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When the Facts Change

One of my favorite quotes of all time is John Maynard Keynes' famous retort, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Unfortunately, too often people hold onto their opinions regardless of the changing landscape of facts.

News flashes across the screen and we immediately fill in as many blanks as possible using our knowledge, experience, imagination, biases, etc. This is human nature. It is how we function in the world given the vast amount of incomplete information that exists in every situation. We form opinions and then need to decide whether or not those opinions shift as new information arrives. Ideally, we are conscious of the biases that helped formed those opinions but, more often, they operate under the radar screen.

The Dominique Strauss Kahn (DSK) case seems like a textbook example. When the news first came out, many rushed to convict DSK while some instinctively defended him. Those who took a strong stand with minimal information were filling in those vast informational gaps with their imagination and biases. Those who immediately "convicted" DSK tended to make broad generalizations about the IMF, men in power or French culture. Those immediately "defended" DSK often made broad generalizations about the sex appeal of powerful men or negative stereotypes about the accuser's culture, socio-economic background, etc. From what minimal facts had been shared with the media, there seemed to be little question that there was a physical interaction between DSK and the accuser, yet the cases has boiled down to he-said/she-said concerning whether the interaction was consensual or forced. Not surprisingly, the defense soon adapted the strategy of attacking the witness.

Now that DSK has been freed from house arrest, many are rushing again to judge. Some blame the prosecution, some blame the accuser while others think this was all a set-up. In the end, we will most likely never really know whether a crime was committed or not, but that won't stop us from forming our opinions -- after all, we are human and that is how the mind works.

In general, as we form opinions in situations where the facts are limited, an important step is to ask ourselves not only what we believe, but, more introspectively, what specifically made us form that opinion. What information, personal knowledge, opinions and biases made us fill in the gaps the way we did? Then, as the facts change, are we willing to change our mind?

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