Why Facts Don’t Matter

By Keith Kloor | February 21, 2013 4:53 pm

In a perfect world, every conversation we have about childhood vaccines, GMOs, alternative medicine, and global warming would be based on a set of facts agreed on by a majority of scientists working in those spheres. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so many conversations on the aforementioned subjects are often driven by emotion, ideology and politics.

For example, when I talk to some really smart friends who are opposed to biotechnology, I hear about Monsanto and how GMOs are not natural. I try to have a calm, rational, evidence-based discussion with them, but nothing I say really matters.

I have a similar experience with those who embrace unproven alternative health therapies. If they have already started dabbling in that world, then the chances of us engaging rationally in a science-based discussion are virtually nil, for reasons that Steven Novella explains here. (If you want me to save you time, the short answer is the power of personal experience.)

Sure, there are plenty of people in the respective anti-vaxx and anti-GMO orbits who point to various studies that back up their beliefs. It doesn’t matter that such research has largely been badly skewed, called into question, or taken out of context. It’s the veneer of science that counts.

The dynamics that govern most discussion of climate science are no different. Yet there is this persistent hope that one day reason will win over those who cling to the belief that man-made climate change is a manufactured issue. Matthew Herper, who covers science and medicine for Forbes, recently expressed this hope:

We have reached the point where every rational person who believes in making decisions based on science and available data should, if not fully believe that human beings are warming the planet by releasing greenhouse gases, at least recognize that this is what the data seem to suggest and that it is what the vast majority of scientists who study weather believe is the case.

He directs his plea to the last group of holdouts in the United States: Republicans. Herper goes on to methodically rebut the main objections he has heard from “conservative friends who do not believe in global warming.”

It’s good stuff. His one mistake is thinking he can have a rational, evidence-based discussion with those who are predisposed to thinking that Al Gore, climate scientists, and liberals are using climate change as a pretext to advance a political agenda. Thus, Herper will likely make no more headway on climate change with his conservative friends than I have on GMOs with my liberal friends. (There is a common denominator.) Both of us may have the facts on our side, but the naysayers have something even more powerful: “Motivated reasoning.”

Why are many conservatives inclined to dismiss climate change as a legitimate concern? On a recent post of mine that discussed climate adaptation, a reader sarcastically shot back:

Plan for preventing climate change: Embrace progressive values.

Plan for adapting to climate change: Embrace progressive values.

This is just one comment, but it is emblematic of how conservatives view climate change. People staunchly opposed to GMOs wear a similar ideological lens. That’s why facts don’t often matter in debates on climate change and biotechnology.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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