i'm reposting this for three reasons:

1.  i think it is an interesting observation that did not get much notice

2.  it's been on my mind a lot lately

3.  many of the blog posts have been weak lately.  not to belittle anyone else's efforts, but many are more appropriate for discussions or simple status updates than a blog post, IMO.  anyway, i'll also post the few comments that were made. 

please feel free to comment on your thoughts.  am i right?  wrong?  does this matter?  does this matter not?  do you have any ideas? 

"facts are true whether you believe them or not" - Adam Savage (from the Reason Rally)

sadly, it is possible that Mr. Savage was wrong.  sure, on the face of it a statement like that is a no-brainer.  however, in today's world we are seeing a strange phenomena where facts are only as useful as a person wants them to be.  facts are now up for debate.  facts depend on the source from which you acquire them.  lastly, facts are no longer facts if someone chooses not to believe them. 

how have i come to this conclusion?  just look at some recent events and you begin to see how facts are ignored, misrepresented, or outright denied in favor of the exact opposite position.  by it's very definition, something that is a fact shouldn't have an opposite position.  the opposite of a fact is a falsehood.  yet it seems that in today's world the falsehood is given equal footing by those who simply choose to believe in the falsehood as fact. 

want some examples? 

i'll start off with an easy one.  it is a Scientific fact that you cannot choose your sexual orientation.  one would think that this issue was put to bed decades ago.  i give you Conservapedia:

"A 2003 poll done by Ellison Research of Phoenix, Arizona stated that 82% of all American Protestant ministers agreed with the statement “homosexuality is a choice people make."

and the ministers are not alone.  we hear the same rhetoric from prominent Republican politicians all the time.  the fact that homosexuality is a choice is being ignored in favor of a deeply held Religious belief. 

another easy example are two i'll lump together - Evolution and Climate Change.  without going into great detail, we still have nearly 40% of the American public not believing in the fact of Evolution.  with Climate Change, we have deniers who claim that it is a Scientific fact that more CO2 in the atmosphere is a good thing, b/c CO2 is plant food.  this has been debunked by actual Scientists over and over, yet deniers continue to argue that their information is accurate.  additionally, we have demonstrable proof that the Earth is warming (whether it's man-made is an entirely different issue), yet i see time and time again deniers claiming that the data is wrong and being manipulated.  why?  they claim it's a big Communist scam.  never mind that those providing the deniers with their information are not credentialed Climate Scientists, for deniers they are a trusted source who provides them with pseudo-facts to help them fight those with real facts from actual Scientists.  here, we see facts being denied through intentional misinformation which is accepted by those who wish it to be true. 

moving on, it is a fact that the USA was founded as a secular nation.  a quick read of the amazing secular Constitution makes this crystal clear.  well, not so, say many on the Religious Right.  they adamantly claim that America is a Christian Nation.  without getting into this too deeply, i will point out this brief article which does a nice job of debunking the myth of our Founding Father's intentions:

http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2012/05/08/debunking-dsouza-...

revisionist historians continue to claim that Jefferson was highly religious, and that the founders credited Christianity for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  so while it is a fact that America's secular status is the genius of our Nation, there are those who simply choose to believe that is not the case because they can mine quotes that support their belief. 

here's a slightly different one that recently came to me.  i keep hearing from GOP strategists and politicians that only 50% of Americans pay income taxes.  they make this claim to show that poor people are not pulling their weight, and that the rich already pay more than they should.  on the face of it, this sounds like an interesting "fact".  except for one little thing - 24% of the population is under 18 years old, 13% are over 65 years old, another 4% are currently in college, and about 10% are unemployed.  add those up and you get 51%.  so of course, only about half of the population pays income taxes - only about half of the people work!  in this case, the facts are being distorted to further an agenda.  so while this may be a fact, it's a garbage fact that is passed off as important information. 

i can list many more examples.  Obama Birthers claim it's a fact that he is a Kenyan Muslim.  Allen West says it's a fact that there are 80 communists in Congress.  Religious people discuss God's existence as fact without evidence.  anti-abortionists claim that life begins at conception.  Religious leaders continue to say that birth-control causes cancer.  feel free to add on to this list in the comments. 

i believe the reason for the extreme distortion of what constitutes a fact is the internet.  i love the internet, and give it credit for the rise of Atheism and the Arab Spring.  however, through it, you can find information supporting almost any position you may want to take.  if i woke up one day thinking that oxygen may be bad for the human body, it is likely that i could find something online confirming my intuition.  the internet has become a powerful tool for confirmation bias.  that is, if you believe something to be true you will likely be able to find others who agree with you, and might even present their own version of factual evidence. 

2 decades ago, there were only a few ways to gather "evidence" to support your position.  you could go to the library, hope to find something on TV that provides insight, or speak with other people.  if you happened to have some bizarre notion, it would be difficult to find something to back it up.  not any more, and that is a scary problem that the Information Superhighway has given us.  articles on Right Wing blogs are given equal footing as those from legitimate Scientific publications in the eyes of the internet.  the internet doesn't discriminate.  it doesn't tell you what is legit and what isn't.  the burden lays on the user to determine which they should trust, and all too often the populace is poorly prepared to make such decisions. 

i don't have a solution, but i think it's important to discuss the problem.  and i fear it will only get worse and lead to increased polarization in America.

comments:

Comment by Reason Being on May 9, 2012 at 10:24pm
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Matt---you are writing on a very important issue.  I would say that the facts are the facts---however there are many people (in power) who choose not to take them into account.  We have politicians and preachers that are trusted and who ignore those facts because they do not serve their purposes.  The sheep then listen.  This becomes a never ending circle of stupidity.  The reality is that most people will listen to their religious leader over a scientist whom they cannot understand and/or most people will hear what they want to hear...life is easier that way...

Either way you are right.  This is a big problem that needs to be addressed and be addressed quickly.

Comment by matthew greenberg 5 minutes ago
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"Either way you are right.  This is a big problem that needs to be addressed and be addressed quickly."

i'd like to ask just how this can be addressed?  should revisionist historians like David Barton be barred from speaking?  or writing books/blogs?  from appearing on TV shows? 

should climate scientists only be able to write about global warming?

should answers in genesis be shut down by the Federal Gov't? 

i think the answers to these questions is obviously NO.  yet i'm left with no actual ideas of how to properly identify what is a valid source. 

perhaps an independent ratings agency to rate the accuracy of the information presented on a website?  this sounds promising until you consider the logistics and impracticality of this suggestion.  and perhaps even the legality.

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Tags: abortion, change, climate, creationism, evolution, facts

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Comment by jay H on June 18, 2012 at 9:02pm
One needs some degree of caution when declaring 'facts'. There are lots of things that are probably true, lots that are very likely true, some that are almost certainly true. And yet these are mixed together in this discussion.

Are people born gay? Are you talking about men or women? There appears to be a different psychological mechanism at work here. And what about bisexuality? How many people reside somewhere on the bisexual spectrum? I know a woman who can very easily slide between being 'gay' and 'straight'. Is she making a choice? It's commonly declared as settled that people have not choice, but we don't know that. But then the bottom line is: even if it IS somewhat of a choice... so what? Shouldn't we be defending the right to make the choice rather than insisting that it does not exist?

There is no scientific 'fact' about when life begins, because it depends on one's definition. Like many moral issues, there is a significant degree of gut feeling involved because there is no single magic number one can point to.

Evolution comes pretty close to fact because nothing else comes close to explaining so much so well, but it completely undermines many religions, so there is a lot of resistance there. YOu are unlikely to find ANY atheist who favors creation (Hoyle was probably the closest).

By comparison it is simplistically wrong to assume the same thing is going on in the climate arguments just because superficially some of the same people have picked up on it. It does not undermine any religious teaching or concept. If anything it is a political/ideological split between a top down driven coercive approach (even across national governments) versus a more free approach. You also have people who are strong supporters of evolution (Matt Ridley for example, has written about being in and out of the 'mainstream') who feel that the climate change position has extrapolated far beyond what is really justifiable. (One skeptic pointed out that the two questions that the famous 97% of climate scientist supposedly answered 'yes' to are so vague that the majority of skeptics would also answer yes to the same questions).

On the other hand, things like the value of vaccinations are far better established because they are not simply theory and model, but we have thousands of real world cases to back them up. Alas many controversial scientific positions are not nearly so well proven (even thought they may well be correct).

Not everything that is correct is necessarily a fact.
Comment by Michael Brice on June 18, 2012 at 4:59pm

"facts are true whether you believe them or not" - Adam Savage (from the Reason Rally)

 

He is not wrong, an individuals choice to wilfully ignore a fact does not mean the fact is now up for debate - it just means they are stupid. A fact is a fact is a fact...............

Comment by matthew greenberg on June 18, 2012 at 2:10pm

god damn, brilliantly put Loren (as usual).  of course you are right, and no, we shouldn't be surprised.  some day i hope to be pleasantly surprised, but that day is not today.

Comment by Loren Miller on June 18, 2012 at 2:05pm

Facts are inconvenient when they conflict with your ideology, especially when you grew up with that ideology, are convinced that it MUST be correct, and MUST be realized, regardless of how illogical or unworkable it is.  This also applies if your ideology benefits you and your peers at the expense of others (who are relatively unimportant to you), even if it has the potential for social or political unrest.  Why should you care?  It's an IDEAL, perfect in its conception, and it serves you and your ego to a fare-thee-well.

I can't help but notice that "ideology" as framed here tends to show up with people whose egos can contain or consider only themselves and very little else.  I also note that said ideologies tend to be simplistic and tunnel-visioned, failing to consider what the ideologue likely thinks of as being trivial issues.  Worst of all, such concepts rarely if ever reflect pragmatism or general applicability beyond a given subset of people.  This is ideology which doesn't care about "raising all boats," just the ones YOU want raised.

And right now the two worst offenders of this mode of thinking are the Republican Party and the church ... damned near ANY church ... and are any of us really surprised?

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