Who We Choose To Believe

We all have to rely on others for our “facts.” Some things, obviously, are known to be facts from our own experience: so, for example, you know whether you have a birthmark or tattoo on you genitals, but few others probably do, despite their possible desire to be in the elite group who do. On the other hand, there are a great many things we need to know, or perhaps more accurately, would be advantaged by knowing, in order to maneuver through our daily lives. For instance, knowing where traffic is at a standstill is of great value during rush hour near any major city. Many things of this sort we would much prefer not be of the “definite fact” type.

Some of these “facts” are of the type that we may also be able to verify ourselves, such as the quadratic formula, but many of these are just as valuable as known “facts,” whether we can say they are truly ‘facts” or not. We just take someone else’s word for it being a “fact.” As a retired math instructor, I am somewhat chagrined by the likelihood that the quadratic equation fits in this category for more people that once took algebra from me than not. I do take comfort in the fact that I at least proved the quadratic formula, a somewhat different thing, in class and asked them to prove it back to me later on a test.

At any rate, the vast majority of what we all hold as “factual” is almost certainly of the type told us rather than “provable.” Everything from whether there’s a god or not to whether free trade is better than a controlled economy are typical examples of questions which, fall in this group.

So our answers must fall in the group as well. We tend to believe the answers, so our “facts” are mostly not really known to us as such so much as told to us by people we choose to believe. That being so, it seems we should choose who we believe carefully–or consciously, at a minimum. Unfortunately, I also think we rarely do so.

I believe in the scientific community. Religion is almost always rooted in the distant past, long before even the most basic tools of science, such as the telescope, were invented. Religion, of course, has the advantage of longevity, and that is an advantage which is hard to overcome.

Many, many, innovations have come forth since the early days of science, but the most important may be the development of the scientific method. Innate in that method is the principle of agreement. Amongst scientists, nothing is accepted as fact until the vast majority of everyone in the scientific community agrees it is a fact. A distinct minority is often ignored in this process, but they are not discouraged from showing the error in the majority’s judgement, either. It’s a pretty good system.

So, why am  going on and on about this? I was reminded of it last week when my brother and I discussed my last blog. It seems he and I have different people we believe in. He thought the trouble with models is that they are subject to the assumptions that the programmer makes.  That is a true observation and a reasonable concern. But it, unfortunately, also lies at the heart of the current debate and divide that grips our nation. There is a group of people who do not accept the scientific community’s near unanimous belief that climate change is both impending and now inevitable. You either believe them or you believe the scientists..

No wonder the country is so divided on issues like climate change. Our sources of facts are, apparently, in utter conflict. What one man takes as beyond dispute the other takes as opinion, at best. Worse, what I personally  think of as both inevitable and worse than worst case projections, he–my brother–thinks of as the ranting of alarmists. It matters little to him that my ranting is rooted in a religious experience, despite the fact that his preferred sources of facts would, presumably, lend it credence therefore. Truth be known, the fact it has its roots in a religious experience worked against my acceptance of the conviction of it’s accuracy, but that is another story.

The bottom line, though, is that I do think it reasonable. I have thought so for long before the religious experience, which also worked against my acceptance of the verity of the experience. When runaway greenhouse effect was first discussed immediately following Keeling’s observations of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide in Hawaii in the mid 1950s it seemed very likely to me. In fact. it seemed a logical consequence. When the discussion moved on I could only wonder why, though by then I had grown depressed by the topic and wanted to hear no more of it. The same, it seems, was true of others as well.

If we had stayed on the topic, though, I wonder how many more of us might now be more hopeful. After all. we would have been looking for off-planet solutions for 30+ years longer than we have been. Perhaps as many scientists would now hold out hope for terraforming Mars as currently buy into inevitable climate change. For sure, I think, we would not have downsized the space program like we did.

Certainly the debate would be very different. But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

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2 Responses to Who We Choose To Believe

  1. Dallas Smith says:

    George, Very good observations and analysis of our current societal divide re: scientists, climate change, evolution, etc. The people who reject scientific consensus do so because they simply want to believe in their preferred “truth.” What a funny coincident that the Republican climate deniers happen to be recipients of petroleum industry largesse.

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