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: