Abraham Lincoln said this about the public:
I am a firm believer in people. If given truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.
It can seem at times though like the public is allergic to facts, preferring emotional statements and choosing “not to believe” the data presented. This reaction is understandable given that the public has often been presented with skewed facts, statistics devoid of context, and exaggerated statements of potential consequences. These practices, combined with the sheer volume and complexity of information available, have resulted in a distrust of “facts”, particularly those that are presented in the context of a push for a particular position. Not having the time or opportunity to sift through “the facts” for themselves, citizens often rely on what “feels right”, align themselves with a group or individual that they identify with, or simply tune out. So how do you introduce facts or data that could inform the public on key policy issues? One way is to find out first what the public knows, and what questions they have. There are various ways to do this, several of which have been covered in our prior posts on Asking The “Right Questions” and The Cafe Conversations. Then help the public find and explore data relevant to those questions. When presenting data, share how the data was collected, who collected it, why it was collected, and how it differs from other data or factual information that might be available. Invite citizens to explore the question of what makes data relevant or reliable and why. Then evaluate both the data you present and other forms of data against those standards of relevance and reliability. By helping the public to generate their own questions, and integrating data into an ongoing dialogue on what information is needed and how to best gather it, you can equip citizens with the tools they need to make sound policy choices and minimize allergic reactions to “the facts”.