David Mertz: Overlooking the facts is an American phenomenon

Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - 6:37pm

Science is a human invention, based on the unique ability to employ rational thought toward observation. The Greek philosopher Aristotle championed empirical observation as the best way to draw universal conclusions about the world. The sun rises from the east. Living things need food to survive. These are truths which all developed minds agree upon. However, while a human invention, rational thinking guides only a portion of human thought. Humans have other influences too — less cerebral and more deeply ingrained.

Many Americans, especially, often seem portrayed as rejecting rational thought. Watching and reading the news lately, especially about the Republican National Convention, I am reminded of how many people apparently let go of reason and fact for the sake of their beliefs or out of a strong emotion such as fear or determination.

This is an age where social media and other outlets enable anyone to voice their arguments to the widest audience possible, without the necessity for fact-checking. Donald Trump has, over the course of a year, captured the support of people who have ignored factual arguments or have been unable to justify their convictions for carefully-considered, specific reasons. Instead, they feel uncertain of the direction they see in their lives within a more-globalized, unfamiliar world. Trump hasn’t delivered many specific step-by-step plans for how his administration will carry out their policies in order to draw votes, but he also hasn’t needed to.

Equally amazing, if not more so, has been widespread refusal in the United States to accept human responsibility for climate change through the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide to unprecedented levels and rising temperatures. Proponents for more sustainable practices hammer away that 97 percent of climate scientists agree about human activities accelerating climate warming. The scientific method confirms this again and again, yet it didn’t prevent a U.S. senator from bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor during winter in Washington as evidence for the unlikelihood of climate change’s existence. As of two years ago, half of all Americans didn’t ascribe to this belief either. Their opinions are rationalized by something other than science.

Today, the scientific method and rational thinking still hold tremendous sway in our society. The professions of medicine, engineering and science are among the most prestigious to be achieved. Humans have been able to utilize the rational mind to succeed in some of the greatest feats in history: the construction of towering structures, sending people to the moon or to live for months in space, and building the Internet to enable instantaneous mixed-media communication between continents.

This is not a critique of those who make decisions on divisive issues informed by something other than science and rational thinking, but a consideration of why such people arrive at the opinions they have. Every individual has the mental capacity to think rationally, but no individual chooses to in all situations. Even the most utilitarian of individuals, to some degree, may cave to their less rational desires. 

It’s easy for a supporter of a cause, like transitioning to cleaner energy, to portray their opponents as unintelligent and uninformed. But those who may not require the latest science to inform their opinion often have a deeper-rooted rationalization. For example, some opponents of clean energy who favor the use of fossil fuels have relied on those forms of energy for their livelihood.

I remember visiting the tiny, struggling Appalachian town of Dante, Virginia (pronounced “Daint”), whose economy has relied on coal mining for 100 years. Its inhabitants lamented the industry’s transition to other fuel sources. The movement to transition toward cleaner energy has seen coal as part of the problem, but investing in the technology to eliminate emissions due to coal burning may make as large an impact in the short term as beginning to switch the power grid to renewable sources.

The decision by so many Americans to subscribe to feelings over facts concerning critical national issues is worrisome. Yet, to additionally barrage someone with science-backed data in attempt to dismantle their arguments proves ineffective toward reaching common ground. What then can be done to create harmony between viewpoints when those viewpoints are informed by such different reasoning?

The solution requires patience and dialogue. Those of us who rely on the scientific method and rational thought to inform our understanding of the world should seek to understand the rationalizations others make to support their convictions. Sometimes their rationalizations are very personal. When the rest of the world believes that Americans value science less than other developed countries, what they are actually seeing is diversity.

David Mertz can be reached at drmertz@umich.edu