It’s Complicated, and We’re Scientifically Illiterate

The Washington Post recently reported on correspondence raising an issue that members of the U.S. Senate should respect, but probably won’t.

A letter was sent by ecologists and climate scientists and was endorsed by 65 other researchers, including a number of leaders of forest science, and by several scientific societies, and pointed out that pending bipartisan (!) energy legislation includes claims that burning trees for energy is carbon neutral–a claim that is scientifically incorrect.

“Legislating scientific facts is never a good idea, but is especially bad when the ‘facts’ are incorrect,” say the researchers, led by Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center. “We urge you and other members of the Senate to reconsider this well-intentioned legislation and eliminate the misrepresentation that forest bioenergy is carbon-neutral.”

The amendment in question was introduced by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine; it has seven cosponsors and urges leaders of the federal government to act in ways that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source.”

Shortly after its passage, a press release by Collins hailed the amendment, which, she said, would “help ensure that federal policies for the use of renewable biomass are clear, simple, and reflect the importance of biomass for our energy future.” The release noted the support of groups including the American Forest and Paper Association and the American Wood Council.

The argument for carbon neutrality–which sounds reasonable–is that, although burning trees emit carbon, trees grow back and when they do, they sequester carbon, making the process neutral.

A key problem, say the scientists, is that it takes a long time for trees to grow back after they’re cut down — and a lot can happen in that span of time.

Here’s the real issue: We elect lawmakers to make policy determinations—determinations that inevitably involve tradeoffs. Those tradeoffs may prove to have been unwise, or based upon faulty information, but that’s the nature of the job.

We don’t, however, elect people to legislate scientific fact. (Indiana’s legislature is still the butt of jokes from a century-old effort to change the value of pi.) It may seem like a picky quibble when Congress is doing so much other damage (Yuuge damage), but when lawmakers triumphantly “demonstrate” the falsity of climate change by throwing  snowballs in the Senate chambers, it’s important.

There is a difference between language claiming that a policy choice is being made based upon scientific consensus, or upon careful consideration of contending scientific opinions, and language that characterizes a conclusion as scientific “fact” And it’s an important difference.

In an era where presidential candidates routinely make colossally untrue statements, when Indiana’s governor can tamper with an “independent” report in order to reflect more desirable “factual” findings, when Michigan’s governor can tell Flint’s citizens that he can assess water quality, you might argue that the mere existence of a bipartisan bill recognizing the importance of cutting carbon emissions should be considered a huge win. I get that.

But I think the real lesson is that respecting the distinction between fact and opinion is for that very reason more important than ever.


The Attack on Truth

A recent, lengthy column in the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoans what Stephen Colbert used to call “truthiness” and what the author calls an “attack on truth”:

There is simple ignorance and there is willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. Normally that occurs when someone has a firm commitment to an ideology that proclaims it has all the answers — even if it counters empirical matters that have been well covered by scientific investigation. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects a dangerous contempt for the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth. And once we are on that road, it is a short hop to disrespecting truth.

The author lays much of the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of postmodern literary critics and cultural-studies folks who advanced the argument that truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity.

There is much more, and the entire column is well worth reading, but I think the argument against postmodernism is misplaced. (I think fear, a product of modernity’s disorienting change, has far more explanatory power.) I have my own problems with postmodernism, but there is a difference–which the author glosses over–between “truth” and “fact.” And that difference matters.

Science deals with the discovery of testable facts-– the sort of knowledge that can be confirmed or debunked by experimentation and reason. Facts are demonstrable, and the data upon which they are based can be shared with others who have the necessary skills to evaluate them. The broader meanings and conclusions we humans draw from the facts at our disposal, however, are subject to social construction.

Morality, philosophy and religious doctrines are efforts to identify truths of the sort that cannot be verified in a laboratory and must inevitably remain matters of belief. Or faith.

The author is right about one thing, however: When we choose to disregard facts established by science, we also abandon any pretense that we are searching for those broader truths, or even acting in our own rational self-interest.

When our anti-intellectual policymakers cling ever more frantically to their “willful ignorance,” we’re all in trouble.

Big trouble.


Just the Facts

As regular readers of this blog know, I tend to harp a lot on the inadequacies of the media and the importance of accurate and complete information. My (frequently unarticulated) assumption is that if people agree about the facts of a matter, they are more likely to agree upon what those facts mean. So facts matter. A lot.

Case in point: yesterday, I shared my frustration about Fox News and its incessant drumbeat about a ‘Benghazi scandal’ the details of which the network neglects to specify. One of the commenters purported to fill in the blanks by asserting that the administration had refused to deploy troops that were within range and might have saved lives.

That would indeed be scandalous, if true. But as most other media outlets have reported, every military official in a position to know has emphatically denied the allegation. (Former Secretary of Defense Gates characterized the belief that the nearest troops could have gotten to Benghazi in time to defend the embassy as based upon “a cartoonish understanding” of military operations.) Unless every military expert from Gates on down is part of a conspiracy to protect the administration, the facts do not support the single concrete accusation being made.

I’ve been mulling over the role fact-finding plays in our political debates, because I’ve been reading a book that has been getting a lot of attention lately, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt’s scholarship is focused upon moral psychology, and the book is an excellent and very accessible exploration of evolutionary morality and the operation of culture on innate human tendencies.

One of the innate tendencies Haidt identifies is a belief in proportionality; that is, a belief that reward should be based upon contribution. Most of us have an innate “fairness” monitor that tells us that the member of the tribe who works hard should be entitled to a greater share of communal goods produced than the slacker.

I think both conservatives and liberals agree with this moral premise. Their dispute is with application—that is, with the facts. For example, if you believe that people are poor because they are lazy and conniving—that is, slackers, you will resent their dependence on public assistance. If you discover that the great majority of poor people work 40 or more hours a week at jobs that simply do not pay enough to allow them to get by, and that those who are “gaming the system” are a very small percentage, you are less likely to feel that you’ve been taken advantage of and more likely to support policies aimed at making the working poor self-sufficient.

There are lots of other examples, but the basic point is: facts matter. Conservatives and liberals (terms that have lost much clarity in any event) share many more moral premises than the pundits and pontificators assume.

What we increasingly do not share is accurate and complete information–and a uniformly credible media.