MARK TEXTOR: The return of facts, and their habit of destroying lazy arguments

John Hewson in his famous ‘birthday cake’ interview on Channel 9.

LONDON — As a policeman, my dad was involved in the odd prosecution.

I remember him explaining he most often caught out criminals in court when they were overwhelmed by real, factual evidence presented to them in a “live” environment, in front of a judge, regardless of how watertight they made their own version of events.

Facts are powerful. But look around at political and social commentary today. The use of real facts to prosecute an argument is the exception, not the rule. Instead, we get what people “think”.

Commentary is drowning in think bubbles. Repetitive use of the phrase “I think… I think” permeates just about every live political panel, political interview and on air social commentary.

The awful repetition of the phrase “I think” — as the speaker desperately gathers together their thoughts — is embarrassingly followed by a shambolic collection of perception, personal theories, guesswork and sometimes stuff that is simply made up. It’s because the panelist-famous-for-being-a-panelist rarely has a real skill or knowledge set.

Now that you’ve read the phrase “I think”, consider yourself triggered. You will notice it all the time. I apologise; it’ll be like that annoying song you heard on the radio and can’t get out of your head. You’ll check yourself when you utter it, too.

Watch “The Drum”, “QandA”, or even, on occasion, Insiders. They are awash with the “I think” crowd and their feelpinions. Just last week on ABC Radio National, a major business and political leader answered nearly every single question of substance on the federal budget with an “I think”, not mentioning one substantive or specific point of evidence. Not one.

On our TV screens, on your radio broadcasts and now on your podcasts; there is a grand diagnostic misadventure playing out.

Consider the prospect of walking into a heavy campaign meeting or board-level discussion of a major corporation armed with just “I thinks”, without your stack of cross-tabulations or current financial data. “I think we are solvent”. You’d get bloody murdered.

The good news here is the “I think” slackos are starting to be exposed by smart people.

We saw it here in the UK, last week, in Dianne Abbott’s interview with the great Nick Ferrari on the UK’s LBC Radio. Here’s the clip (the wheels really start coming off around 1m25sec):

You can see it in full here.

It was a complete train wreck for Ms Abbott because while she was clearly prepared to have an argument about arguments (“he thinks this”, “I think that”), Ferrari exposed her incompetence through his questions about fact. Ms Abbott did not know a single correct figure on the police recruitment policy she was on air to speak about.

She had her opinions with her, but not facts.

It’s a return of a proven media tactic.

Remember John Hewson? He was competitive with Paul Keating in the 1993 campaign, in spite of the burden of what was called “the longest political suicide note in history” in his “Fightback” platform. That was until a now-infamous interview with the great Mike Willesee late in the campaign.

Hewson floundered on air, unable to answer what appeared to be the simplest of questions about how his proposed GST would be applied to the purchase of a birthday cake. Hewson had the ideological and political arguments to hand, but he didn’t have the evidence or answers to prove he could make the policy would work. His support subsequently collapsed.

Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers reportedly once said that “(good) spinning” is “marshaling the facts in service of an argument.”

But having no facts and relying on “I think” statements equals no argument. This is particularly the case if a fellow panel member or skilled journalist has “what are the actual facts?” questions-as- weapons to hand, and knows how to use them.

Interviewees: watch out for this old-fashioned media approach returning, because “I think” doesn’t cut it in a serious discussion.

It was something Andrew Robb, Lynton Crosby, and Brian Loughnane would wisely school politicians in the heyday of the Howard Government. Be prepared.

We need more data to drive our decision-making, and less guessing and feeling. My observation of this trend (and yes, we did do some actual research and including textual analysis of recent panel discussions and interviews) is that the political and business groups class have become de-skilled at extracting data that would be both useful to them, and salient to the average voter.

Let’s have less “Think Tanks” and more true “Fact Tanks”. Let’s have less of “I think” and more arguments based on statements such as, “the evidence is”, “the research says”, “the data is”, “the findings were”, and “the literature shows”.

Mark Textor is co-founder of international campaign strategy firm Crosby|Textor, which advises a number of centre-right governments and political leaders around the world. He also chairs the Amy Gillett foundation. You can follow him on Twitter.

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