Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | November 6, 2012

The politics of grasping reality

“It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” ~ Carl Sagan

One thing that writing opinion columns and serving on editorial boards for nearly a decade has taught me is the importance of agreeing on a common set of facts. I’ve learned that it’s the key to taking the venom out of political debates. The failure of so many to grasp the universe as it really is, to borrow Sagan’s phrase, is the reason that our political disagreements are so intractable.

If both sides of a debate stipulate the facts that are relevant to an issue, but still disagree on the best course of action, the disagreement is due to differing priorities. Acknowledging this makes understanding the other side’s position much easier, thus reducing the likelihood of demonizing the opposition.

In 2007, the California Supreme Court ruled that public employee salaries are public information. As you might expect, the editorial board of the newspaper lauded that decision. A public employee I know was disconcerted by the praise and we met to discuss it over lunch. No epithets were hurled, no food was thrown, no voices were raised. Why? Because we agreed on the basic relevant facts. However, we had different priorities: My top priority was government transparency; the public employee’s top priority was personal privacy. In this clash of priorities, the California Supreme Court determined that government transparency was the most important.

But in so many of our current debates, we can’t even agree on the facts. Some examples:

Affordable Care Act: This law, often called ObamaCare, doesn’t have any provisions to create anything remotely like “death panels,” yet 41 percent of respondents to a recent Associated Press-GfK poll believe it does.

Global climate change: The idea that “climate change is almost certainly being caused by human activities” is supported by “more than 95% of scientists working in the disciplines contributing to studies of our climate,” according to SkeptiScience. In addition, “There are no national or major scientific institutions anywhere in the world that dispute the theory of anthropogenic climate change. Not one.”

The science is so overwhelming that Prof. Richard A. Muller, once a prominent climate change skeptic, recently changed his mind after conducting a Koch-funded study on the subject. The LA Times noted that “the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, … along with its libertarian petrochemical billionaire founder Charles G. Koch, has a considerable history of backing groups that deny climate change.”

Yet, only 67 percent of Americans accept that climate change is a real phenomenon, The Hill reports.

Abstinence-only sex education: Despite their backers’ claims to the contrary, studies show that abstinence-only sex education programs do not increase rates of teen abstinence, and that abstinence-until-marriage programs reduce the use of contraception and increase rates of anal and oral sexual activity among teens who take pledges to remain virgins until marriage, according to studies reviewed by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. Yet, over the last 25 years, the federal government has spent more than $1.5 billion on abstinence-only sex ed programs, SIECUS reports.

Death penalty. The death penalty is vastly more expensive than life in prison without parole. The LA Times reported on studies that show those increase costs are due to higher trial expenses, appeals costs, increased death row security measures, among others. Yet, it’s not uncommon for Proposition 34 opponents to deny these numbers.

I could go on and on, citing topics as diverse as evolution, the efficacy of trickle-down economics, President Obama’s birthplace and religion, the history of this country’s founding, to name just a few.

It’s gotten so bad that pop culture is acknowledging the problem. Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, quit his journalism job at The Daily Planet with these words: “Facts have been replaced by opinions. Information has been replaced by entertainment.”

I worry about our political climate in which facts are increasingly irrelevant and in which ignorance is tolerated and sometimes celebrated. It’s in our best interest to grasp reality, as Sagan suggested, even when it doesn’t line up with our ideology or theology. I hope that we can learn from the Dalai Lama, who wrote in The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

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  1. [...] that’s so prevalent in what passes for political “debate” today (the subject of my penultimate column), you’ve got a toxic brew that’s poisoning our democracy and our communities. When we ignore [...]


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