Facts, on their own, are not enough

I attended two meetings this last week that considered, at different levels of local government, how to respond to their respective declarations of a climate emergency. At one of these the command of Mr Gradgrind, the school board superintendent from Charles Dicken’s Hard Times, came charging into my consciousness: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Dickens was, of course, highly critical of what he considered to be the cold, utilitarian approach to education that was being promoted by various ‘progressive’ elements of Victorian society. He believed that facts, on their own, were not enough. Something else was needed to bring about social change.

The first part of this particular meeting was given over to a presentation by Extinction Rebellion, a campaign group who have my full support. They presented the meeting with, what I would consider to be, the main facts behind our fast approaching climate and ecological breakdown, the data that is supported by 97% of the scientific community. The main argument of this presentation was that too many people are in denial of these facts, and that consequently they need to told the truth. I largely disagree with this. Whilst much of the population may not be able to recite all the data, I am not convinced that people are simply in denial of the issues. More is at play here. More is required than endless facts. In my experience many people actually get turned off from important issues when presented with facts.

Following this presentation, the chair of the meeting informed us that having heard one perspective on the issue we now need to step back and consider the facts. The implication of this statement was two fold: that the ‘facts’ as just presented needed to be checked to ensure that they are genuine ‘facts’, and that other ‘facts’ may be available that would throw doubt on the status of these ‘facts’. From my perspective there was more than sufficient evidence to justify action, but the chair was obviously approaching from a different direction. So how do we make sense of such a conflict? It seems obvious that facts, on their own, are not enough. They need to be interpreted, they need to be made meaningful. But what is the missing ingredient here?

For Dickens it was sentiment, emotion. Whilst Dickens was a great campaigner for social change, as a novelist he is often criticised for being overly sentimental. But this, for him, was the missing ingredient. He recognised that for change to happen people not only needed the facts, they needed to genuinely feel something for the those at the lower end of the social hierarchy. To bring this point bang up-to-date simply look at the result of David Attenborough highlighting the effects of plastics entering our oceans in his documentary Blue Planet II. Campaigners had been banging on about this issue for ages, but as soon at this programme used some very emotive filming to show birds and sea life suffering it entered our national consciousness and things started to change. So yes, we need facts, but we also need to bring these facts to life with emotion. However, I have recently come to the opinion that a third element is also required.

Any radical change also needs to resonate with our ‘grand-narrative’, that all encompassing, but often background story that provides meaning and purpose to our lives. Our current ‘grand-narrative’ is based on the market economy – on individualism, competition, growth, wealth. It is from this narrative that we derive our sense of self and social status. It is from this narrative that we measure ‘success’. It was from this direction that I suspect the chair of the above meeting was approaching the problem. If we are asked, for very good reasons, to change our lifestyle, even if we are presented with overwhelming evidence about why we should do so, we will find these changes very difficult to bring about if they do not resonate with this narrative. In these circumstances most of us tend to acknowledge the need for change whilst carrying on as normal, often finding some small change that allows us to say that we are ‘doing our bit’. This isn’t denial. No amount of ‘facts’, on their own, will enlighten us. What’s needed is a new grand-narrative. I haven’t got the solution to the problem of bringing this about, but I’m convinced that all the time we hold onto our current narrative all the facts presented to us will be interpreted against it.

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