But this semester, I am beginning to see the professor’s point on why we should question almost everything we encounter. Even the things that seem like cold hard facts may not be so.
During a class I am taking this semester, I came across an episode concerning Greenpeace. In the late 1990s, Greenpeace had organized a large international campaign against Shell abandoning its Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea. The NGO claimed that the platform should be brought on-shore to be dismantled, rather than being disposed into deep waters, arguing that it was the safest and the most environment-friendly method. Accompanied by public support, Greenpeace had its victory, and Shell succumbed to its demands and brought back Brent Spar to shore. However, soon after the incident, it was revealed that the assessment Greenpeace made on the amount of leftover oil was significantly overestimated, and that Shell’s original plan was actually better.
This must be a well-known story to many people, but it was the first time I heard about it, and I was immensely shocked. Greenpeace is an internationally famous NGO, and many people believe it to be a peaceful organization, working to save the environment without pursuing selfish interests. But even such an organization can produce misleading information; stretch scientific facts and play them to the organization’s own advantage.
I encountered another example recently, while reading an article by Robert Hunter Wade. In “Is Globalization Reducing Poverty and Inequality?” Wade starts off by stating that neoliberalism says income distribution has become more equal compared to the past few decades. This argument seems sound enough, seeing as how it can be backed up by actual numbers and facts, right? Wade disagrees. He asserts that the trend of world income distribution depends on the combination of measures and countries people choose to use. So for instance, if income is measured at market exchange rate expressed in U.S. dollars, or if polarization between the richest and poorest 10 percent is measured, the results would be that inequality has increased in the world. The result neoliberalism supports, that inequality is falling, comes out when income distribution is calculated with countries weighed by population.
From this, we can see that people fudge with numbers to get the “facts” they like, the “facts” that support their case best. And as these results are presented as facts, the general public will just accept them without much doubt. After all, if smart scientists and researchers put a lot of time and effort in researching and calculating something, wouldn’t it be true? Shouldn’t we just trust these results to be clear, factual information? Apparently not.
The problem is that facts do not stand by themselves. Facts are interpreted by people and used by people. In this process that involves artificial touches, it is inevitable that the data is contaminated by people’s views and perspectives, especially if the person interpreting the result is wearing colored lens. People may, and often will shape results and facts according to their views or expectations, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Thus we should all bear in mind that there are different versions of facts. There is no absolute fact. Not that we should be skeptical of every single thing in our life, but it would be wise to keep an open mind that what we believe to be true may be revised, and that there can be different interpretations even on factual information. And we should be careful not to instantly believe what someone tells you is an “absolute fact.”