Facts matter, but do they speak for themselves?

In the current hyper-polarization of our political system, many of us have become blinded by our biases, and reflexively reject information that challenges our perspectives. Yet, we continue to cling to an expectation that there is always a “right” answer for every problem or controversy, and that if only those who disagreed with us understood the “facts” we could make better progress on solutions.

The problem with this expectation is that while facts matter, they don’t always seem to speak for themselves. Several studies have shown that individuals draw upon social identity and their own experiences when forming political preferences, and that factual information is not necessarily a primary driver of how they draw conclusions and confront political decisions, especially if facts point to a reality that undermines their worldview. The natural tendency is to rebel against this information, even to the point of ignoring or rejecting strong scientific evidence. Put simply, politics is not science. However, the explosion in the number of media outlets pushing ideological perspectives, and challenging generally-accepted, rigorous data analysis, has made it even easier for Americans to seek and find their own alternative “facts” on key issues, resulting in the elevation of politics way above science, thereby erecting serious roadblocks to democratic decision-making.

Two timely examples help illustrate. One concerns how society should respond to the ever-increasing number of mass shootings. Those favoring more restrictive gun laws point to facts linking more guns to more mass shootings in America, and fewer guns to fewer mass shootings in other democracies. On the other hand, gun-rights advocates like to emphasize that many who support more restrictive gun laws don’t even know basic facts about guns. The second example involves the dispute between climatologists and climate-change deniers. The former offer peer-reviewed, scientific findings about catastrophic effects of human-caused climate change, while the latter point to a colder-than-usual April, scoffing at climate change, and refusing to accept that humans are causing it. All the while, the streets of cities like Miami Beach and New Orleans flood more regularly, polar bears get stranded on icebergs, and innocent children and adults get massacred in their places of learning, worship, and leisure.

These two issues reveal that although people may cling to their own “facts” the relative consequences for society of doing so must be acknowledged. While “where you stand depends on where you sit” aphoristically sums up the notion that people have different views based on their own experiences, we need to aspire to a norm that elevates scientifically-based information to its rightful place above opinion as we attempt to govern ourselves in these trying times. Fact-checking websites and organizations do help in this regard. But, in a republic created to establish justice and promote the general welfare, doing so hinges more than ever on acknowledging that some facts really do speak for themselves. The earth was never flat, regardless of what people believed.

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