The Futility of “Just the Facts”

The website EconoFacts describes its mission thusly:

“Our mission at EconoFact is to provide data, analysis and historical experience in a dispassionate manner. The presentation is in short memo form and written in everyday language, free of jargon, and where appropriate, accompanied by visuals illustrating the main point. We are committed to presenting even complex economic analysis in a way that is accessible to all.

Our guiding ethos is a belief that well-meaning people emphasizing different values can arrive at different policy conclusions. However, if in the debate we as a society can’t agree on the relevant facts, then the nation itself loses a common base for constructive debate and policy will suffer.”

I am very suspicious of the idea that there is one set of “facts” which all reasonable people will agree on. Don’t get me wrong, there obviously is one and only one set of concrete objects which exist in the world.

However, “facts” are not simply concrete states of affairs which exist out there in reality. Rather, when people talk about “facts” what they mean is a series of true propositions. Thus a cat being on a mat is not a fact, but the sentence “the cat is on the mat” is.

This creates a problem because there is more than one true way to describe an event. In fact, there is a practically infinite number of true statements about reality.

In social science, the concrete facts of the world are data. Ideally, this data would, at some point, be interpretation free, but it never is. Even when it is just entries in a spreadsheet someone has decided what to measure, how to measure it, and what to call the variables.

EconoFacts recently put out a memo on welfare use rates among illegal immigrants. It provides a good example of just how subjective “the facts” can be.

Firstly, what does it mean to “use” public benefits? This may seem like a weasel question, but it isn’t.

With respect the illegal immigrants, the key question is this: if I consume goods via the use of public money but am not the legal recipient of that money, am I on welfare? For instance, if I am an illegal immigrant whose child gets free lunches at school and that frees up money for me to buy some other good, am I using welfare? Or if my wife is legal and I am not and we both live off of her welfare checks, am I using welfare?

The measurements used in the literature that EconFacts references generally assumes the answer to this question is no. That is, they measure whether or not someone uses welfare based on whether they are personally the legal recipient of welfare.

Most people who say that illegal immigrant use too many government benefits would probably disagree with this choice. Thus, “the facts” are presented by EconoFacts includes assumptions that one side of the argument simply would not agree with.

The EconFacts page does reference this fact when they say the following:

“Many unauthorized immigrants have dependent children or a spouse who are citizens and who may qualify for public benefits. About three quarters of children of undocumented immigrants are citizens. A study using 2014 data estimated that about 40 percent of all adult undocumented immigrants live with U.S. citizen minor or adult children. Therefore, although undocumented immigrants are not eligible for most benefits, their households often receive support. Studies which look at household-level benefit receipts have higher estimated rates for immigrant households than studies that focus on individual level support (for instance, compare this study to this one).”

But this is seemingly forgotten in their conclusion: “Despite scapegoating in public discourse, the drain that undocumented immigrants place on government benefit programs is small.”

Speaking of their conclusion, what does “small” mean? Is “small” a fact?

It is also worth noting that the two studies the EconFacts page refers readers to differ in an important and unmentioned respect: the study that finds no overuse of government benefits when looking at individual illegal immigrants compares them to poor non-illegal immigrants while the study finding that immigrant lead households have high welfare use rates compares them to the general population.

Which comparison is fairer? Well, comparing illegal immigrants to the general population will certainly be more informative in the short run since it reflects a real current difference between illegals and non-illegals in poverty rates. In the long run, comparing them to equally poor non-illegals will be more informative if you think that illegal immigrants will assimilate such that they will be no poorer than the average American in the long run.

Which is more relevant for policy: the short run or the long run? And is this assumption about the long run justified? Neither of these questions is seriously addressed in the EconFacts memo.

Here’s another concern: EconFacts references Pews statistics on the number of illegal immigrants in the country. Right wing immigration critics don’t think these numbers are valid. (See, for example, Ann Coulter’s book Adios America).

A note on language: Econfacts refers to the people I call “illegal immigrants” with the phrase “undocumented immigrants”. Anecdotally, this seems like a pretty good proxy for bias. The title of their article is “Do Undocumented Immigrants Overuse Government Benefits?” and from the phrase “undocumented” I was able to correctly guess that they would say no.

Of course, neither phrase is wrong. These people are undocumented immigrants, and that is illegal.

These are just concerns that I picked up in the first few minutes of looking at the article. If you really dug into the sources, you could find somewhere between dozens and hundreds of complications each of which would require a separate debate. Such debate would probably extend you into a bunch of disciplines each of which it would take considerable effort to master.

You could hash all this out. You could deal with everything in the most thorough way you can so that you would come much closer to just stating “the facts” that this article does. You would never totally get there, but you could get a lot closer.

If you did that, you would have a book on your hands. Probably a pretty big book, too. And nobody would read it, or at least far fewer people would read your book that would read your memo. Short writing by its very nature has a nearly infinite number of assumptions about normative values, epistmeology, and methodology, built into it. There is no escaping it.

Because of this, short writing will never be “just the facts” or even closer to it.

More generally, “just the facts” can only be approached when you have a huge amount of knowledge about something. Most people will never have a huge amount of knowledge about anything involving social science. Because of this, most people will probably never have a near “just the facts” perspective on anything involving a social scientific topic.

And even if you have all this knowledge, stating the data in the most basic and neutral way possible is a difficult psychological feat to accomplish. Of course, this is a continuum and some people will do better than others. But the point is that it takes a rare degree of objectivity and a rare level of knowledge to even approximate “just the facts” about a topic.


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