In the summer of 2008, a colleague told me about a new blog called FiveThirtyEight written by a guy named Nate Silver. The blog intrigued me for two reasons. First, I learned that Silver had created a really advanced system for projecting the performance of Major League Baseball players. Second, the blog was about politics, particularly political polls. I followed, and still follow, it voraciously.
This is an extreme oversimplification, but what Silver did with FiveThirtyEight was apply the kind of analysis used to track baseball stats to the evaluation of political polls. In other words, he focused on the science part of political science in a way that no one had previously.
Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight correctly predicted the winner of all 35 Senate races in 2008. He also correctly predicted the winner of the Presidential election in 49 of the 50 states. Suddenly, Silver was a former sports statistician turned political superstar. Fast forward to 2012. After making hundreds of media appearances and having FiveThirtyEight licensed for publication by the NY Times, Nate Silver has just published a book titled, The Signal and the Noise. In the introduction he writes, "Information is no longer a scarce commodity; we have more of it than we know what to do with. But relatively little of it is useful. We perceive it selectively, subjectively and without much self-regard for the distortions that this causes. We think we want information when we really want knowledge."
In those three sentences, Silver lays out the reason why it's so hard for us to get along right now. Everyone seems fond of saying that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. The problem is we no longer agree on the facts. To make things worse, we have begun to accept mere information as absolute fact.
Regardless whether we lean conservative or progressive, evangelical or atheist, right or left, we are convinced that whatever we choose as our primary sources of information present only the facts. In today's world, that is probably not true. Why it is not true is a conversation for another day, but the point is this: all of us need to distill the barrage of information we receive down to verifiable facts. Just because someone said it, doesn't make it true. Just because a statement or image or pronouncement was part of our stream of information does not make it a fact. To reiterate Silver, "We perceive it [information] selectively, subjectively and without much self-regard for the distortions that this causes."
For our community to begin wrestling with the very real challenges that face us collectively, we need to move past simple information gathering and focus on developing knowledge that is based in fact. Until we do, we will continue to argue loudly across the breach and never do what is necessary to build a bridge. Without a bridge, neither side can help the other no matter from which direction the enemy ultimately comes.
Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.