Neil Heinen's Column: Weird Science

Facts are facts, except when we don’t like them

Published On: Oct 18 2012 03:33:25 PM CDT   Updated On: Oct 18 2012 03:33:31 PM CDT
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By: Neil Heinen

I for one will remember the elections of 2012 for their focus on the truth—or lack thereof. Politicians have dodged the facts, or created their own, for a long time. But this is the first time disdain for the truth has been welcomed so appreciatively by citizens who want desperately to believe what they wish to be true, even if it is not.

Rare is the politician these days who can resist telling people what they want to hear. That takes courage and honesty. Neither is any longer required for public service. Often, telling the truth also takes a little intellectual rigor. And that, too, is in short supply. Take our increasingly typical national approach to science. It used to be that science commanded a certain respect, even in those of us with limited understanding of its tenets. One of the definitions of science is knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding. It is a systemized understanding of facts. Of course, there is room for disagreement over the relationship between facts and truth, but I’ll leave that to the philosophers. This is about science. And more and more in America we don’t like it. In some cases we don’t even want to talk about it.

Speakers at the recent Association of Opinion Journalists annual conference went so far as to say our distaste for honest discussion of global climate change has become a national security issue. Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate at the American Security Project, said while climate change does not cause wars and other crises, it contributes to the underlying problems. He called it an accelerant of instability and unpredictability around the world.

“In order to get beyond the political debate about this, it’s important to start with some facts,” Holland said. “The record is indisputable that the world is warming.” Panel moderator Jim Ludes of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy said, “Whatever you believe personally about climate science, this is a conversation we need to have as a nation.”

There is evidence aplenty that we don’t want to have that conversation, preferring instead the self-affirming assurances of talk radio entertainers that what we wish to believe are in fact true, facts be damned. This may sound a little strange coming from someone who writes editorials for a living, but we all need to read more than just the opinion columns. In the last year or so The Wall Street Journal has published some absolutely terrific stories on modern, multimodal transit systems in the U.S., and how they are boosting the economy and helping cities grow. Yet the squawkers who can recite the Journal’s editorial positions word for word apparently don’t read what’s in the rest of the paper. Likewise we accept our elected officials and their cable TV apologists insisting that climate change is best ignored if not disputed, when the overwhelming majority of scientists say otherwise, and our military leaders recognize its importance in global stability.

I was thinking about all this as UW–Madison Chancellor David Ward was talking to the WISC-TV3 editorial board about innovations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Too many young people in high school are slow to embrace these disciplines, and they don’t do well in them. Ward thinks it could be because they’re just not ready. Perhaps, he says, it would be better for colleges to offer basic science and math education when we’re a little older, a little wiser, and more ready to learn.

It makes a lot of sense, like most of what Ward says. The problem, according to Ward, is that politicians view such curriculum reform as remedial and thus not worth funding. That would lead one to think the politicians think this is about money. But perhaps it’s really about science—knowledge as distinguished from ignorance. And we don’t want to talk about that.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

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