Fact-Finding

By
Norman Schultz

September 2004
 

"Facts speak louder than eloquence." -- Chinese Proverb

"We must learn the language of facts. The most wonderful inspirations die with their subject, if he has no hand to paint them to the senses." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, U.S. essayist, poet, philosopher

The Role of Information in Disputes

Disputes can occur over a seemingly endless variety of issues, and each kind of dispute carries unique challenges and management strategies. Emotional intensity, cultural contexts, value assumptions, laws, and interests differ drastically from one conflict to the next. Yet with all the differences, the vast majority of disputes have at least one common element: relevant facts.

Facts relate to conflicts in many different ways. Most often, the available information is itself disputed. Occasionally, both parties may actually agree on the available facts but disagree as to how the facts should be interpreted or applied. Many conflicts are made worse because of incomplete information, or information that is misinterpreted or misunderstood. Experts may present contradictory positions, leaving parties puzzled as to what to believe. Information can be presented in subtly biased, strategically deceptive ways. Or needed facts, for one reason or another, may be ultimately unknown, even unknowable. These kinds of factual hurdles are not just a problem for large-scale conflicts. Even the most basic interpersonal dispute often involves factual components.[1]

Sometimes facts play a core role in a conflict; they are what the fuss is all about. For example, consider the high-profile conflicts that result when a "rogue" state is thought to hide weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). While many issues are debated simultaneously (nation-building, economic interests, human rights, justification for the use of force, and international consensus, to name a few), it would seem that these conflicts, at their core, are factual disputes over whether or not illegal weapons are actually being concealed. In the case of Iraq (2003), establishing the facts one way or the other has proven to be difficult.

In other conflicts, facts are not the central issue. Instead, they play a secondary role; while factual information may seem important and may be hotly debated, the dispute is essentially over non-factual issues. For example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves a dispute over historical facts, regarding who occupied what territory first or which side engaged in the first aggressive move. Yet it is hard to imagine that the conflict would end if these factual issues were resolved. Other issues, such as feelings of entitlement, loss, and cultural and religious values, are perhaps more important, and cannot be reduced to a factual debate. Instead, the information (or lack thereof) plays a complicating role in this already tangled conflict.

Getting Good Information

There are many ways to address factual issues in conflicts, but it is most important that factual issues in a conflict setting are addressed, rather than ignored. Even if some kind of consensus can be reached, there is little hope that negotiated agreements will be effective if key facts are left uninvestigated.

The way facts are handled in conflicts depends on the situation. An important initial question is, what kinds of facts relate to this conflict? The kinds of facts involved, to a large extent, determine the character of the subsequent inquiries. Determining the validity of one kind of fact requires a different body of experts and fact-finding method from another fact type. For example, technical facts differ from historical and legal facts in that they require experimental evidence and endorsement from scientists or technical experts, as opposed to lawyers, historians, or eyewitnesses.

It is also important to ask, what is the status of the information at hand? It should be noted whether or not a factual dispute actually exists. What initially looks like a factual dispute might be simply a misunderstanding or poor communication. It can even be the case that parties agree on the facts, but do not know they agree because of skepticism or polarization. If this is so, common ground might be reached by clarifying what is agreed on. Yet the process of exposing the facts can also work in the other direction; in some instances a factual dispute may be reopened when one probes the information available. This need not be considered a setback; it might be necessary to bring a latent, suppressed factual dispute out in the open.[2]


Tamra D'Estree explains how connections formed during small group processes can later be used to quel rumor or clarify disputed facts.

To what extent the necessary information is subject to uncertainty or knowledge gaps is also important. Where uncertainty exists, debates and distrust commonly follow. Unknowns provide the most basic fuel for debates because they allow parties to fill in knowledge gaps with whatever is to their own advantage. The ability to show both parties the difference between what is really known and what unknown, can go a long way toward settling conflicting views. It can also help as a reality check for the parties, giving them advance warning of the potential limits of fact-finding, even under the best of conditions.

In many conflicts, factual issues are blended with value concerns. Sometimes this is not an accident; it might be in a party's favor to make its values look like facts, since facts carry a lot of argumentative weight. On rare occasions, it can be strategic for parties to dress up factual information such that it sounds like a moral appeal, in the hope of gaining sympathy. Yet facts and values are inherently different and, therefore, must be addressed by different means. Exposing values that are being passed off as facts, and vice-versa, allows parties to more accurately decide what they can and cannot accept.

Once the scope of the relevant information is defined and whatever is under dispute is clarified, fact-finding can start. Fact-finding refers to the process of finding the best information available for use in making decisions and agreements, instead of relying on opinion, strategic propaganda, or biased beliefs. The ultimate goal of fact-finding is to obtain trustworthy information.[3]

There are several ways to achieve this goal. The best method depends on the kinds of facts sought, and on the character of the conflict:

  • Where it is possible to get parties on opposing sides to work together, joint fact-finding is an advantageous option.
  • If parties are not amenable to working together, it may be necessary to employ a neutral fact-finder or fact-finding body. In the U.S., for example, an "environmental impact assessment" is required for any major federal action that is likely to affect the environment. This impact study is usually completed by a neutral body that examines the positive and negative impacts of the proposal as well as a number of alternatives. Impact studies can also be completed as a fact-finding measure in other kinds of disputes as well.
  • In extreme cases, especially where violations of international law or human rights are suspected, a truth commission or international tribunal can be used.

Joint fact-finding, neutral fact-finding, and impact studies can either start from the ground up -- meaning they can do independent research into the questions in dispute, or they can review and utilize existing research. Sometimes oversight committees are used to review the available research can provide parties with some assurance as to the accuracy and applicability of the information, without requiring that research be replicated.

Realistic Expectations

It is important to have realistic expectations of a fact-finding endeavor. A successful fact-finding effort results in a determination of how much agreement has been achieved, where facts remain in dispute, and where there are irreducible unknowns and uncertainties, in addition to establishing some hard facts. It is unreasonable to expect that all the relevant facts can be absolutely determined. It may also be unreasonable to expect that all involved people will understand either the established facts or their implications. Facts can be complex, especially in today's world -- sometimes too complex for non-experts, such as decision-makers, stakeholders, and the public. In order for decisions to be made, these parties must be given a clear picture of the information by utilizing the best methods of factual communication. Yet in addition to enabling understanding and comprehension, diplomacy must also be used.

Ultimately, even if a conflict is at its core a factual dispute, establishing agreement on the factual issues probably will not end the conflict, as facts alone are seldom sufficient for resolving conflicts. They must be assimilated into each party's decision-making processes. This means addressing what the facts mean, how they relate to the positions of each side, how realistic the options are, what each option's repercussions might be, and what the potential costs and benefits are to each side. The party's interests, community values, conventions and cultural norms, laws, and practical concerns must all be factored in. The consideration of all these factors is what the policy-making process is all about, and the process is often messy since a perfectly logical, comprehensive, and effective analysis is bound to be impractical.[4]

Even considering such limitations, obtaining factual consensus can greatly improve a conflict's character. Agreeing on the status of the facts allows for a constructively refocused dispute of the real issues, as well as the ability to forge knowledgeable, farsighted, effective, and ultimately more stable agreements.


[1] For example, your 13-year-old son comes home smelling like cigarette smoke. An argument begins because you think he has been smoking. Whether he was smoking, or he was merely standing near someone who was, is the likely subject of a factual dispute.

[2] For example, if one side is using an enormous power advantage to manipulate information, exposing the real factual dispute might be a method of empowerment, ultimately avoiding the backlash of a one-sided win. In this respect, fact-finding can be used to reach agreements that are more stable over time.

[3] Even when information is sketchy, uncertain, and inconclusive, fact-finding commonly has other good "side effects." The most important of such effects is that a fact-finding endeavor gives conflicting parties an opportunity to work together on a "neutral" topic (the facts), and in doing so can ease tensions via the pursuit of a common goal (the answers). If done properly, working together will humanize the parties and make them more amenable to forming an agreement, even if the facts themselves cannot ultimately be agreed upon.

[4] For a discussion of this problem, see Charles Lindblom, The Policy-Making Process (Prentice-Hall, 1992).


Use the following to cite this article:
Schultz, Norman. "Fact-Finding." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2004 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/fact-finding>.


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