How much does a fact weigh?

We should not brush statements aside as merely irrational, but instead should ask the questions: “Why would that person claim that? Why would they wish to believe it? What audience is it directed towards? Why would they want others to accept it?”

According to the Confucius Institute, 40 million foreigners are now studying the Chinese language.That’s an impressive number.  In fact, when you start doing rough calculations based on numbers of schools, teachers, and in comparison to other language programs, it is a literally unbelievably large number.  For comparison’s sake, a U.S.-China institute in the U.S. did an actual count and found a little over 50,000 Americans studying Chinese, compared to 800,000 Americans studying Spanish.  I know I’m comparing a U.S. number to a global number, but no matter how you run the estimate, it cannot be true that 40 million foreigners are studying Chinese.  Maybe they should be, but they aren’t.  When I raised with a Chinese colleague my doubts about the assertion, he said I was confusing numbers with statistics.  40 million should be read as “a vast number,” not as a statistical calculation.

One cultural attribute of those of us who are heirs to what is referred to as Western civilization (a gross generalization, but bear with me), is that we tend to take our facts seriously.  When I read a “fact,” such as 40 million students of Chinese, I assume that you could assemble the students in a gigantic stadium and therein count 40 million people.  When I simply absorb the point that many foreigners — and an increasing number — are studying Chinese, there is enough truth in that to serve the purpose.  But, my immediate instinct was to start picking apart the number rather than focussing on the core idea.

I am a fan of the scientific method.  Taking facts seriously has allowed us to enjoy health care, plentiful and varied food, the ability to travel widely, and to enjoy an incomparably richer cultural life than our forbearers.  Statistical analysis has empowered us to track and stem epidemics, to manage our economies more predictably than in the past, and to make known the scale and scope of injustices.  The ability to record, weigh, measure, and compare has been so powerful that we overestimate its ability to solve all our problems, including the management of foreign policy.

Consciously or not, American diplomats tend to view the world as a vast court of law, and the international community as a sometimes jury.  We’d rather not spend our time in court.  We’d rather work cooperatively with other nations to solve shared problems, engage in healthy economic competition, and settle disputes amicably, as (global) neighbors should.  However, when a dispute breaks out, or when another country acts in ways contrary to the law (the UN charter, treaty obligations, and international law provide a standard), we want to present evidence to the jury that will rationally persuade them that our case is better than that of our opponents.  If we win the case, we hope that will be enough in itself for our opponents to back down.  If they don’t, we believe that international law enforcement may be required to enforce the judgement.  We expect that we will win our cases by presenting the best factual evidence.

The problem is, foreign policy often hinges on biases, mythologies, hopes, and fears rather than on weighable, verifiable facts.  It has been noted that the Russian language has two words for truth.  The first, “istina,” is a kind of valueless truth, a cold fact.  The second, “pravda,” includes elements of justice, fairness and righteousness.  Pravda is what should be true.

It is disconcerting, bordering on dislocating, when we lay out our case in an international dispute, and our opponents counter by telling stories that have no basis in our reality.  When confronted with what we consider a preposterous falsehood, our reaction is to brand it ‘ridiculous’ (literally, deserving to be laughed at), or ‘absurd’ (contrary to reason).  But, I have seen few cases in which telling someone that their belief was ridiculous caused them to abandon it.  Psychological tests show that people have a strong capacity to reject evidence that clashes with their core beliefs.

All cultures, including mine, create beliefs that differ from factual truths.  Most of us believe that Napolean was short (he actually was 5’ 7”, above average height for a Frenchman of the time); that Albert Einstein was poor at mathematics in school (he was precociously talented); and that Marie Antoinette dismissed a shortage of bread in Paris by saying “Let them eat cake!” (a story Rousseau printed about an unnamed princess when Marie Antoinette was only 11 years old and still living in Austria).  I leave it to you to ponder why we accept those myths as facts.And, I won’t even start on the popularity of conspiracy theories in the United States.

In our attachment to evidence to make our diplomatic cases, we need to take care not to dismiss statements out of hand simply because we know them not be true.  When a young British Muslim says that ISIS has never killed a fellow Muslim; when an Iraqi Sunni says that the two blue stripes on the Israeli flag represent the Tigris and the Euphrates; when a Bosnian Croat says that Bosnian Muslims burned down their own villages to collect insurance money during the Balkan Wars; when a North Korean propagandist claims that Kim Jeung-un is a genius in all fields of human endeavour; and when a Ukrainian separatist says that the Ukrainian Air Force shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, we should not brush statements aside as merely irrational, but instead should ask the questions: “Why would that person claim that?  Why would they wish to believe it?  What audience is it directed towards?  Why would they want others to accept it?”

Blaming others for something one has done shows fear of consequences if blame was accurately ascribed.  Accusing others of holding unacceptable ambitions shows a dismissal of possible, realistic compromises.  And, over-claiming one’s own national achievements shows a weakness that needs mending.  False statements are not meaningless noises.  We can reject them while still treating them seriously.  Telling a more compelling (and following our instincts, a factually true) story is a better strategy for influencing the opinions of those in the middle whom we want to convince.

We should remember that we are not always addressing a jury in a courtroom.  Sometimes we are telling a story to our fellow humans while sitting around a fire, surrounded by dark.