5.2 Facts, values and beliefs, or why some issues are controversial

As you will already have detected, the arguments surrounding intellectual property on the internet can be very heated. What I would like to do in this page is to explore why this might be so, and to suggest some concepts which are useful in analysing public debates about controversial subjects.

Most public arguments are conducted in terms of claims that a particular view of an issue is the ‘right’ or ‘correct’ one. Arguments are constructed by assembling ‘facts’ that supposedly prove the truth or viability of a particular line of thought. Often statistics are cited as if they were facts.

The other aspect that you might notice about heated public arguments is that participants are convinced about the validity of their views, even when they cannot cite facts or statistics in support of them. They passionately believe they are ‘in the right’. On the other hand, their opponents believe equally passionately that they are in the right.

What's going on?

In thinking about this, it is useful to distinguish between two kinds of beliefs – facts and values.

A fact is something that one believes to be objectively true. A piece of gold weighs more than a similar sized piece of aluminium. Water boils at 100 degrees centigrade (at a certain pressure). A floppy disk can hold 1.44 megabytes of data. These are all things that can be observed and measured by processes that are not subjective and are agreed upon by all reasonable people.

Values are different. A value is a belief that something is good or bad. That the music of the Beatles is better than Coldplay's; that all convicted murderers should be executed; that private schools are socially divisive and ought to be banned; that abortion is morally wrong under all circumstances.

You could say that facts are beliefs about what is, and values are beliefs about what ought to be.

How is this distinction between facts and values helpful? Well, because many public arguments involve a mix of the two. They are presented as if they are disputes only about facts, whereas they are really about conflicts in values. And this is significant because disputes that are about facts can, in principle, be resolved by some objective process that can establish which assertions are factually correct. One can imagine a kind of impartial court that could adjudicate between the rival claims and reach a judgement acceptable to all.

But conflicts about values cannot be resolved in this way. There is no purely objective process by which the dispute can be resolved. There is no rational process by which someone who believes in capital punishment can convince someone who is opposed to it.

But although value conflicts cannot rationally be resolved, our societies must have ways of settling them. Usually this is done via politics or the legal system. In the UK, for example, capital punishment was abolished by a free vote in Parliament, and abortion is allowed under legislation (also passed on a free vote of MPs). But this does not mean that those in favour of hanging or opposed to abortion are convinced that their values are wrong.

In public debate about social issues, clear-cut ‘facts’ are often in short supply, so people use statistics as proxies for facts. But statistics are not facts in the same way that a belief that gold is heavier than aluminium is a fact. That's why we always need to be very careful in relying on statistical arguments. This is partly because statistics can be used in ways which are very misleading or, at any rate, need very careful interpretation. This gives us the second rule of critical analysis which is:

Be sceptical. Question and interpret with care statistics used to support a particular perspective or set of values.

What does all this mean for us in this unit? Well, first of all, when we examine public controversies we should try to distinguish between their factual content and their value-laden contexts, because the balance may determine whether or not they are resolvable by argument. Secondly, we should be careful about treating statistical data as if they were facts. And thirdly, we should remember that the disputes between the protagonists in the copyright wars arise mainly out of differences in values.

In The Future of Ideas, Lessig worries about ‘fundamental values’ being lost through the evolution of the internet and the manner in which it is regulated. He is mainly concerned about values that he believes are protected by Article 1 of the US Constitution – the freedom to innovate and be creative in order to promote progress in science and arts. Yet many of his opponents, including the US Government in the Eldred case, use the same part of the Constitution to support their arguments. A majority in the Supreme Court resolved that particular values-based dispute in favour of the government in January 2003. If a similar case comes before the Supreme Court in the future there may be a different outcome, depending on the values of the presiding justices in the court at that time.

For the sake of simplicity, we will assume that there are two sides in the copyright wars: those in favour of an expansion in copyright (and intellectual property more generally), and those against the expansion of copyright. Lessig falls firmly into the latter camp.

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.

(This quote has been attributed to both Mark Twain and Benjamin Disraeli. Who do you (want to) believe said it first?)

5 Copyright wars: rhetoric and facts

5.3 In defence of statistics