In Political Analysis, Just the Facts, Please


Mar 8, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in The Hill on March 8, 2006.

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — In the 1950s, long before the round-the-clock commentary of cable TV news networks and the Internet, the phrase “just the facts, ma'am” became part of the American vocabulary because it was repeated so often by the fictional Sgt. Joe Friday on the hit TV show “Dragnet.”

Friday (played by Jack Webb) was a Los Angeles Police Department detective, and he uttered his famous phrase during his questioning of potential witnesses in criminal investigations. His goal was to separate fact from opinion and conjecture so that he could get the information he needed to come up with an objective analysis that would help him solve a crime.

Yet, as increasingly partisan and polarized debates rage across the United States today — pitting conservatives versus liberals, Democrats versus Republicans and people from various interest and ethnic groups against one another — the plain and simple facts are getting lost in a vast sea of opinions masquerading as facts. Each side claims its own “facts” — as if shouting the loudest, coming up with the cleverest argument or spending the most on TV ads could decide which “facts” are correct.

As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York once said: “We are each entitled to our own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts.” Facts are facts — not based on who utters them or the views of the audience but determined by whether the facts are true. There is no such thing as a non-factual fact.

All this seems so obvious as not to need stating, but it does. Opinion-based battles rather than fact-based battles have become the rule rather than the exception in debates about some of the most crucial issues of our times — ranging from Iraq, to the economy, to the fight against terrorism. Too many arguments are almost devoid of facts and are instead dominated by self-interest, personal morality or political ideology. America is suffering as a result.

Too often, instead of searching for the facts and then using them to reach conclusions about what actions to take, opposing sides reach conclusions first and then look for “facts” to back them up. This turns the concept of analysis on its head. It inevitably leads to polarization and confrontation, rather than the accommodation and compromise that have allowed American government and American society to function effectively for more than 200 years.

The RAND Corp., the nonprofit research organization that I head, is in the business of providing objective analysis and effective solutions that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors around the world. We gather the facts, figure out what they mean and then make recommendations about what actions are needed to reach the desired goal.

In all our studies, we seek to find out — as best we can — what the consequences of particular actions are likely to be so that governments and businesses don't wind up spending huge sums of money and years of effort to implement ineffective solutions. In the long run, objective analysis is not perfect but it turns out to be far more accurate than personal opinions and biases at predicting effectiveness.

Over its nearly 60 years in business, RAND has been criticized by just about every side in contentious debates. We've been described as right-wing, left-wing, Democratic-leaning, Republican-leaning, and both pro- and anti- just about every group and cause you can name. We're actually none of the above. We're pro-facts.

Making effectiveness the key driver of the decision making process makes sense because it helps policymakers and business executives understand which actions will best achieve various goals and get results. This is a standard that is both measurable and practical.

When you look for a mechanic who can fix your car, you want the mechanic who is most effective — regardless of his or her political affiliation or ideology. And you understand that the mechanic needs to take a close look at your car before analyzing the problem and figuring out what to do.

Opinions belong in public debate. They are at the heart of our political system. We elect our leaders because of their opinions and values, and expect them to exercise good judgment. But opinions need to be based on fact because before an intelligent debate can begin we need to know what we are debating.

That's why some of the best advice about how to start solving some of the most pressing issues of the 21st century was given back in the 1950s by Sgt. Friday. “Just the facts, ma'am.”

Thomson is president and chief executive officer of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

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