Facts can make the world more thoughtful, less divisive

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are mourning more than 3 million worldwide deaths. Our hope now is that vaccines will end this scourge.

Those vaccines were developed by brilliant minds at a breakneck pace against the backdrop of exasperated health experts battling conspiracy theorists. That dichotomy is sadly emblematic of our relationship with reality and our attitude toward knowledge.

Somewhere in the last couple decades, “expert” became an epithet, “intellectual” became an insult and we all became poorer for it. The disturbing popularity of outright lies is actively harming society, whether it’s about the virus being fake, ignoring climate change or inciting racial hatred with insane talk of Jewish lasers starting forest fires. All these things share a common thread: No one with real knowledge and expertise believes them. Such a disregard of data, facts and experts is fatal in business.

As an investor, clear-eyed consideration of facts is part of every decision I make. And I don’t do it alone. I rely on the expertise of people who know more than I do about industries, trends and specific companies. I’m well aware that I can’t know everything about everything, so all my decisions go through the lens of my team and others with more expertise after weighing data gleaned from good fundamental research. Facts are paramount in investing.

I relish the chance to learn through each investment — I enjoy adapting to change and embrace intellectual curiosity. That curiosity is not deployed in a search for alternative facts, which is a dangerous concept. Instead, that curiosity has helped me over the past 30 years get closer to becoming the great investor that I aspire to become.

One of the ironies of the information age is that there’s more immediate access to data than at any time in our history, yet agreement on what constitutes a fact is more disputed than at any point in my lifetime. We can tap almost all of human knowledge from a smartphone, but we can also use it to access odious lies and customize our echo chambers, whether through our “anti-social” media networks or our biased media choices.

We certainly don’t have to agree on what to do with the facts once we have them. But without agreement on what constitutes a fact, it’s impossible to make real progress on the scores of pressing problems we face. We’re collectively smarter and more knowledgeable than ever. Technical fields like medicine, engineering and the sciences are literally exploding with knowledge. Artificial intelligence and data science promise to bring great efficiency, to solve our knottiest problems and to advance us in every dimension. But all that expertise is only useful if we listen to it.

With the business world and the globe facing more vexing challenges than ever, we’d all do well to lean on actual experts rather than charlatans pushing agendas, and to follow reason instead of emotion. It would make the world a wiser, more thoughtful and less divisive place.

Stewart Kohl is Co-CEO of The Riverside Co