Factual Disputes

By
Norman Schultz

September 2003
 

"In the fevered state of our country, no good can ever result from any attempt to set one of these fiery zealots to rights, either in fact or principle. They are determined as to the facts they will believe, and the opinions on which they will act. Get by them, therefore, as you would by an angry bull; it is not for a man of sense to dispute the road with such an animal." -- U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to his grandson

"The only way to have real success in science...is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be." -- Richard Feynman

"I like to do all the talking myself. It saves time, and prevents arguments." -- Oscar Wilde

A Battle Over The Facts

The following kind of scenario is common:

A large company comes under highly publicized pressure from an activist group regarding the sale of one of its products. Associated with the activist group are prominent scientists who present information showing that use of the product causes health problems. Yet the company's team of scientists claims that the product is safe, and cites their own studies showing that use of the product does not increase the consumer's health risk. To those without adequate technical knowledge, it seems that both sides make good arguments. Without simply passing judgment on one side or the other, it seems impossible to decide who is right.

The facts surrounding any given conflict are often open to debate. The above example is one of a debate over technical facts, yet any other kind of fact can be challenged. Facts are powerful components of conflict, carrying strategic persuasive value. It is, therefore, to be expected that facts will be fought over. Sometimes it is clear that one side is merely engaged in trying to win, such as in a legal case (when it is the lawyer's job to win the case for his or her client). At other times, it is hard to tell whether the claims are genuine information offered in sincerity, or merely partisan propaganda.

Strategic "Facts"

If facts relevant to a conflict leave any room at all for differing opinions, and it is to one side's benefit to call them into question, a factual dispute is nearly inevitable. The desire to win is an important driving force in conflicts, motivating each side to do whatever it takes to become the victor. Facts are often viewed as merely a means to an end, as strategic components to be manipulated in order to gain power.

For example, at the time of writing several countries are under scrutiny for allegations of producing weapons of mass destruction. Despite having ratified nonproliferation agreements prohibiting themselves from producing such weapons, they may have strong motivations to do so anyway. If a country gives in to this motivation, it may try to secretly (and illegally) develop such weapons. Unfortunately, discovering such covert weapons production is often difficult. Therefore, under accusation, issuing a denial of weapons manufacture may seem a strategically good move. This puts the burden of proof on the accusers, leaving them with the troublesome job of proving their accusations. In this scenario, the facts have nothing to do with the factual debate; the debate is merely part of a tactic that aids in achieving an objective.

Factual "bargaining" can also take place. For example, in the United States, companies that produce environmental pollution are required to hold or obtain permits, and each emissions permit must be individually negotiated. If both parties know in advance that the permit is subject to negotiation, it is often a good strategy to make unrealistic initial demands, with the knowledge that some concessions will need to be made and the end result will be acceptable. The result is a practice of presenting facts that lean toward what will benefit oneself. In a manner that resembles haggling over the price of a used car, the "facts" are presented with either or both sides slanting the data in their favor, or focusing primarily on the facts that benefit themselves, in anticipation of giving some ground later on.

Expert Adversaries

Factual disputes are especially important when a conflict involves highly technical issues or questions. A common problem is what is called "adversary science," in which experts on one side of a conflict will present data that contradict the other side's experts. This gradually polarizing process tends to cloud the facts, obscuring the truth (or the best information) from laypeople, some of who are crucial to the very decision-making process that steers the conflict.

The problem of adversary science is, in reality, a result of two factors:

  1. In the desire to win a conflict, it is natural for conflicting parties to seek out supporters, i.e., those who are sympathetic to their position.
  2. Key technical facts often demand the use of experts.

Both sides will tend to use the tactics of adversary science, and employ technical experts who will support their position and oppose their opponent's position. Yet, when parties succumb to this tendency to win in technically complex conflicts, the very foundation of their individual fact-finding is biased. As the saying goes, "garbage in, garbage out"; whatever bias motivates a fact-finding effort will very likely show up in the results. When we set out to find "facts" that suit only our own ends, ignoring those that contradict our position, it is likely that we will find exactly what we are looking for.

Aside from scientific data, it would seem that all forms of expertise, from business strategies to the technical trades, foster at least some contradictory information.[1] In the current information age, nearly any belief, no matter how absurd, is represented and "supported" by someone, and there is a multitude of ways to put one's own spin on information to make it suit one's intentions.[2]

At the same time, uncertainty is a fact of all scientific work, even when scientists have no attachment to special interests. When scientists publish controversial work, it is subjected to extensive critique. Data are examined, experiments are reproduced, alternative theories are often offered, and debates ensue. This process gradually reveals that one theory or explanation is better than another, but it can take quite a long time,[3] and may lead some to be generally skeptical of science under the belief that scientists never agree with each other. The media, in an effort to offer interesting stories, tend to exacerbate public misunderstanding by focusing on topics of disagreement. Yet in reality, scientists agree more often than they disagree.

Non-Expert Facts

It is sometimes the case that conflict-relevant information arrives from non-expert sources. A lone citizen may be an eyewitness to important events, or local business owners or tradesmen may have knowledge of important community factors. For example, a local fishing industry may notice environmental effects of offshore oil drilling previously undiscovered by the authorities or the public.[4] The experiences and observations of the layman can be just as important to a conflict as the research endorsed by a highly skilled, yet somewhat detached, expert. Citizens with detailed local knowledge likely have valuable insights, although sometimes these insights can conflict with each other or with expert findings.

Yet non-expert testimony may be discounted or ignored by authorities and industries that are used to dealing with experts. This can even be done as a strategic move; when non-expert information challenges the position of an authoritative organization, those in authority may discredit it on the basis of its non-expert origin alone. This can lead to a virtually closed system, one that employs an "iron law of experts" where only large companies, research organizations, and government agencies talk to one another, and non-expert groups are ignored. A closed system has two important consequences: first, though the rigor and resources afforded to expert research make that testimony extremely important, experts do not have a monopoly on information. Ignoring non-expert sources simply because they are not "experts" can result in bad decisions.

The Effects of Contradictory Information

What really makes contradictory information so costly, in conflict situations, is that many of the people who are critical to resolution efforts, such as mediators, conflict parties, and the general public, often lack sufficient expertise to evaluate the issues on their own. Consequently, they must rely on expert opinion. The result is a paradox; in the presence of conflicting expert opinions, lay people are forced to try to sort out the contradictions, but cannot do so without expert consultation. Sometimes more experts are brought in, but that may just add to the confusion, not reduce it. The result is often that the technical information is simply ignored, and people fall back on nontechnical factors (such as ideologies and partisan beliefs) to make their decisions. Or, the parties may simply choose to avoid the conflict, choosing the status quo even if change is sorely needed.

An example of the possible costs of contradictory information and adversary science is the current controversy over global warming. The release of "greenhouse gases" into the atmosphere (from burning fossil fuels, industrial emissions, and animal farming) traps heat in the atmosphere. Many scientists believe that increased levels of greenhouse gases have caused or will cause measurable, significant changes in Earth's climate, or "global warming."[5] Others argue that human-induced changes are insignificant compared to the Earth's natural climate cycles. Those who believe detrimental changes are current or imminent advocate an immediate response, usually stricter controls on the release of greenhouse gases.[6] On the other side of the issue are those who argue that predictions of catastrophic change are erroneous, and that the economic and practical consequences of emissions controls would be disastrous.[7] Each side claims that the other side has ulterior motives, ranging from the desire for research money and kickbacks from "green" companies, to being on the payroll of industry giants.

The costs of controversy arise from the effects on decision-making. When two sides each seem to have strong evidence for contradictory positions, it becomes very difficult to decide whom to believe. In addition, there is the more pressing problem of what to do in light of these kinds of controversies. How do decision makers (such as those in the U.S. Congress) or the public make informed decisions when it comes time to cast one's vote on, say, a "clean air bill?" Should one protest a proposal for building a new coal-burning energy plant? Simply doing nothing may be just as costly as doing the wrong thing. In the case of global warming, for example, if the predictions of severe climate change are accurate, then it seems wise to take action before it is too late. On the other hand, if the predictions are incorrect, costly controls on industry will burden companies unnecessarily, possibly resulting in lost jobs, higher prices, and a general economic downturn.

Addressing the Problem

A factual debate usually demands some sort of fact-finding endeavor. Even if the parties in conflict only agree to try to settle on the relevant facts by adopting some form of fact-finding strategy, it is a sign that the parties are sincere in their desire for better relations and are willing to set aside adversarial tactics, and is a key step toward consensus.

It is important to utilize a fact-finding strategy that is appropriate to the situation. Performing neutral fact-finding or joint fact-finding often can minimize the use of contradictory experts and adversary science. If non-experts are involved, they may feel "outgunned" by authoritative organizations with access to enormous manpower and resources. It may be appropriate to provide community groups with technical assistance, which can even the playing field and provide a means for the concerns of the citizen or community group to be addressed.

Sometimes, such efforts result in key information coming to light so that parties can reach agreement. Still, some amount of contradiction over facts is to be expected. It is often the mediator's job to try to deal with whatever conflicting views exist. The mediator may need to work on the "conflict within the conflict," by using conflict-resolution techniques with the group of experts. This kind of factual mediation will likely begin by distinguishing between what common ground exists and what the real points of dispute are. It is also important to distinguish facts from values, since factual differences must be addressed in a different way than value differences. Once the factual dispute is isolated, the mediator and conflict parties can decide how to proceed: perhaps the dispute can be settled by gathering more information, or perhaps the disparity revealed isn't as critical as previously thought. If experts are involved, it may be necessary to inspire the experts to set aside their academic differences for the benefit of the public.

In the end, though, contradictory information and uncertainty may be irresolvable. Fact-finding efforts may be limited to explaining the pros and cons, the potential risks and gains of the options available. Yet, an intractable factual dispute need not demand a costly intractable conflict. Though technical facts remain unknown or uncertain, action by one or both parties might still be justified. An irresolvable factual dispute may reveal to both parties that neither knows what they think they know, which can ease tensions and diminish escalatory posturing.

Ultimately, it must be remembered that in a conflict, the real goal is for an improved relationship between conflicting parties, one that lowers conflict costs and improves the chances of reaching consensus. This goal may not require agreement over technical facts, and a factual dispute may persist for a long period of time. Parties who are interested in improving a conflict may have to forge ahead, doing their best to make the situation better.


[1] In his essay "Constituting Arbitral Tribunals in Hi-Tech Cases," Richard Hill says: "Unfortunately, experts disagree amongst themselves regarding the finer points of their profession at least as frequently as lawyers disagree amongst themselves regarding the finer points of the law. Thus, party-appointed experts can be expected to present different conclusions, and to present well-reasoned and cogent arguments supporting their conclusions." (Available from: http://www.murdoch.edu.au/elaw/issues/v3n1/hill.html)

[2] A good example of this can be found in the book "How To Lie With Statistics," by Darell Huff. In it, Huff exposes the many ways in which statistical data are easily and frequently manipulated (fraudulently or accidentally) in order to have a desired effect instead of representing the truth.

[3] For example, Einstein's famous theory of relativity, first published in 1905, was not widely accepted for many years, and was not supported by experimental evidence until the 1960s.

[4] This was the case in California during the 1980's, as discussed in "Oil and Fishing Industries Negotiate: Mediation and Scientific Issues" in Environment vol. 28, no. 10 (December 1986), pp. 6-15, 30.

[5] R.T. Watson et al. (eds.). "Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report." Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva (2001). Available online at http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/climate-changes-2001/synthesis-spm/synthesis-spm-en.pdf For a more general discussion, see "The Global Warming Debate," Goddard Institute for Space Studies (available from http://www.giss.nasa.gov/edu/gwdebate/) and "Fact Sheet: Global Warming Policy" from the Union of Concerned Scientists (available from http://www.ucsusa.org/global-environment/global-warming/index.cfm)

[6] For example, the Berlin Mandate of 1995, the Geneva Declaration of 1996, and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

[7] Some skeptics of global warming in the U.S. include the National Consumer Coalition and the Greening Earth Society, both of which have ties to industries that would be adversely affected by stricter controls on greenhouse gases. (See "The Greening Earth Society. Climate Change FAQ." Available from http://www.greeningearthsociety.org/faqs-climate.html) There are also scientists who are skeptics. See "Global Warming: The Origin and Nature of the Alleged Scientific Consensus" by Richard S. Lindzen, published in Regulation: CATO review of Business and Government. 15, no. 2 (1992). Available from: http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/reg15n2g.html


Use the following to cite this article:
Schultz, Norman. "Factual Disputes." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/factual-disputes>.


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