Thursday, July 15, 2010

Do Facts Matter?

By Tom Kando

Mark Twain once said about a man that “he knows a lot, except that most of what he knows ain’t so.” (Paraphrased).

This accurately describes the multitudes among us who believe in various conspiracy theories, the birthers who “know” that Obama isn’t US born, the millions who “know” that immigrants cause the crime rate to rise, those who believe that 9/11 was a plot concocted by Israel and Dick Cheney, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that Jews control Hollywood, the media and American foreign policy, etc.

Humans have an innate need to reduce Cognitive Dissonance.

There is a long line of research documenting this, starting with Leon Festinger’s famous When Prophecy Fails in 1956. A small occult group had predicted that the world would end on a specific date, but that the group would be rescued by aliens. When this did not happen, the cultists, far from abandoning their beliefs, actually persisted in them with even greater vigor.

In other words, when confronted with facts which disprove our beliefs, many of us are more apt to deny the facts than to alter our beliefs.

If scientists find undeniable proof of life on earth 200 million years ago, creationists simply argue that those fossils were planted there by God 6,000 years ago, to fool us. In the face of irrefutable evidence of man-caused global warming, millions continue to quibble about minor scientific errors made while collecting the evidence, so as to deny the whole thing.

When Rush Limbaugh tells millions of hypnotized ditto-heads that the European middle class is poorer than the American lower class, they gullibly accept this as fact, even though it isn’t true.

When the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports prove that the crime rate is way down, millions continue to believe that it is out of control.

There are many established facts which should no longer be debated. The Solar System is heliocentric, not geocentric. We don’t need to cite Copernicus to support this assertion. Same with Darwinian evolution, global warming, and the fact that the American health care system is inferior to that of France, Germany, Canada and most other advanced countries.

It is tempting for a progressive such as myself to locate what I call the “triumph of belief over fact,” mostly on the right. And sure enough, sources such as Fox News are very guilty of the fraudulent and selective manipulation of facts for their nefarious political ends. Also, fundamentalist religious beliefs aggravate the reckless disregard of facts.

However, no part of the political spectrum has a monopoly on this. For one thing, the most virulent form of religious fundamentalism today is not conservative Christianity, but radical Islam. The belief in lunatic conspiracy theories is nowhere more widespread than in places like Pakistan.

And then there is another threat to scientific progress and to a rational, fact-based culture today:

Ever since I began teaching in the 1960s, the entire intellectual community has prayed at the altar of cultural relativity: Soon after the social sciences discovered this principle, it became dogma. Every 18-year old sociology freshman now came to the same conclusion: there are no absolutes.... And there is no such thing as good or evil.

....which means that there are no such things as facts. Post-modernism ran even further with the ball. Traditional math is sexist. We need to create a feminist math. History only consists of narratives, not facts.

For example: How did human life emerge in the Western Hemisphere? Archaeologists tell us that this happened when pre-historic tribes crossed the Bering Straight from Asia. But this is just one narrative. An alternative narrative is provided by American aborigines, who believe that humans sprang forth from the womb of mother earth. To the post-modernist, neither of these two narratives is more valid than the other.

So you see, the obstinate rejection of facts which contradict our beliefs is not limited to any group. It is rooted in our psychological make-up. The problem is, action based on belief over fact is likely to get you in trouble. Believing that you can fly doesn’t make jumping off a skyscraper any safer. leave comment here