Friday, February 13, 2015

The Fact is, Sticking Intently to Facts is Not Enough

Maybe there was a time in my life when I believed that science, that logic, that being rationale was what would lead people to make the "right" decision. Especially about how the world worked and how it could work. Because once you had all the facts lined up, the answers about what to do would be clear. I believed the real problem was that people just needed to be shown the facts. Facts were neutral and told the truth of the matter. I learned that in great part from my dad, for whom logic backed up by facts ruled when it came to decision making.

Dad loved a good debate, especially when it came to science - he was an academic to the core and he loved to tell you what he thought was the logical thing to do based on science and logic. He wanted to hear your side as well. If you had greater solid evidence than he did, he'd graciously concede. But it was very difficult to win an argument with my dad because he never took on a topic until he had more facts and data behind him than most people could ever hope to marshal. When dad advocated for a position he usually came out on top. If he didn't have the facts, he'd defer the conversation until he could find them. 

I thought of dad this morning after listening to Noah Diffenbaugh at the live-streamed panel "Scientists Communicating Challenging Issues"  at the AAAS meeting. Diffenbaugh, a Stanford climate science researcher, called himself a "fundamentalist" about sticking to the facts, much like my dad. Also like my dad, Diffenbaugh said he was pleased to tell you if he didn't know anything about a topic; I took this to mean he too would not engage in speculation about it. Finally, both Diffenbaugh and my dad felt that scientists were best positioned to rigorously discover the way the world worked and explain it to whoever wanted to know. 

But here's where Diffenbaugh and my dad would have diverged:  Diffenbaugh believes that scientists lose credibility when they suggest policy, or positions, or actions based upon their scientific findings. He lumps the entire spectrum of expressing  an opinion or making a suggestion into advocacy and advocacy as a bad thing. I'll speculate that my dad wouldn't have liked the word advocacy either, but he certainly believed that he, as a scientist, had a responsibility to recommend actions to solve humanity's problems when the science provided facts to support those recommendations.

Diffenbaugh appears to be operating (and here I'm speculating) under the historically debunked idea that if people stay out of the way and don't get involved in politics, good things will happen. Or at least nothing bad will happen. In his somewhat strange example of talking to a US Senator and climate change skeptic, Diffenbaugh explained how after an hour of answering questions with facts, the Senator told his aid to have him "taken off the list". He didn't know what "the list" was and didn't seem particularly interested in knowing, rather, pointing out he believed he had "balanced the conversation", and by implication swayed the Congressman's skepticism of climate change. And, by extension, effected how that Senator would act on the matter in the future.

Lots of assumptions without sufficient facts to back them up. Lots of hopeful thinking that facts would change strongly held views, which, as other panelists pointed out, the research shows is simply not the case. Lots of wishful thinking that staying neutral will earn deep and lasting respect from others. Need we trot out history to drive home this point?

My dad perhaps knew better than anyone that people are irrational beings. As a young boy my father was caught up in Stalin's ambitions for what the world should look like, spending part of his childhood in Siberia and the rest of it in refugee camps across the Middle East. I suspect the trauma of this experience had a lot to do with why he became an academic and wanted to understand how the world worked. I suspect it also explains why he chose the sciences, where logic and reason provided a well defined and stable framework for understanding the world. 

But most importantly, I believe that early confrontation with reality led my father to believe he had a responsibility to society to take a stand on societal and environmental issues and to defend them as strongly as he could. Credibly. With Science. With Facts. 

You can study history for endless examples of how refusing to express opinions (political or otherwise) had little effect on other people's attitudes or behavior. Check the research for the peer reviewed studies on human behavior to back it up. 

It's not merely an academic conversation. It's about understanding how the world works and acting on that knowledge.