I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher yesterday, and I empathized with Maher’s frustration at not being able to communicate with people because we can’t agree on facts (Maher refers to this as being “inside the conservative bubble”). In the context of the show, one of the panelists denied climate change, and said that because there are opposing views on climate change from some scientists, it shouldn’t be regarded as a fact.This is, of course, ridiculous. Take any issue whatsoever and I’m sure you can find someone who will take a contrarian view, despite any evidence to the contrary. Once the contrarians are cited as authoritative, nothing prevents people from using that false authority to further their own agendas.
Attempts to debunk the non-authoritative citations (“fact-checking”) have also been dodged in our discussions with simple phrases like “who fact-checks the fact-checkers?” What we’re seeing is on-the-fly accrediting and discrediting of information. How can we have an earnest debate when the parties cannot agree on the universe? The answer is, we can’t.
The major, long-term problem I foresee with this situation is that the public will continue to be grossly misinformed at an increasing rate and therefore continue to be convinced to vote against their best interests. That, in turn, will further entrench established politicians and feed back into the ongoing disinformation campaign carried out by the so-called “24-hour news cycle,” the actual manifestation of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.
The forecast looks gloomy for this country as long as voters, like so many ostriches, remain intellectually dishonest with themselves. Why do we, given all our advancements, fear the unknown so much that we’ll believe whatever makes us feel better? Aren’t there more skeptics out there who want the truth more than they want to be comfortable? Ignorance (and willful ignorance at that) appears to be the bliss that most folks are addicted to these days.
I digress. Back on the topic of debate on science issues, I’ve seen many guests on Maher’s show talk about science as if it’s like having an opinion or a different religion from theirs. What utter bullshit. The whole reason people are supposed to trust science is because there’s a requirement for verification. Compare that to faith-based religion, for which the definition of faith is:
- Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
- Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
You may not attempt to debate with me what the definition of faith is. Unless you’re making a conscious decision to suspend using the English language, we will not disagree on its meaning.
So the big difference between religious belief and scientific belief is that the former is based on faith, and the latter is based on evidence. Glad we got that cleared up. Note that I’m not trying to say that every scientific proposal is sound; They’re not. That’s what testing, control groups, statistical significance, peer review and repeatability are for. Despite having been denounced by everyone in the scientific community as a fraud, Dr. Wakefield’s report that vaccines cause autism is still widely believed after having been often reported by the media prior to the discovery of falsified data.
What can we do to defeat the forces of disinformation, whether they are directly perverting our language or willfully ignoring evidence-based facts? Avoid radicalism, I say. It only helps to sway favor towards the status quo. I think all we can do is encourage and support an educational system that teaches skepticism, critical thinking and logic. Perhaps if we can give people better bullshit detectors, the politicians and political discussions can become a little more honest and productive than they are now. There’s really no place to go but up.