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29 August 2013

Social Facts Sheets, a Proposal

If you are a person who studies the social and you live in the world, you have undoubtedly had irrational arguments discussions with people who refuse to accept the most basic of social realities, things that the social sciences--nay any careful observer--have established quite definitively as social facts. Let me give you an example. Once, in a conversation about poverty with a close family member, I made the seemingly innocuous statement that most of those who are poor in the United States are white and not people of color. This was a non sequitur for the relative and abruptly derailed our conversation as he said that he would "need to see proof of that" to believe it. The simple fact that most of the poor in the U.S. are white (and I am intentionally omitting a cite/link here) ran so contrary to my relative's worldview that he was paralyzed and unable to move forward. I think this anecdotal evidence is emblematic of a larger problem within sociology. We spend a lot of time and emotion doing prestige work, trying to get our peers in the academy and the public to take our discipline seriously as a science. The problem with our interaction with the public in particular is that often we are presenting the results of systematic analysis at the secondary or even tertiary level (e.g. how poverty is structurally created and reproduced), having completely ignored the fact that many people are ignorant to the most primary and basic social descriptives (e.g. most poor are white).

Here is my proposal to counter this: we need an internet repository of simple social fact sheets. These would be brief (less than a hundred words) statements of generally accepted social facts, accompanied by simple charts or figures and linked to supporting peer-reviewed research. It should also be well-indexed and intuitively searchable, and it should be understandable to the average eighth-grader. It would be a tool for students and the public to go to to check their assumptions and their notions of "common sense" as well as a place for social commentators, teachers, and researchers to point others to when conversations like the one I describe above take place. Perhaps I'm overly optimistic about people's ability to be corrected and confirmation bias and the backfire effect are too strong to be overcome in this manner, but if nothing else, it's a good exercise to remind ourselves not to assume a base level of knowledge.

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