Too many people make up facts to win arguments

I have cited it before, but one of the great quotes of the last century can’t be repeated often enough. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” U.S. Sen. Patrick Moynihan famously said, “but not his own facts.”

The ability of any society to organize and govern itself depends to a large degree on the general acceptance of Moynihan’s argument. How can you have an honest debate about anything if there is not some agreement by all sides on basic facts? The dictionary definitions of “fact” include “something that actually exists,” “something known to have happened,” and “a truth known by actual experience or observation.” Incredibly enough, we are having trouble today in our political discourse with all of those definitions, but the third – relying on scientific observation – seems to be the most threatened.

Two things happened in the last couple of weeks that made me think about our problems with scientific facts.

The first was the long and completely persuasive series in The News Journal about climate change. I wrote a column a couple of months ago citing “actual observations” by every major scientific organization in this country. Climate change is real, they all agreed. It is to some degree caused by human activity. It is happening. It is a threat.

Certainly, there is a wide range of differing opinions within the scientific community about timing, severity, etc. But on the basic fact that global warming exists, and that it poses a real threat, there is an overwhelming consensus of our scientific organizations. Despite this, we are doing very little to deal with or reverse its potentially catastrophic consequences.

Our elected officials are forever talking about the world they want to pass on to their grandchildren. It is way past time for them to accept the facts about climate change that the scientific community has presented and take action to protect those grandchildren and future generations.

The science of climate change is at least complex, although basic scientific facts are indisputable. The second recent example that shocked me, of our astonishing capacity to ignore science was something simpler – the controversy surrounding comments made by Todd Akin the Republican candidate for the United States Senate in Missouri.

When he used the term “legitimate rape,” just about every public figure in both parties denounced him and called on him to step aside.

But Mr. Akin is not giving up his United States Senate campaign. In fact, even after all of this, it is clear that he still has a great deal of support in Missouri and around the country from people who agree that women who are raped have some kind of physiological reaction that makes it less likely they will become pregnant.

The original source of Mr. Akin’s startling theory was a book written in 1999 by Dr. John C. Willkie, the founder of the National Right to Life Committee. The “rare pregnancy of rape victims” theory was and is unsupported by any scientific evidence. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists flatly says the theory is “medically inaccurate” and “contradicts basic biological truths.”

In addition, the Center for Disease Control reports that “more than 32,000 pregnancies result from rape every year.” But Dr. Willkie has refused to back down. So do his supporters, including the speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, who invited Dr. Willkie to address that legislature a few months ago.

The abortion debate is difficult enough for reasonable people on both sides. To use an argument that has no basis in scientific fact demeans those who use it and makes an honest debate impossible.

This country has succeeded economically in large part because of science and scientific advancement. We must make sure that our children are given the best educations possible in science and math. We must train them in the scientific method and ensure they understand and respect it. In the meanwhile, we must begin to insist that all of our political leaders pay attention to science and facts when making policy decisions.

Originally published 9 September 2012 on