Just the facts…

“Just the facts, ma’am.”

Popularly attributed to Sergeant Joe Friday of Dragnet. But from what I can tell from some quick research; he never said it.

Yet people claim this as fact. Interesting, no?

Maybe people accept this “fact” because it doesn’t matter? Who cares if he said it or not, right?

Not all “facts” are created equal. Some “facts” are more important than others.

What is a fact?

Merriam Webster, a fact can be defined as,

A piece of information presented as having objective reality.

Or in easier terms,

A thing that is known or proved to be true. 

Facts make things easy. They are objectively true.

The problem is, sometimes we think things are objectively true when they are only “mostly true.”

One of my favorite movies of all-time, The Princess Bride, does a good job of explaining the concept of “mostly.”

In the movie, Westley, the main character is tortured to death. Inigo Montoya, needing Westley’s help to avenge the death of his father, brings Westley, to Miracle Max, a miracle man to bring him back from the dead. 

Miracle Max: He probably owes you money huh? I’ll ask him.

Inigo Montoya: He’s dead. He can’t talk.

Miracle Max: Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.

Inigo Montoya: What’s that?

Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

In science, there are objective facts.

Objective facts are things like, the boiling point of water is 100 °C or 212 °F at 1 atmosphere of pressure (sea level). Or, the largest land-based mammals on Earth are elephants. However, in applied environments, when human beings enter the equation, things are not as clear. In fact, world-renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has said,

In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That’s why Physics is easy and Sociology is hard.

In business, where there are innumerable variables and the environment can change in an instant, facts, i.e. “a thing that is known or proved to be true,” can be extremely elusive. For example, one person’s “objective reality,” can vary dramatically from another’s.

Compounding things is that people don’t want facts; they want to be right. So they seek out data and information that “makes that so.”

How is it possible that two people can be presented with the same information and come to different conclusions? 

It is because perception is reality.

My sociology professor in college told a great story to illustrate:

Three umpires were talking about how they make calls on each pitch.

‘There’s balls and there’s strikes,’ says the first, ‘and I call them the way they are.’

‘No!’ exclaims the second umpire. ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.’

‘That’s no better,’ says the third. ‘Why beat around the bush? Why not be realistic about what we do? There’s balls and there’s strikes and they ain’t nothing till I call ‘em.’

The third umpire realizes that a strike or ball doesn’t naturally exist; it only exists within the context of the game and the rules.

Perception = Reality

This is precisely why eyewitness testimony has proven to be so ineffective. People might see objective reality, but their brain processes the information, i.e. it takes the objective and converts it to subjective, i.e. modified or affected by personal views, experience, or background.

Consider this…

If there were absolute certainties in business, no companies would fail and every business would be as successful as Apple. 

People would just look at the objective facts and emulate the actions of the great companies and all companies would be great, right?

This is why people should stop thinking about facts, and start thinking about evidence.

According to Merriam-Webster, evidence is defined as,

a sign which shows that something exists or is true.

So evidence points us in the direction of proving facts.

When evaluating evidence, you can think about them in terms of the mathematical principles of direction and magnitude.

  • In terms of direction, the evidence will either make you more certain or less certain; it is binary.
  • In terms of magnitude, you can ask yourself how much? How strong is the evidence?

Evidence must be weighed.

In a criminal trial, there is always a trier of fact.

In a bench trial, the trier of fact is the judge. In a jury trial, the trier of fact is the jury. The trier of fact is ultimately the fact finder, i.e. they carry the responsibility of determining the issues of fact in a case.

They look at all the evidence, weigh it, and make a determination. In criminal trials, the burden is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This means you are certain, i.e. you have no “reasonable doubt.” In civil trials, the burden is a preponderance of the evidence. This means you are more certain than not, i.e. 50.1%.

But we don’t live in a courtroom.

When we evaluate the facts, we are the judge or jury. We have to decide if the situation calls for “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” or a “preponderance of the evidence.” Some situations call for the former; some for the latter.

This ends up being a judgment call based upon your objectives with the information. Do you need more, or less, certainty? What level of “proof” do you need to make your case?

Tom Cruise had it right in A Few Good Men, ”It doesn’t matter what I believe. It only matters what I can prove!”

Instead of looking at data as facts, we should be looking at data as evidence.

What are you seeking to prove?

Do you have the right information to make your case?

Thoughts on this?

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