It’s all well and good for me to keep noting the importance of information, data and facts in the service of pragmatism, but acquiring such knowledge may seem far easier said than done — starting with, what sources should one trust and what if they contradict each other? It may just be me, but I find that accumulating credible knowledge is not usually the difficult part unless one chooses newspapers, magazines, web sites and broadcast sources with agendas and/or reputations for leaving out details and ignoring fact-checking. A more likely difficulty is when studies, research results and surveys are cited that do not seem to align well or perhaps at all.
Long-time readers are probably aware that I favor the New York Times and The Economist because they are highly regarded by those who want detailed information on diverse topics that includes discussion not only of facts and data but also how and why studies on these topics may differ in analysis and conclusions. The upper echelons of business, academia and government read these publications for good reason. There are, of course, other sources that provide unbiased, in-depth reporting and discussion — you can often find them by doing searches with general key words for topics. Claims of liberal media bias are invariably from those who simply don’t like unbiased information that doesn’t support their point of view.
The issue of conflicting studies is common, but not necessarily what it seems. Guidance is essential. Reporting should therefore include analysis and discussion by experts regarding possible or probable causes for differing results. Often there are data sets not considered, researched or included because of the particular focus of each work, which can be very specific. The differences in the models for the same topic can easily result in multiple conclusions. But when variables from different studies are combined, more accurate insights can be found.
The real difficulty is that once in possession of all this information and data, deciding how best to address the issues raised by them can be truly vexing for a pragmatist. I’ll give you an example. There have been numerous studies on the relative levels of socio-economic mobility over not just recent decades but also throughout this county’s history. In my graduate work long ago in urban history, there were studies of colonial New England towns and cities indicating disparities between what mobility was believed to be and what it actually was. Here we are now in the early 21st century still trying to determine what factors are linked to it and how rates of mobility are affected.
Now I’m going to give you the five factors correlated to rates of mobility dependent on where one lives as measured by either race or income: residential segregation (either by income or race), the quality of schooling, the family structure (such as number of children living with one parent), social capital (such as involvement with community groups) and inequality (particularly income gaps in the 99 percent). Studies indicate that socio-economic mobility is highest in integrated places with good schools, strong families, good community spirit and narrower income gaps within the broader middle class.
This is fundamental information derived from a lot of data. It probably makes sense to you why these factors could/would influence socio-economic mobility. It has the ring of truth. As I noted at the beginning, accessing good information isn’t really difficult, although it can be time-consuming, if you look for it and seek it from well-regarded sources. The truly difficult part is deciding what should be done. How to fix the differences between the places where socio-economic mobility is good and all the places where it is not. The disagreements — both ideological and practical — on doing this are so great and divisive that little gets done. Conservatives simply shun the data and insist there’s no problem with social mobility, just a problem with the ambition of the poor.
Disregarding data that doesn’t support beliefs of how things should be, and why they are not, doesn’t change the data and what they mean. That said, having lots of information and knowing what the problems are doesn’t ensure mitigation or resolution. Crafting and then implementing solutions requires facts, information and data so reasonable people can work together to try making things better. But inside the beltway, national government is doing less and solving very little because there aren’t enough reasonable people. Ironically, it’s the mayors of cities — both here and in other countries — who are driving solutions, the result of inherent, necessary pragmatism — a topic worthy of its own post.