Facts, “Facts,” and Who Cares?

December 2014



Recently there has been a spate of high-profile events that have focused public attention on social issues of critical importance. There was the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year old African American, by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri; there was the killing of Eric Garner, another unarmed African American, by a white policeman – captured in its entirety by a bystander’s cellphone video camera; there was the domestic abuse case involving NFL star Ray Rice; and there was the alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, vividly described in a Rolling Stone article.

And while the high-profile events themselves are recent, the problems of which they are emblematic – racial profiling, police brutality, the militarization of the police, domestic violence, and sexual assault – are not. Many of these problems – most notably, racism, domestic violence, and rape – are as old as, or older than, the nation. Nor are they unique to this country.

After a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, the internet was ablaze with commentary and outrage. And a simmering anger within the mostly-black community of Ferguson, policed by a mostly white police force armed to the teeth, was also unleashed. There were marches and demonstrations across the country in solidarity with Ferguson, to signify that #blacklivesmatter and #it’snotjustferguson. I participated in one such action, standing in front of the Washington Ethical Society, in Washington D.C., every Wednesday for several weeks holding signs saying “Black Lives Matter” and “Honk for Justice” as cars drove by. And people did honk – lots of cars honked, in fact. One African American man stopped his car, got out, and thanked and hugged each and every one of us. It was a peak moment for me.

Somewhere during our series of demonstrations, I read a Washington Post article that said that the forensic evidence in the Ferguson case was consistent with the version of events given by the police officer, Darren Wilson – particularly the events that occurred while Wilson was still in his car, during which, according to Wilson, Brown was the aggressor. The article also noted that “more than a half-dozen unnamed black witnesses have provided testimony to a St. Louis County grand jury that largely supports Wilson’s account of events.” Of course, the forensic evidence being consistent with Wilson’s story does not mean that it couldn’t also be consistent with other versions of what happened. It should be noted too that there were also several witnesses who contradicted Wilson’s version of events. So bottom line: it was unclear what happened.[1]

As I stood on 16th Street holding my “Honk for Justice” sign, after having read this, I thought, “It’s a shame that the facts of this particular case are so muddy, since this is the case that reignited a simmering (and, I believe, justified) outrage among blacks (as well as among many white allies). The larger picture – of rampant racism and racial profiling; of police brutality, particularly directed towards blacks; of militarized police forces that look like SWAT teams as they descend on the communities they are entrusted to “protect” – is pretty clear.

I had a similar thought when the Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia began to unravel. Rape, and sexual assault in general, is a real thing, even if some of the details in the story in the Rolling Stone article were problematic.

Kevin Drum, a blogger for Mother Jones magazine, had a similar reaction. About Ferguson, the Ray Rice case, and the University of Virginia gang rape case, he wrote:

“All three have spotlighted problems that are critically important and absolutely deserving of broader attention. Ferguson is all about racial disparities, police killings of unarmed civilians, the militarization of law enforcement, and other equally deserving issues. Ray Rice was about the scourge of domestic violence and its tacit acceptance within the culture of professional sports. The UVA rape story was about sexual assault on university campuses, fueled by alcohol, fraternities, and official lack of concern.

“However, the specific incidents in all three cases are, to say the least, less than ideal as poster children for these issues. …

“All of them spotlight issues that I think are well worth spotlighting, and I don’t really relish the thought of doing or writing anything that might dilute their power. These are all things that I want people to pay more attention to, not less, and if you want the world to change you have to be willing to exploit the events you have, not the events you wish you had.

“And yet, the specific fact patterns of each specific case are genuinely problematic. To pretend otherwise is to be intellectually dishonest.”

I could relate to Drum’s dilemma. It felt odd to be standing on 16th Street with a sign saying “Honk for Justice” after having read that the facts in the Ferguson case were actually not so clear. I had to remind myself that the larger picture of injustice is much clearer.

In subsequent days, I heard from various people in the social justice movement that a concern with facts is a bad thing – that white people’s “whining” about “facts” is a sign of white privilege; that white people are “hung up” about or “obsessed with” facts. If you know me, you might guess (correctly) that this did not sit well with me. In fact, I began to feel like I was in some weird Twilight Zone episode.

It felt to me like people were saying, “We are so sure of our story, our interpretation of events, that we don’t need facts (or the derisive version, “facts”), and if there are facts that don’t fit with our story, we will simply dismiss them.” I would have been much more comfortable if they had instead said, “Yes, the facts of that particular case are muddy; it isn’t clear what actually happened with Mike Brown and Darren Wilson. But the broader picture of racial injustice – of police harassment of blacks – is totally compelling.”

So what do I mean by “facts”? And why do I think they’re so important? When good researchers want to figure out what’s going on, they try to be extraordinarily careful – to have a representative sample of the population they’re interested in studying; to have a large enough sample to be able to detect effects above the “noise”; to control for other variables that may be confounding the relationship they’re interested in studying, while not over-controlling for them. This is not easy to do. Sometimes it’s impossible to do because no one has collected the necessary data.

The “gold standard” of fact is based on actual data collected and analyzed in a non-biased, rigorous way – a way that is not a reflection of what the researcher thinks a priori is true or wants to be true. There are plenty of ways to make incorrect inferences from poorly collected data. If only 5 people out of 1,000 are dissatisfied with something and you have heard only from those 5 (i.e., you have a biased sample), you might conclude that everyone is dissatisfied. You would be wrong.

But for social issues it is often hard to collect data, let alone collect it in a rigorous manner; often the data we would want do not exist or are less than optimal. That doesn’t mean the problem we’re interested in goes away.

Consider police interactions with people as a function of race. Is there racial bias in law enforcement? This turns out to be a harder problem to do statistical analysis on than one might think. [2] But there are some data, and some analysis has been done. The ACLU studied the question of arrest rates for marijuana possession. It found that “black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people despite comparable usage rates …”[3]

A ProPublica analysis of killings by police based on federally collected data found that “young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater …” These data were far from perfect – they were incomplete and suspect in certain ways (especially when it came to the descriptions of the circumstances surrounding the fatal encounters). Still, the great disparity in killings by race is highly suggestive of racial bias in law enforcement.

There has also been research on how “implicit bias” – basically, subconscious attitudes towards other groups of people that all people have – affects the actions of even well-intentioned policemen, and how they can be trained to counter that.[4]

But for other aspects of possible racial bias in law enforcement – e.g., do white policemen harass blacks (e.g., stop them for minor traffic violations or for no apparent reason at all) at a greater rate than they do whites? – we don’t have hard data (as far as I know).

What we do have is anecdotes. If I were talking about just a few anecdotes, I would be wary of extrapolating from a small number of cases to the broader population. (How do I know it’s not just the few “complainers”?)

But we don’t have just a few anecdotes; we have lots and lots of anecdotes – and more and more as the recent killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner (and others) have encouraged more African Americans to tell their stories, and social media have carried them far and wide – stories like those of Al Letson or Redditt Hudson. Or the stories my African American friends tell me.

And there’s a remarkable consistency to these stories – they all tell of routine occurrences with white police in which they are stopped for no apparent reason (when it is clear that a white person in the same situation would not be stopped) – like my African American friend who is a doctor and was stopped by a policeman at 3 AM and had to tell him that she is a doctor and was on her way to the hospital to see a patient.

Anecdotes are not hard data; but at a certain point, the sheer weight of all these anecdotes makes them compelling information to anyone who is open to hearing them. There are so many stories of so many people, and they all tell the same basic tale. In fact, I’ve never heard anything that contradicts this basic tale from any black person – nor have I heard any comparable stories from white people.

Finally, there has been some investigative journalism about truly egregious racial harassment by police in at least some cities in this country that corroborates the innumerable stories of African Americans themselves.[5]

This consistency of so many personal testimonials, as well as the results of investigative journalism, backed by the “hard data” we do have, is why I think that the larger picture of injustice is compelling. It would be great to get more hard data – it would be great to collect and analyze more data on police killings, etc. But I don’t need to wait for that to conclude that there is gross injustice. If new information becomes available that contradicts that conclusion, I will reassess (as any good statistician would).

One of the most eye-popping recent events was the killing of Eric Garner – eye-popping because the whole thing was caught on camera, and the resulting video found its way into the media and onto social media. Thus millions of people could see for themselves as several white policemen approached Eric Garner (who is black); Garner told them to leave him alone but didn’t do anything threatening. The police basically ganged up on him and one of them, officer Daniel Pantaleo, put a chokehold on him. You could hear Garner saying, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” – until he stopped because he was unconscious (and later pronounced dead). Even many conservatives were appalled that a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo.[6]

So, unlike in the Ferguson case, there is no ambiguity (and no conflicting testimony) in the Eric Garner case. And yet the grand jury did not indict the policeman. I have to say that I can’t think of any explanation more compelling than racism for the grand jury’s decision, since the facts of the case were there for all to see.

But Fox News’ Megyn Kelly questioned that conclusion. In a discussion with National Urban League head Marc Morial, she said that there have been cases in which white cops killed black men and they were charged, and cases in which black cops killed white men and they were not charged. “What is your evidence,” she asked, “that the [grand jury] result in these two particular cases [of Mike Brown and Eric Garner] had anything to do with the fact that the dead men were black?”

This is what can happen if we rely solely on anecdotes. If people on one side have their anecdotes, people on the other side can produce theirs.[7] Clearly, the legitimacy of a grand jury not indicting a policeman who killed a citizen depends on the particulars of the case. In the Eric Garner case, however, it is hard to see what particulars could have motivated the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Pantaleo. I wish Morial had mentioned that.

More importantly, I wish Morial had mentioned that the data we do have on police killings of civilians by race suggest a significant racial bias. It’s easy to cherry pick examples to bolster one’s case, but there is no guarantee that those examples are really representative – which is why having hard data is so preferable. Yes, there may be a case of a black cop killing a white civilian and not being charged; but for every one such case, how many cases go the other way? The data we have so far suggest a lot.

In response to Megyn Kelly’s question, “Where is your evidence?”, Morial said, “What would it take for you to acknowledge that race is an issue? Maybe you don’t want to.” Talking about the facts (including the great preponderance of personal testimonials by African Americans of police harassment suggesting racial bias) would have been much more effective.

It is because of the facts we do have – the data on racial bias in arrests for marijuana possession, the federally collected data on racial bias in police killings, the limited information from investigative journalists on police harassment of African Americans, and the great multitude of personal testimonials from African Americans describing their interactions with white policemen – that I think there is a strong case that there is racial bias in law enforcement.[8] If I didn’t have these facts, I wouldn’t be so sure.

So, yes, facts do matter. It’s not “hung up” to care about facts; it’s not because of my white privilege that I care about them. It’s because, if you want to get at the truth, you need to get the facts. If you don’t care about getting at the truth – if what you care about is just defending a narrative you’ve already created – then you can just cherry pick facts to suit your story. That may be what Megyn Kelly was doing; it is certainly what a lot of racists do to try to defend their racism.

And it is what political ideologues do to defend their ideologies. When facts come along that don’t fit the conservative narrative, conservatives simply ignore them or deny them. There are now so many facts that do not fit the conservative narrative that it’s hard to know where to begin to enumerate them.[9] This blatant cherry picking of facts that fit the narrative and ignoring those that don’t makes conservatives look dishonest – because it is intellectually dishonest. It suggests (correctly, I think), that they aren’t really interested in getting at the truth; they’re interested only in defending their narrative of how things are.[10] I think it would be a mistake, and intellectually dishonest, for the social justice movement to do the same.

Perhaps those off-putting references to whites being “hung up” on facts or “obsessed” with facts were really a reaction to the cherry picking of facts by those on the other side of this issue. It is certainly true that the call for facts, for evidence, can be used as a tactic rather than a real desire to get at the truth. Unfortunately, many people aren’t really interested in the truth; they are just interested in defending their own ideas of what is true. That’s certainly my impression of the Fox News crowd and all the people who frankly aren’t interested in hearing the personal testimonials of African Americans because they know they won’t fit with the narrative they already hold (and they lack the empathy to care).

Still, I think it would be a mistake for the social justice movement to follow suit. It’s great to have the passion to fight for a worthy cause, but if that passion clouds one’s desire to be truth-seeking, if it morphs into a mindset of “defending the narrative,” that’s a problem. I wrote about this, and about the dangers of such a mindset, in another essay.

My friend Nancy McGuire recently wrote a great blog post, “I Just Want to See the Raw Data!,” in which she talks about needing more than just raw data to really understand something. She describes a friend’s frustration at the lack of agreement about a scientific finding. “Scientists presented what looked like clear and convincing evidence, only to be shouted down by political activists and religious leaders claiming, ‘That’s just your opinion!’ and citing past scientific studies proven biased, fraudulent, or just plain wrong.”

And it is true that some scientific studies have proven to be biased or fraudulent or just plain wrong. This is a particular problem for the social sciences, since it is so difficult to collect good data and to adequately account for all the real world variables that may be important. (And it is particularly true when studies are funded by entities that have a stake in a particular answer.) But what is ultimately important is the mindset of wanting to get at the truth, whatever it may be. Nancy describes what is required so nicely that I will just quote her:

“A wide spectrum of knowledge spans the territory between ‘That’s just your opinion!’ and ‘There’s so much evidence here that I would stake my life on this.’ The difference lies not in seeking some pure spring of unsullied data, but in knowing what questions were asked, how they were answered, and how the answers fit in with everything else. It requires seeing things happen the same way over and over and trusting things to happen that way again under the same conditions. It also requires a willingness to change your thinking if new information puts established knowledge into a new and broader context.”

It’s easy to become passionate about a worthy cause – especially social injustices that are so damaging to real people. And it can be hard to keep the passion sufficiently contained so that it doesn’t close one’s mind to new information that may alter, even slightly, one’s understanding of how things are. Maybe no such new information will ever come along; maybe it will. But either way, an open mind is preferable to a closed one. And preventing “our understanding of how things are” from becoming an “orthodoxy” is a worthy goal.

So it’s a good idea to re-examine the narrative from time to time, I believe, with as open a mind as possible – no matter how emotionally invested in it you are – to make sure it is still a good fit with the available information. You want to avoid the intellectual asphyxiation that can result from spending too much time in an epistemically closed bubble in which efforts to maintain an “orthodoxy” have sucked out all the air.


[1] None of this ambiguity implies that the grand jury was correct in failing to indict Wilson; in fact, it was pointed out by numerous commenters that a good prosecutor would have encouraged an indictment (unlike what the prosecutor in the Ferguson case did). It is less clear that an indictment would have resulted in a conviction.

[2] Ezra Klein has a good piece on the difficulties in studying racial bias in law enforcement. See http://www.vox.com/2014/12/1/7311417/race-law-controls

[3] https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/new-aclu-report-finds-overwhelming-racial-bias-marijuana-arrests

[4] See http://m.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/science-of-racism-prejudice; http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=2499&issue_id=102011

[5] See http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/05/where-blacks-suffer-under-stop-and-frisk-on-steroids/371869/

[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/03/eric-garner-conservatives-chokehold_n_6264886.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000047&ir=Black+Voices

[7] This is assuming that Kelly’s cases are factual.

[8] I am not an expert in this area; there may be other data, and other general relevant information, I am not aware of.

[9] The conservative narrative about Obamacare is just one striking example – conservatives keep saying how disastrous Obamacare is, simply ignoring the fact that it is actually working quite well by all reasonable measures. See, for example, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119623/obamacare-one-year-seven-charts-show-law-working

[10] And that has had real world consequences, since conservative actions in our politics and government are based on their ideology. Some of those actions have had very serious negative consequences, like the insistence on economic austerity during a period of economic recession and the steady drumbeat to reduce taxes on the rich and shrink federal programs to help the poor.


One comment on “Facts, “Facts,” and Who Cares?

  1. […] And there is evidence to support the narrative of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement too – a lot of evidence. And yet I’m concerned that for this movement, like every other movement, its narrative tends to act like a sieve – facts that do not fit the fervently believed story are allowed to fall through and be ignored or dismissed as “untrue.” As in many other movements, there can be a cavalier – almost dismissive – attitude about facts (in particular, facts that don’t entirely fit the narrative) (as I wrote about here). […]

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