Facts and functional fictoids

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Steve Gale tries to distinguish between fact and fiction…

Avoid dementia by eating curry. More people see bus advertising than use social media. Coffee cures cancer. I made the last one up, but the others are quotes from the real world, encountered on my way to work this week.

Are any of these statements true? How would we know? How do we identify a fact, and do facts even actually exist? Does it matter? Who cares?

‘Like Santa Claus and Unicorns, facts don’t really exist’, according to Scientific American last year, an organ that understands peer reviews and the value of evidence. But in the pursuit of scientific proof, you are allowed to be a bit sniffy.

We can disagree with nitpicking scientists because some things are obviously facts as they are simply known to be true – like we know that swallows fly south for the winter. But some very simple claims have caused a lot of problems in our recent past – and it feels like it’s getting worse. Maybe it’s time to be picky about facts, sceptical even.

Statements of ‘fact’ from well informed sources have badly misled us. We have heard duff claims about Weapons of Mass Destruction, £350m a week for the NHS, and the birthplace of Barack Obama that exploit our credulous nature. There are things people want to be true, so with the backing of a big name, they can easily become imbued with ‘truthiness’.

Have a look at these three statements below:

‘32% of MPs in the UK parliament are women.’

‘2% of Americans are concerned about losing their jobs because they believe their industry is shrinking.’

‘Green buildings improve decision making performance by 8%.’

I am going to guess that you thought the last one looked the most suspect. All of these are from sources you would recognise, but the third has so many holes, it makes a Swiss cheese look like an anvil.

The other reason the third statement rings alarm bells is because it implies a pretty tall claim about the future. With the other two, we feel we could go back and check the evidence. They seem more open to scrutiny.

Can we perhaps have two standards for defining facts? One to describe things in the past or present, where evidence can be re-examined, and another to predicts the future.

“There are things people want to be true, so with the backing of a big name, they can easily become imbued with ‘truthiness’”

Obviously nobody can reliably predict the future, otherwise Theresa May would look a bit more comfortable in her press photographs, but the job of science is to attempt a reasonable fist of it. For example, a basic calculation allows us to predict the velocity needed to escape the earth’s gravitational field, and the temperature at which magnesium will spontaneously combust is a dead cert. These are things that you would not bet against. But I would not want to guarantee the increase of 8% in decision making performance by placing people in a green building. Although the odds would be long, I don’t think I will be nipping down to Ladbrokes with a fiver on that one.

Let’s not make unreliable claims – and let’s release workplace predictions from the chains of scientific proof, because design and the study of people is not a science. In fact, let’s stop making predictive claims altogether before it gets embarrassing.

The design industry rightly wants to burnish its reputation through study and engaging findings, but we should tread carefully. There is a protocol to making reliable claims, and we all occasionally fall short.

So next time you see a claim that ‘The US economy loses $411 billion due to sleep loss’ or an image of ‘The largest audience ever to witness an inauguration’ or ‘Stress lowers average employee productivity by 5%’, you can either pursue it and check the source credentials, methods, reviews and statistical analysis (if they exist) – or take it as a discussion point, but not a fact.

Steve Gale is Head of Business Intelligence at M Moser Associates. SteveG@mmoser.com