Problem Management — examples
Interpreting Facts

A fact might be true, but it can often be interpreted in many ways. Politicians and marketers continually put spins on the way they present facts. One must be on guard against such things, both with what is presented by others and by how we see things ourselves.

In the 1950s, many scientific studies were made to validate or disprove the many popular theories about criminals. The statistics for prisoners were examined for a large number of factors, ranging from race and religion, to diet and hobbies, to head-bumps and eye-spacing.

Not surprisingly (from our perspective), very little correlation was found between any of these factors and criminality. But one factor did have an extremely high correlation, high enough that it effectively proved a cause and effect relationship. The vast majority of prisoners were not raised in households with fathers, while the vast majority of men in the rest of society were.

The obvious fact was that being raised with one's father greatly reduced the chances of becoming a criminal; that fatherless upbringing tends to produce criminal behaviour.

But how was this fact interpreted?

One group, the self-righteous conservative right fundamentalists, felt that it validated their faith in the biblical based family structure. Another group, the bleeding-heart liberal left activists, felt that society had wronged many criminals, as it was not the men themselves but their upbringing that was mostly to blame for their condition.

The 1960s were not a time of conservativism. The media and governments put their efforts into directly helping the condition of those families that had no fathers, most of whom were poor. The effect of treating an intermediate symptom of the problem rather than the underlying cause was not only to increase dependence on welfare, but to remove the societal stigma of being an unmarried mother. These two factors encouraged single-mother families, as did the entertainment media in general, and greatly increased the number of boys that were raised without fathers. Today, some groups have a 75% illegitimacy rate, and not surprisingly, incredibly high rates of crime and incarceration. Prisons are overflowing with the results of this disastrous approach.

In the 1970s, expanded polystyrene (most famously branded as Styrofoam®) earned a bad reputation because the gas used to expand the foam was harmful to the Earth's ultraviolet-blocking ozone layer. Manufacturers switched to safer methods, but even so, the reputation remained.

To resolve the issue, in the 1980s scientific studies were done to determine the environmental effects of using EPS foam rather than paper for coffee cups etc. The eventual results clearly indicated that in every aspect, from manufacturing, to shipping, to use, to disposal, it was actually the paper products that were far more environmentally harmful, not to mention that they didn't work nearly as well as foam.

The obvious fact was that EPS was unfairly treated by popular opinion.

But how was this fact interpreted?

The big fast-food chains used foam cups and containers and they were now faced with a decision. They could continue to use these products, and spend their advertising dollars educating people about how they really were doing the right thing. Or they could switch to paper products, and spend their advertising dollars exploiting popular opinion to make themselves look good.

The choice was obvious. Almost all mention of those studies was dropped from the media, no further studies were made, and the public continues to believe that foam products are far more harmful to the environment than paper.