Rejecting Facts: Our Greatest Threat

People have a habit of inventing fictions they will believe wholeheartedly in order to ignore the truth they cannot accept.” (Author Libby Bray)

A tendency to ignore science and reason and rely on revealed truth (only received by ordained clergy) led Western society in to the 1000-year medieval period which lasted roughly from the time the Roman Empire fell through the Renaissance.  Intellectual life, philosophy, and art were largely controlled by the Catholic Church. In the end the church initiated “Crusades” to expel Muslim infidels from the Holy Lands and to punish those considered to be enemies of Christianity.  At least one million and possibly as many as nine million people died. To put it simply, the progress of Western society was largely, though not entirely, stifled during this 1,000 year period and, to a very large extent, a reliance on science and reason led the way out.   

Today there is a segment of society that seems willing (and eager) to once again let others think for them rather than thinking for themselves, and this too imperils society.  I will not speculate on the size of this segment, but it seems fairly large these days.  In some cases the accepted intellectual authorities are religious leaders, but more commonly they are political pundits, politicians, or other commentators.  To be clear, I accept religion and spirituality as means to personal fulfillment and, potentially, as a route to the eternal.  I do not accept those as grounds for public policy or governmental action because I lack faith in those pundits and politicians (or others) who claim to understand a divine plan. 

I prefer accepting science, with all its faults and warts.  Science as a method is sometimes wrong and has at times been used for ill purposes (when scientists “proved” there was no link between tobacco and cancer with research funded by tobacco companies, when scientists said MMR vaccines led to autism, nuclear weapons, etc.) or had unintended consequences (plastics that harm sea life, antibiotics and opiate pain killers that are over prescribed, etc.), but science has also led to cures for many diseases, taken us to the moon (no, that was not produced in a Hollywood basement), made it possible for me to Facetime with my children who live hours away, given us running water and sanitary sewage systems, and made it possible for you to read this blog in your pajamas. It has made the workplace safer, made life more convenient (I really like my automatic espresso machine), made traveling from place to place feasible, and proven that the Earth is not really the center of the universe.  Science, reason, and common sense can also more effectively guide government’s policy decisions, but the rejection of science and, honestly, common sense seem to once again dominate a portion of the loud crowd.

As a consequence of this willful lack of awareness currently burdening a portion of society, facts and truth often seem to matter less than feelings and emotions.  Examples:

  • If I “feel” that EPA’s impact on society is negative I choose to ignore the agency’s demonstrable accomplishments such as the elimination of DDT, reduction of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that were polluting streams, having lead removed from gasoline, reducing auto emissions, reducing air pollution at a time our economic production tripled, and all the other improvements resulting from EPA’s regulations.  And yes, I am well aware of the agency’s occasional overreach as well.  Overreach is a common bureaucratic malady which I will address in a future post. 
  • If I “believe” crime is on the rise, I ignore the facts that prove otherwise.
  • If I’m convinced that Barak Obama’s Middle East policy was a success or that Donald Trump did not really mock a handicapped reporter in spite of proof to the contrary (my father was handicapped so this one was personal for me), then my belief means more than the facts.  Conversely, if I “believe” Obama’s presidency was an abysmal failure or that all of Trump’s nominations are inadequately prepared, I’m once again ignoring facts. 
  • If I’m angry about President Trump’s efforts deporting illegal immigrants, was I also angry when President Obama set the record with two million deportees during his first five years and 2.5 million overall?
  • If I believe Obama is a Muslim and not a natural born American citizen I am ignoring demonstrable facts and relying on uninformed information.  And the Framers in Article VI of the Constitution stated that “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”, so even if he is a Muslim it should not matter.  Our Founding Fathers clearly did not want religion to be a factor.  We can’t just follow the Constitutional passages we like and ignore the others because the facts contradict our wishes. 
  • If I believe Hillary Clinton was consistently truthful, I myself am willfully ignoring the truth.
  • If I believe illegal immigrants are taking millions of jobs from Americans and driving down wages I am ignoring arguments to the contrary.
  • If I believe the solution to improving America’s education system is to spend more money, I’m refusing to acknowledge the more serious problems.
  • If I believe millions of people voted illegally in 2016 although no evidence supports that claim I’m just gullible. 
  • If I believe GMOs are automatically bad for me I’m ignoring the fact that nine out of ten scientists from the American  Association for the Advancement of Science disagree.

Yes, it is easier to let others think for us because they will tell us what we want to hear. In other words they offer information that supports what we already believe. This is referred to as “confirmation bias” and is, in my opinion, more dangerous to America than all other threats combined because it keeps us from accepting truth. If we vote for a certain candidate we refuse to accept the truth of that official’s mistakes and flaws regardless of their magnitude.  If government makes a decision with which we disagree we refuse to accept facts contradicting our beliefs.  If someone on “the other side” makes a public statement we dismiss it without considering its merits.

I’m not claiming that I am immune to confirmation bias.  Nobody is.  We are all influenced by our preconceived notions and biases, but we should at least do our best to be objective and consider alternative points of view as long as those points of view are reasonable and grounded in fact. And we should not accept pundits or politicians telling us things that are obviously false just because what they  tell us fits our preferred  narrative.

Because I am an optimist by nature I honestly believe that almost everyone is capable of logical reasoning, but being logically reasonable requires much more effort and a segment of society is unfortunately unwilling to exert the required effort. Do they prefer a return to medievalism?

 This week’s sources:

Fixing the American Government

When people learn that I’ve studied American politics more than forty years, one question they often ask is what I would change to begin improving the state of American politics, and the answer is actually quite simple; remove money from the equation.  Stop allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to have so much control over who wins party nominations and, ultimately, elections.  Last year $1,312,110,914 was raised for the presidential races alone (yes, that is over a billion dollars).  Another $1,035,693,928 was raised for the 435 House of Representatives seats (again, over a billion dollars) and $787,814,300 for the 33 vacant Senate seats.  The grand total raised last year was…a whole bunch of money.

Here are a few interesting facts.  In 2016, a little more than 70% of all donations of more than $200 came from .5% of the population, .08% gave all donations greater than $2,700,  and 100 individuals or organizations contributed at least $2,272,500 or more EACH.  Interestingly, 30,677 individuals or organizations donated to both parties, apparently hoping to gain influence regardless of the winning party.

What are the consequences of these huge campaign donations? There is honestly no way to be absolutely certain, but it is reasonable to assume that large donors expect to gain access and influence.  And even if the connection between money and influence cannot be conclusively proven (I doubt many elected officials will actually admit that their decisions are based on donations), it certainly seems obvious that it could be a corrupting influence.  If those capable of contributing huge sums are in fact receiving favors that you and I don’t enjoy, I would argue that this contradicts the notion that everyone’s vote should count equally, enunciated in a number of Supreme Court decisions.

A related problem is campaign money’s chilling influence on the notion of fair and competitive elections.  Members of Congress and other elected officials can raise huge sums of money, even in non-election years, and keep that money in their “war chest” (bank account) to use in future elections.  In 2016 fifty members of Congress had at least $1,313,688 in the bank (Paul Ryan had $9,098,873).  Let’s say that Professor Dave decided to run against Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) in last year’s election (he actually represents a different district and I’m offering no critique of his effectiveness; just go along with me here).  Then I learn that Representative Luetkemeyer has $1,858,861 in the bank (which he did), and  I know he can begin spending it when a serious challenger appears.  Professor Dave looks at his bank account (which has MUCH less than $1,858,861) and decides that he will pass on the opportunity to run for this office.  It happens.  I know it does because I know very intelligent and capable people who chose to not pursue an office because of the amount of money required.

How did we get to the point that money is so important that the two 2016 candidates for District 19 of the Missouri Senate, for example, raised $3.6 million to win a seat that pays the winner about $36,000 per year?  In 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court decided that money equals speech, and speech is protected by the 1st Amendment.  The Court thus ruled that limits on the amount people  can contribute to an election are an unconstitutional denial of their speech.  In a 2010 case the Court struck down limits on campaign spending by corporations and unions, ruling in essence that these groups could spend an unlimited amount of money promoting candidates as long as the money wasn’t given directly to the candidate’s campaign.  Money, money, and more money.

To change this requires ether 1)  The Supreme Court to have a change of heart and reverse it’s interpretation of the Constitution, or 2) a Constitutional amendment reversing the Court.  I’m not optimistic.  My ultimate solution would likely be unpopular with many (most?) folks, but I’d like to find a way to follow the British model that limits the amount spent by providing public and equal funding for Congressional and presidential campaigns.  I am a dreamer, but until we remove money as the motivating factor in American politics we will not be able to effectively address all the other issues facing our political system such a gerrymandering, healthcare reform, protecting the environment, or improving our infrastructure.


A House Divided

In 1858  Abraham Lincoln voiced what was at that time a controversial prophesy of America’s future. Reflecting on America’s division caused by slavery, Lincoln stated that “A house divided against itself cannot long endure”, a phrase attributed to Jesus in the Gospels and echoed by philosophers through the ages. Though not facing any specific issue as urgent as was slavery, today’s America is deeply divided. Can we long endure?

The causes of this division are debatable, but its reality is fairly clear. A few examples should suffice:

  • 46% of Americans say things in America are going very well or fairly well while 53% say they are going pretty badly or very badly. I assume both sides accurately assess their stations in life.
  • 86% of Americans believe America is more politically divided than at any other time in our history (even more divided than during the Civil War?!). What is worse, most folks don’t expect it to improve in the coming years.
  • The division between rich and poor has grown to the point that today those in the top .10% possess more wealth than the combined wealth of the bottom 99%
  • Economic opportunities for ethnic minorities remain elusive. According to Forbes (2016), “It would take black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth white families have today, if average black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades. For the average Latino family, it would take 84 years to catch up.”
  • We are divided politically. In the 2016 presidential election Donald Trump received about 46.1% of the votes and Hillary Clinton 48.2%, but 42% of America’s eligible voters did not vote. Further, 28% claim to be Republicans, 25% are Democrats, and 44% are independents.
  • Only 51% view the Democratic Party favorably and 47% view the Republicans favorable.
  • 63% of Americans disapprove of the job Congressional Democratic leaders are doing and 50% disapprove of Republican leadership. Congress has a 19% approval rating (and I honestly wonder what that 19% is seeing that the rest of us are missing).
  • 45% think President Trump is moving too fast in addressing America’s problems, 10% say not fast enough, and 35% say he moving at about the right pace.
  • For 39% of our fellow citizens football is their favorite sport but only 1% claim tennis as favorite (I’m finally a one percenter!)

The list of our differences is quite lengthy. Americans are divided over hot-button issues such as abortion, gun control, environmental protection, education policy, healthcare policy, the best breed of dog (Boxers), and crunchy v creamy peanut butter (crunchy!). Is this new? Absolutely not.  Our Framers were divided over state v federal power, the role of the courts, agrarianism v industrialization, and which bird should become our national symbol. We have been divided throughout our history, so what has changed?

Character (or lack thereof) and mass media. We’ve always had those who behaved in an uncivil manner or who accepted outrageous ideas but, as with today, they were the minority and we could largely ignore them because their reach was limited. Now those people have an easy voice and are willing to use it.  They can disrupt social media with their repulsive ideas or snide remarks, they can spew hate because news websites open stories to comments, they can gain national media attention by staging a demonstration regardless of the cause, and they can attack others whom they’ve never met from the comfort of their living room easy chair via the internet. Because this has become pervasive, a segment of society has now seemed to accept as commonplace politicians being disrespectful to each other (and to those who do not support them), media personalities and others spreading false information which followers accept at face value, and the notion that attacking others verbally is socially acceptable.

How can we change this? One person, one civil response, one opinion based on reason and fact at a time. The pace of change may be glacial, but with this “us v them” mindset which currently divides our house, we cannot long endure.

Today’s Sources: