By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University
When I taught an ethics class in the past, I devoted one week to the topic of faulty evidence. The purpose was to demonstrate how people use facts to suit their needs.
I would start by asking the students to share a cause they felt passionate about. They were supposed to prove to the class that their position was valid.
Every class did the same thing. Some students would find articles that supported their position. Others argued their case using opinions versus facts.
I would then pose a question that would shake the foundation of their beliefs and encourage them to prove me wrong. Also, I tested some students by introducing facts that were contrary to their position and asked them to refute what I was saying.
What Is Faulty Evidence?
Faulty evidence is defined as a conclusion without any supporting documentation or data to validate that conclusion. Most of the time, it is simply the person’s gut feeling or opinion of the situation in question. People can become so tied to their personal beliefs that they internalize them as facts.
At first, I thought that people were unethical when they lied to prove their point. However, the behavioral psychologist in me emerged as I began to observe people when they pleaded their case.
Some people are unethical when they try to be crafty and convince you why they are right. However, others truly believe what they are saying, even when you point out that what they believe are not legitimate facts. They hear you, but they are not moved.
Although I found this revelation fascinating, I decided it was time to get away from simply challenging students and look at gray ethics situations. So my classes took a new direction.
Alternative Facts in the 2016 Election
During last year’s presidential election, it was fascinating to watch people who were passionate about swaying other candidates’ opinions and perspectives. Joining in on social media was like spending hours on the Internet when it first came out. There was so much information, BUT you didn’t know what information was telling the truth.
People began using technology to alter documents and photographs, stage videos and present URLs they knew were not legitimate. For some people, it became an obsession to “prove” why their candidate was the best and the other was the worst possible choice. It became impossible to believe what you read or what you saw online. I watched two friends increasingly post false documents to prove how their views were “right.”
I was inspired to write this article when I watched an evening news report on President Trump’s public response to people questioning the legitimacy of his election. He explained his popular vote loss in the general election by insisting that 3 million to 5 million illegal ballots were cast. He also refuted statistics on the attendance at his inauguration.
Trump says he has read studies and documents that have been instrumental in forming his beliefs and positions. He believes what he believes. So do many people around the world, especially those on social media.
Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer continues to use the phrase “studies have shown.” But Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) was quoted as saying he has not seen evidence to support Trump’s claims. Finally, someone has publicly said what I have presented in my class!
So we have entered the season of alternative facts. It is a season when I will continue to practice two lessons I learned growing up: (1) don’t repeat anything you hear unless it comes from a reliable, validated source and (2) just because someone says it, that doesn’t make it true.
About the Author
Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.
Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and an ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.