Technical Facts

 

By
Norman Schultz

November 2003
 

What is a Technical Fact?

A technical fact is a fact that requires some practical, trade, or scientific expertise in order to discover, verify, explain, and understand. For example, technical facts would answer the following questions:

  • What kinds of anesthetics are used on terminal cancer patients?
  • How many parts-per-million of Dioxin does the local paper mill emit each month?
  • What is the average annual water yield of the Colorado River?

When Do Technical Facts Matter?

Technical facts can play multiple roles in conflict situations. Disagreement over a technical fact can be the cause of a conflict. In other situations, a disputed technical fact can complicate an already costly conflict, adding to its intractability.

For example, an environmental activist group protests the use of an incinerator to dispose of local contaminated soil that is currently polluting the underground water table. The activist group opposes the incinerator because of the pollution it will emit - incinerators have been proven to release highly toxic substances into the atmosphere in many previous cases. On the opposing side are the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, both saying that the type of contamination the soil contains is such that incineration is the least-polluting method of disposal available.[1] Who is right? Understanding both the level of water pollution caused by the contaminants and the level of air pollution that will be caused by the incinerator, and being able to intelligently compare the heath risks of each option, requires some technical expertise. Until these kinds of technical facts can be established and accepted, such a conflict is likely to linger and escalate.

Although technical facts play an obvious and central role in some conflicts, their role in other conflicts may be unclear. For example, consider the role of technical facts in the 2002-03 conflict between the United States and Iraq, specifically the facts regarding Iraq's military capability and their possible production of weapons of mass destruction. These technical facts were not the sole cause of the conflict, and may not even have been the core issue: Saddam Hussein's violations of treaty agreements, his disregard for human rights, and general defiance of the international community, were all central matters of concern.[2] But the conflict was complicated by the confusion over the technical facts. The possibility that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was the main sticking point for unified action on the part of the United Nations' Security Council.


Peter Woodrow observes that personal interactions, more than technical expertise, is key to intervenor effectiveness.

Standards of Proof

Verification of a technical fact is no different from any other kind of 'fact': the claim must be proven to be true. Some technical facts are such that simple observation provides sufficient proof. For example, a disagreement about recent gasoline prices can be easily settled by simply going to a gas station.

Other kinds of facts require more elaborate standards of proof, standards that are best known to experts in the appropriate fields. Experts are privy to the appropriate methods involved in discovering and proving the facts. Experts are also in the best position to expose fraudulent information, or simple errors. For example, the untrained eye would not be able to recognize the signs of a highly destructive weapons manufacturing plant -- it would look from the outside at least to be just another manufacturing company. Nor would the layman be able to assess the dangers of a given dioxin level in the atmosphere. Some conflicts, involving or based on disputes over technical facts, demand the use of technical experts.

Once this need is established, the conflict takes on a new set of dynamics. First, the phenomenon of "adversary science" must be dealt with. Each side will try (and very often succeed) to use experts that will support their position and oppose the opposition's. As a result, the conflict quickly becomes complicated by such contradictory information. Participation in neutral expert fact-finding is one way of avoiding the problems inherent in adversary science and the bias that comes with it. Second, knowing that a conflict demands the employment of experts gives rise to the challenge of defining exactly who an expert is, demanding that authentic experts be distinguished from fraudulent experts.[3] Finally, if the fact-finding strategies the parties use, whether neutral or biased, are successful in establishing factual conclusions, the parties must still be able to effectively communicate the facts and persuade those involved to believe the information.


[1] This scenario closely resembles the conflict over the Drake Chemical Superfund site (Lock Haven , Pa., USA) when AIR, a non-profit environmental activist group, strongly opposed the EPA's recommendation to use an incinerator for site's cleanup. See Region 3: Mid-Atlantic Region Hazardous Site Cleanup Division. Environmental Protection Agency [on-line] Available from http://www.epa.gov/reg3hwmd/ Accessed on January 30, 2003.

[2] This would include violations of the Gulf War treaties as well as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 and the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention of 1975. Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons - NPT Obligations. The Center for Nonproliferation Studies. [on-line] Available from http://www.nti.org/treaties-and-regimes/treaty-on-the-non-proliferation-of-nuclear-weapons/ Accessed on January 20, 2005.

[3] For example, one must make the distinction between authentic science and "psuedoscience," and this cannot be done simply by examining the experts credentials since highly trained scientists with advanced degrees have participated in fraudulent, fringe research."Psuedoscience." Skeptic's Dictionary. [on-line] Available from http://skepdic.com/pseudosc.html. Accessed on January 30, 2003.


Use the following to cite this article:
Schultz, Norman. "Technical Facts." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: November 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/technical-facts>.


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