Do We Live in a World without Facts?
By MATT SEDDON
On Jan. 22, desperate parents of children with cancer demonstrated and caused a significant amount of chaos at Mexico City’s Benito Juárez International Airport. They were fighting for the lifesaving medications their children needed — medications they said they could not obtain.
The leader of the protest received a call from a high-level government official, who assured him the medicines were in the hospitals. The leader of the protest also received a call from a mother at a hospital, saying there was no medicine.
This seems like a simple question to resolve: Do the hospitals have the medicine? Or do they not? What are the facts here?
The debate over the facts of the presence or absence of certain medications in Mexico strikes me as one example of an unproductive style of dialogue plaguing our society. Whether we are talking about health care and medicine, climate change, our global economic system, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, gun control, terrorism or any major problem, we cannot seem to agree on the facts.
People say, therefore, that we are living in a post-facts world, where facts no longer matter. However, what they most often mean by this is that the other side refuses to acknowledge the facts.
As a former scientist (an anthropologist who specialized in archaeology) and an Anglican priest, these issues resonate with me deeply. As a scientist, I believe there are facts. As an Anglican priest, I was taught, and firmly believe, that we must begin any ethical debate by investigating and then agreeing on the facts of the matter at hand. But how can we do this in a post-facts world?
First, I think we have to learn from scientists that determining facts is not a simple process. My daughter just spent a summer interning at Fermilab, a high-energy physics research facility. She collected data from sub-atomic collisions generated by the huge particle accelerator at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). What struck me most about her research was the degree to which it was focused on computer programming and statistical models designed to sort out what was important, verifiable and repeatable data and what wasn’t. The researchers at CERN were trying very hard to identify the “facts,” and it wasn’t easy.
We also know from philosophers, anthropologists, cultural critics and scientists that our observations of the world are never free from bias. We all carry bias; we see things differently based on our gender, our ethnicity, our nationality, our psychology and a myriad other aspects that make up who we are as individuals. Science has developed some excellent methods for overcoming these biases, but they aren’t perfect. Simply put, we cannot escape our biases completely, even when examining what seem to be simple questions of evidence and data.
So what can we do? How can we find ways to have constructive dialogues when we can’t agree on the facts? I don’t really think we live in a post-facts world, but I do think our society is failing to agree on facts and on the interpretation of those facts.
Perhaps our first step is to realize that what we are often debating has more to do with ethical values than facts. When we can’t agree on the facts, most often the root of the problem is that we have different values.
For example, I am an Anglican who puts a high ethical value on what I believe is God’s creation. I may disagree about climate change facts with someone who puts a higher ethical value on preserving our economic order in the hopes of not causing unintentional harm to people’s livelihoods. Our disagreement may be caused by a clash of values, not a clash of facts. And maybe, if we delve deeply enough, we can find common values, or at least have a better sense of how those values are shaping our identification of and interpretation of the facts. Because the truth is, as an Anglican, I also value people and think it is important that we not harm their right to a dignified life through poor environmental or economic choices.
I have had my most productive discussions with people I disagree with when we turn our conversation to values, often by first examining our feelings. I learned this not from my scientific training, but from my priestly pastoral care training. Good questions to start with tend to be: “Why are you upset?” “What about this problem distresses you?” “What is important to you about this issue?”
If we can listen to other people’s values, really listen, and try to understand rather than just wait until the person stops speaking in order to re-assert our own values, we might be able to have more useful conversations. And if we’re going to solve these problems together, which we must do if we’re going to thrive as a species, we have to use our human empathy, ability to listen, compassion and understanding to find our common values.
This does not mean we will cease to debate. We do have significant differences in our values, sometimes ones that cannot be reconciled easily. But if we can talk about what is really bothering us, rather than hurling different facts at one another, we might be able to make some progress on protecting and supporting what we value, or at least begin to define what we consider our communal values.
I have deep sympathy for the parents of children with cancer here in Mexico. I doubt they would go to the airport and cause chaos if they didn’t feel desperate and weren’t actually unable to obtain the medicine their children need to survive cancer. I also doubt seriously that there is anyone in the government who can’t empathize with these parents.
I don’t know what is causing the shortages and absence of medicine, though I do believe we can and should find out. There are facts about medications in Mexico. We’re a rich world, with lots of medicine. I don’t think we lack the means to get it to those who desperately need it. I’m willing to bet, though, that there is a clash of values of some kind affecting the procurement and distribution of medicine that we must discover in order to solve the problem.
We don’t live in a post-facts world. We live in a world of diverse and clashing values, and those values affect what facts we see and how we see them. When we talk about values, instead of hurling different facts at one another, we might find ways to move beyond never-ending debates that prevent us from doing the good we can do in a complicated, confusing, uncertain, yet hopeful, world.