves subjective. What is ‘decolonised’ education? What is ‘white monopoly capital’? The fact that these concepts mean different things to different people results in debate being controlled by emotion, and people debating around each other.

  4. You raise valid points regarding that one should use facts to make decisions, however this is obvious. However stating that Brexit and Trump’s win is based on people not taking facts into consideration is a bunch of rubbish. In your article you are using other facts with matters that are not at all related to these events to push your point across. This is not good reasoning. Also remember random facts or obscured facts leaving out the rest of the facts or details are just as good as opinions / hidden agendas / brainwashing, similar to what happened in the Hitler regime.

    1. I share Darryl’s observation. A very welcome piece, yet the votes brought out to bring about Brexit/Trump should not so easily be ascribed to people feeling instead of thinking or ignoring facts. There is also an erosion of the ongoing erosion of national/cultural narratives at play and redefinitions of institutions and rejections of ideas that make these two nations what they are. That is largely also what was reacted to in these votes. National identities were threatened by divisive identity politics, for one, and this was seen and reacted to.

      It was mentioned in the article that things are more complex but this is part of the complexity which deserves mention.

  5. brilliant article Mr Fourie…

    I am an American, who lived in ZA for several years AND who misses South Africa daily!

    That said- a part of your article that I especially enjoyed in the insight that this ‘fact free’ mentality AND rampant hatred for ‘elites’ is a global phenomenon?
    Here in the states, a part of political orthodoxy for a campaign/candidate is that if you want a ‘lie’ to be believed… make it big, make it loudly and tell it often!!!

    A part of the problem for intelligent discourse anywhere is the social media… be it facebook, twitter or wikipedia; people seem to genuinely believe they are reading ‘facts’? For heavens sake- wikipedia actually allows users to edit their material at will- really!

    Living here in the US; and watching the daily activities of the President elect as his transition team goes about staffing their administration is terrifying & disheartening. While Mr Trump may have run a ‘fact-free/substance-free’ campaign; their appointments are a three-dimensional technicolor display of the directions and policy they will pursue in the name of American citizens…

    Personally I am a painfully pragmatic (rational) individual- my ZA wife accused me of having no feelings; so I have always lived in the paradox of respecting all three quotients; intelligence, emotional & instinctual… while being accused by feeling centered people of having no feelings; YET now mankind seems to be ruling all objective goals by feeling and narcissiism? Trump is exhibit ONE, but Brexit, Zuptagate, now France and Le Pen, even Germany & India seem to be succumbing to the disease you define in your article?

    Horrifying and shameful I believe, Neil Schmidt-USA

  6. A commendable article. Very wise words. Unfortunately nothing will change. It’s the same the whole world over. People vote with their hearts and not with their minds. It has been going on since the advent of democracy.

  7. Interesting read. I was going to post something similar to Darryl’s comment above. To make decisions based on facts, you need to be able to get the facts, evaluate them and test their validity. As an example from the article, the statement “facts that oppose their views (eg. that Americans have never been this well off or that immigrants contribute significantly to the economy)” could do with some analysis. Are these truly FACTS? I have read studies that show that American salaries have dropped in buying power over the last 20 years or so. Are the facts relevant to the discussion? Some immigrants may contribute to the economy, but that is not the experience in Europe with the current influx of immigrants who are a drain on the economy. Students need to be taught how to read and evaluate information so that they can extract the FACTS. I think this is a skill that is missing from a large number – especially the ones who react on emotion. Thanks for the thought-provoking article.

  8. People base their achievements on indoctrinated norms, decolonisation would then need to be indoctrinated in order to over shadow the existing collective mindset. We live in a society that tells us who we should be. Advertising contributes to the indoctrination and it make people try to be someone that they can’t be, they set the norm for what you should be. If we can say the drive for decolonisation started in 2016 then we can expect to have largely achieved this by 2041. What do people mean by an African way of life? Does it mean a less stressed life, to be more self sufficient with a healthy social fabric? I have always wanted to start a bicycle factory, I make one with three wheels, a basket, and a place to put an umbrella. Just wish that there is a Mayor out there with a vision.

  9. The very ideas of critical thinking, reasoning, objectivity and empirical evidence seem to me to be being rejected as “colonial”. Africans can accept that, for sound historical reasons which in no way reflect upon the modern African, Africa has lagged in development. They are equal legatees of the global developments which, for reasons completely separate from intrinsic human capabilities, were developed elsewhere. Or they can reject the knowledge which, admittedly, is framed from a western perspective, and withdraw into primitivism. The Japanese eagerly adopted western science and methods after 1867 without losing their distinct culture and tradition. Rejecting what many may see as “tainted” knowledge, but which is crucial for our ability to engage to advantage in the world economy, seems reckless and self-destructive. Or maybe I am missing the point?

  10. The question of free education, in my opinion, is slightly premature. We all know the cycle, obtain a degree – obtain gainful employment – pay taxes. In this cycle, both the individual and society benefit. However, what if the ”obtain gainful employment” element is missing? What will the outcomes be?

    Will we merely add a new category of unemployed, those who have a degree?

  11. In respect of basing argument on facts, Lord Kelvin had this to say: When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science.

    An underlying problem we have is the system of Patronage over Merit which supports the Dunning Kruger Effect, which is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a meta-cognitive incapacity, on the part of those with low ability, to recognize their ineptitude and evaluate their competence accurately.

    Marry this to the Peter Principle (Promoted to a position of incompetence) and an Anti-conceptual mindset and you can base all your arguments on as many facts and figures as you please, you will face an emotional response (like the Democrat and EU standpoints) where you will face a barrage of name calling, racist, homophobe, misogynist to name just a few but very little in the way of strong argument and discussion.

    We are entering a phase of anti-knowledge I am afraid, a topic being discussed around the world currently, where feelings and emotions trump facts and where collectives hide behind a ”morality”. We see this in SA where we have basically 2 groups in society, the collective(s) and the individuals. The collective have abdicated their responsibilities to the state at the expense of their personal freedom. When the collective take responsibility for the outcomes of their own lives and not expect the state to provide, then, I believe, we can start to talk about basing arguments and discussion on the facts.

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