Can We Distinguish Fact From Fiction?

How good are you at distinguishing fact from fiction? As I’ve written before, I think that is one of the two most important things anyone can learn in their professional (and personal) lives, with the ability to express your thinking clearly orally and in writing being the other. The folks over at The Pew Research Center studied whether members of the public can recognize news as factual – something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence – or as an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it. The results aren’t particularly surprising but they also are a good reminder to any of us in business.

First, the results. I’m summarizing here but you really should read the entire study – it’s fascinating and gets to a lot of what’s going on in the country today:

The main portion of the study, which measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong. Even more revealing is that certain Americans do far better at parsing through this content than others. Those with high political awareness, those who are very digitally savvy and those who place high levels of trust in the news media are better able than others to accurately identify news-related statements as factual or opinion…Republicans and Democrats were more likely to classify both factual and opinion statements as factual when they appealed most to their side.

In other words, confirmation bias comes in quite a bit of the time.  I raise this because I think it happens all the time in business as well. We receive data that doesn’t support the direction in which we’re taking the business but we reject it as biased. We get complaints from customers but dismiss them as opinion even when there are facts to support the customer’s unhappiness. It all comes back to what the study measured – many of us can’t distinguish fact from fiction.

We need to pay attention to the source of what we’re hearing. Does the data come from an unbiased, third party or is it an opinion? Is the person who is telling you something doing so based on first-hand experience or are they just repeating something they’ve heard elsewhere? Do multiple sources independently report the same information (not quoting one another, in other words) or are you basing a business decision on a single source? If you’ve spent any time in business, you know that even “trusted” sources – your analytics, your financial reports and others – can be manipulated. Always seek the unvarnished, fact-based truth and learn to ignore opinion unless it’s labeled as such. It’s hard to do that, but you’re up to the task, right?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?, Reality checks

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