When facts do not matter

When facts do not matter

A while ago the Deputy Premier of New South Wales, Australia, John Barilaro played brinkmanship with the government. He threatened to move his National Party members to the crossbench. These are the MPs who give the government a majority in the lower house, a coalition that gives Mr Barilaro the Deputy Premiership and his party a number of ministries in return for bringing 13 votes to the table to give the government a slim lower house majority of two seats.

This ‘majority making’ brings with it extraordinary bargaining power.

The National Party decided or perhaps Mr Barallaro decided, to leverage that power and threaten to remove his MPs from voting in favour of government policy. So, they’re in government and proposing to abstain from voting.

Needless to say the Liberal party leader and Premier who has 35 sitting members leveraged her power and told them to sit down and shut up.

The outcome was that Mr Barilaro backed down at the eleventh hour blowing any political credibility he had. He then chose to take a month of stress leave. His actions suggest that was a sensible choice.

What extraordinary issue brought this power play on?

Turns out that koalas were the issue. And principally the unproven ‘fact’ that koalas would go extinct in the next 50 years.

The legislation amended on the back of this non-fact, a State Environment Planning Policy known as the koala SEPP, was amended to extend the habitat that is protected for this species by listing more tree species that cannot be cleared.

Landholders must demonstrate through expert analysis that trees are not habitat for koalas and there are no koalas present in the last 18 years.

Here we have a peculiar situation.

The original facts of the matter do not exist. At the present moment in time, we do not know how many koalas there are in Australia. We do not know how many there are in New South Wales and we do not know the trend in those koala numbers.

We do know that populations fluctuate dramatically in a species that is widely distributed, is prone to certain environmental and human drivers of change, has a slow reproduction rate and is likely to be vulnerable in certain places.

We also know that koalas are often present in disturbed landscapes because the younger eucalypt trees are preferred food and we also know that when we look hard enough with the right techniques (sniffer dogs work really well), we find koalas in places that we previously thought they didn’t exist.

Not knowing how many koalas there are. Not knowing how many are being lost at any one time. Not knowing if populations are stable or simply naturally dynamic are unknowns that form the basis for the legislation.

In other words, there is no evidence that says koalas will go extinct in 50 years.

This makes the legislation itself is at best precautionary and at worst unnecessary. It is flawed in either direction. That a government would be put in jeopardy and members would flex their political muscle over such an issue tells us a lot about the current political process.

It tells us that the facts of the matter don’t really matter at all.

What matters is the political process and the benefits, or not, to individual politicians and their careers from having a stoush.

It’s time to put an end to this nonsense.

Let us all begin with the facts. Whatever the evidence is to hand and let that be at the core of any debate.

Sure, you can have your toy throws and throw them out of the cot, have ego-driven rants as part of the political process. We all need some drama and colour in our lives. What we don’t want is for these rants and raves to be based on half-truths, untruths and downright lies. That is not the democratic process.

We need to have politicians who can form governments that are presenting us facts and policy options to deal with those facts. Then we can decide the policies to support that the majority believe will be in the best interest of everyone and the well-being of our grandchildren.

Politicians must have a steady enough hand and a steady enough head that they’re prepared to look at evidence, evaluate and bring it to the table in good faith, then debate the policy options.

To be debating policy on lies and mistruth degrades the democratic process. It undermines public faith in the institution of democracy and it makes all those political players look like complete idiots.


Pleae leave a comment or browse around for more ideas for healthy thinking.

How opinions become facts

How opinions become facts

Our becoming emotionally wedded to our opinions mutates them into indisputable facts. That’s when they become dangerous. When our beliefs possess our feelings and we cement them as truth, we start to exclude, judge or dismiss the beliefs of others. Undue feelings of superiority take hold. And in that condition, it’s impossible for actual truths—even provable, scientific ones—to get in.

Partrick King

If Patrick King is right then opinions readily become ‘facts’ even without proof. When we are invested through a feeling our minds and hearts begin to narrow our world view and make it our immutable own. We start to believe our own thoughts, notorious for their flights of fancy, and consolidate them into our truths. Add to this any number of powerful forces in the modern world that play with our emotions, tapping into and sometimes mutating our core beliefs to fill us up with rigidity. We become closed and, as my own therapist tells me, judgemental and negative. Ouch.

If even half of this is true, we have a serious problem on our hands.

When opinions solidify into cement they corral us into like-minded groups creating the steel reinforcement for the concrete. The really important awareness and empathy suffer and limit our connections to other people. Ouch again.

Before the sky falls in, let’s back up a little.

Opinion is defined as “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”. We all have them because we use judgements to help us navigate our lives.

It helps not to have to think things through from first principles all the time for that would be tedious and inefficient. We need the thinking space saved for emergencies. And if there are no crises to resolve, then thinking can be used for creative outlets. Not having to think until we want to is powerful support for opinions.

Facts are defined as things that are known to be consistent with objective reality and can be proven to be true with evidence. In other words, they are objective.

Facts come from a logical process of proof that the proposition (or belief) is true or valid. This involves observation or the creation of information through an agreed process that goes beyond the individual and is repeatable. It should also be agreed that the logic process and the information reflects reality. This is all a bit technical and not touchy-feely at all, far more Mr Spock than Captain Kirk. Most people would rather be Kirk than Spock.

Given these definitions, we can see that opinion is easy to come by for all we have to do is attach to our core and run with what it tells us. Facts are much harder to grasp for we must understand the logic process that generates them in order to accept them as proven and following this logic is hard work.

As far as our minds are concerned, opinion is easy, facts are hard.

There is an evolutionary advantage to the easier, lower-risk path. So it should be no surprise that judgements that are easier to come by and yet are still useful will persist.

This makes the first premise, of mutation of emotion into facts, logical even likely, especially for the pleasant feelings; such as being above average for example.

If they continue to work for us then their persistence makes sense too. The reinforcement of the good vibes that this brings will make the next premise likely too… “we start to exclude, judge or dismiss the beliefs of others.” This is the genesis of dogma. Fine when it is mutually beneficial (conservation of elephants is fine aspiration) and not so good when it is not (my religion is better than yours, in fact, yours sucks). This is bad enough for it creates any number of opportunities for conflict as people join their tribes and disagree with the opinions of other tribes.

The final premise is the one that really matters. Excluding others and feeling superior make it… impossible for actual truths—even provable, scientific ones—to get in. In other words, our opinions become very hard to change even when the evidence is strong that they are wrong or nonsensical.

As a scientist this is challenging. It is already difficult to explain scientific facts to the non-scientist who is not familiar with the logic revolutions of the renaissance or the technical details of your subject. They believe your white lab coat more than your statistical explanation. If we are also up against an evolutionary pressure — the easiest path will lead the genes along it — then we are in serious strife.

Donald, on the other hand, is laughing.