It’s an honorable idea. But facts alone are feeble things. Given more information, most people don’t change their minds, even when the new data seems to support the opposite argument. They convince themselves that the information is misleading (“alternative”) or simply wrong (“fake). They tune out stuff that’s uncomfortable to hear and tune in to cable news programs like reliably tell them that their intuition about the world is even more right than they knew. When most apocalyptic cults face irrefutable proof that they miscalculated the end of days, they don’t call it quits and return to their normal pre-doomsday lives. They double down on their bad faith, lest they lose the most precious thing in the world—their identity and the portfolio of beliefs that upholds it. In this regard, we are all members of our own private cults. "As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values," the Yale Law professor Dan Kahan told Vox.
Three years ago, when Ballmer embarked on the project of building an online clearinghouse for information about the U.S. government, he could not have possibly envisioned the epistemological climate into which it would launch. The neologism fake news, born as an post-election synonym for propaganda, has thrived as a catch-all for “anything I’d rather not believe.” The lamentable phrase “alternative facts” has its own dedicated Wikipedia page. The president of the United States is a longtime conspiracy theorist who has expressed fondness for the likes of Alex Jones, a right-wing tuba-throated radio jockey whose views are so dubious that his own lawyer now proclaims, in a court of law, that his client’s vocation is not even news-based at all, but instead a self-evident act of "performance art.” It is a hard time to be bullish on facts.
Yet there Ballmer stood, with his trademark ebullience, expanding on his vision in a presentation and interview with Charlie Rose at the Economic Club in New York, which I attended after our private interview. “I love numbers!” he shouted. He was shocked by many of the figures he collected throughout this project. What did the audience think had happened recently to average cost of hospital stays and average length-of-stay? It turns out that costs increased 30 percent this century even though average time at the hospital hasn’t grown—interesting! What did we think had happened to the student/teacher ratio since 1980? It had declined from 19.1 to 16.1—huh!
Rose asked a mischievous question. Now that Ballmer had learned so much about where his tax dollars go, where was the government money spending badly? Ballmer declined to answer. "I don't want to complicate this discussion with my values,” he said. “I'm just a guy with a bunch of numbers trying to make sense of the world." Rose asked again. "Everyone in this room is an expert,” Ballmer said, deflecting to the crowd. “I'll just give you the numbers to make your case.”