Science - September 13, 2012

'We are crazy about figures'

During election campaign debates the Dutch press have taken to doing some fact checking in the hope of calling politicians' bluff. Does this influence the political process?

'It certainly influences it,' says communication scientist Noelle Aarts, 'and it also illustrates the importance of figures in political debates. People place a high value on numbers, they immediately give us a picture in our minds and we experience that picture as reality. Politicians know this so they use a lot of figures. But these so-called facts are often open to multiple interpretations, you can manipulate them, and they are time-specific. That is why the fact checker often says 'half true'.
Why are we so fond of numbers?
'You should read Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking fast and slow, which explains it beautifully. We take decisions on the basis of two systems: intuition and conscious reflection. Figures and pictures go well with the first system, intuition, while our second system - reflection - is a bit lazy. You can quickly generate a picture using figures, and people say, that's the way it is. Another reason this works is that our feel for statistics - for what the numbers actually tell you - is appalling. So numbers work as evidence in the political debates and the fact checker is a response to that.'
Does the production and control of facts influence the political process?
'You get the polls now, and they are a sort of fact producing, showing how the various parties are doing. And they are influential. A party does well in the polls, gains in self-confidence and then does even better. It is not without reason that some people argue for a ban on polls just before the elections - because they influence voting. But meanwhile various bureaus produce lots of lovely numbers and infographics, because we are crazy about those. Because people actually draw conclusions from the numbers, which they then discuss with friends and acquaintances who already see eye to eye with them. That is how we construct our reality - in social interaction, so as to share the truth.'