Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Two Sides to Every Fact

Written by johnleemk on 11:47:49 am Apr 8, 2007.

There's an infamous saying which often makes the rounds: there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. The irony is that although statistics seem to offer cold, hard, incontrovertible facts, the nature of their presentation makes the truth so malleable.

I found myself thinking about this malleability of the truth when an acquaintance of mine who works at a FedEx Express hub in Indiana explained how FedEx packages are processed.

Basically, what happens is that all packages from anywhere in the world are shipped to a hub. The hub sorts these packages according to destination, and then sends them out on their way, often within three hours of arrival. According to my friend, this basically means it's possible to drop off something at a FedEx office at 4PM one day, and have it delivered to virtually anywhere in the world by 8.30AM the next day.

Of course, the first thing that should strike anyone is how massively smaller the world is these days. When I was growing up, it was all but impossible to imagine the ability for an ordinary guy to have something shipped so expediently from one corner of the world to another. (And I grew up in the 1990s — I imagine those from my parents' generation are even more confounded by the modern world.)

When reflecting on the FedEx process with a cynical eye, though, I found enough for the wags to have a field day. Using the same facts, one can easily present a neo-Luddist interpretation of how FedEx runs its business.

After all, for reasons of expediency, FedEx totally ignores any "fragile" signs — they can't afford to pay each individual package some attention when they're focused on getting everything sorted at the hub within four hours. And the process is marked by inefficiency in that if you have something FedExed from one corner of New York to the other, it travels to the hub and back, when it could have been directly transported across the city. (This is of course a simple hypothetical since anyone actually using FedEx Express to send something within the same city must be pretty damn crazy.)

Of course the neo-Luddist argument does not necessarily sound too convincing — but it's still logically consistent, and isn't obviously ludicrous. It's something plausible. Many wacky interpretations of facts are such.

For instance, take Fidel Castro's recent reaction to the American policies supporting biofuel. The standard interpreation of the facts is that America's done a good thing by reducing its emissions of toxic fumes, right? Castro says America is harming the world by burning food for fuel, and accuses it of planning to starve the world. It sounds rather silly, but again examined in a dispassionate light, there's nothing obviously wrong with it.

Obviously the examples presented here of where something silly happens when you look at the same facts from a different angle aren't too convincing. But that's because I'm not a master propagandist. Someone with a real talent for bullshit could probably come up with convincing denunciations of FedEx or biofuel — and indeed, many such talented propagandists have already devoted their efforts to arguing that global warming is a complete hoax or that trade liberalisation has no merits.

There are, of course, ways to rebutt nonsensical interpretations of fact. For example, although FedEx's approach obviously has its flaws, these are more than made up for by the efficiencies that result from having packages sorted centrally. And although switching to biofuel may mean less food to go around, it's by no means clear that this is a more dire result than continued reliance on petroleum-combusting engines, whose own costs in terms of pollution alone were more than readily apparent before global warming was a glint in Al Gore's eye.

Nevertheless, it's easy to be swayed by fanciful but ultimately unfounded and yet appealingly contrarian interpretations of fact. We have to be careful in evaluating a proposition before accepting it — it's not enough for it to have a sensible prima facie case.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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