Do we still believe in “facts?”

Pop quiz, hot shot: which of the following statements has more evidence to support it?

  1. John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln
  2. Humans have evolved from earlier humanoid primates
  3. William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet

So, what is the correct answer? The answer is #2. There is a far greater wealth of evidence to support human evolution than there is to support the other two “facts.” So what makes for a fact? We think of facts as being incontrovertible–the sun will come up tomorrow, and that the sky is blue despite the fact that neither may be the case in northern Alaska. We have always taken many of these imperfect yet heavily supported truths as fact, and why not? We do need some way to understand the world, and to trust that some things are so, regardless of the possibility of contorting logic to flaw the fact. In short, what we think of “fact” is changing.

So why is it that today’s social landscape has become more open to the free misinterpretation and even rejection of truths that are nearer to incontrovertible that many of the “facts” learned in school? When did popular opinion begin to trump that of scientists and experts?

I offer five examples:

  1. Humans have evolved from lesser primate species
  2. Global warming is caused or accelerated by humans
  3. Vaccines do not cause Autism
  4. Processed food causes diabetes and obesity
  5. Homosexuality is naturally present in many biological species, including humans

Hot button, huh? Controversial to say the least. I will not take up space here arguing any of these facts. That has already been done, and this is my point.  All of these statements have been supported by over 90% of researchers qualified to weigh in on the subject. Unfortunately, in order for the average American citizen to believe any of these, it is presumed that they must be able to accurately debate the proofs and research involved in these conclusions. Yes, there is opposing research, as there is with virtually anything. What makes these five statements surprising is that all of them have a staggering wealth of scientific research to support them. FAR more so than a majority of so-called “facts” learned in schools.

At some point in American discourse, it was determined to be acceptable for laymen to cast doubt upon long-understood truths. There are social/economic/political components at work that allow for these truths to be deliberately discounted because they do not align with the desired paradigm. In short, if the facts don’t concur with what is widely believed at the time, they must not be facts. Copernicus would know a few things about this.

As I write this, many school textbooks are being rewritten to alter facts that are largely incontrovertible in order to build a societal understanding that fits the desire of others to propagate flawed information to the next generation with blatant disregard to scientific and historical experts. Evolution is being removed from biology textbooks despite that there is MORE evidence to support evolution than when the theory was first appeared in textbooks. Likewise global warming, which was more of an accepted fact in the 1980’s textbooks than today, despite considerably more evidence to support the theory.  Why are we backtracking?

There is a greater political conversation to be had here, and I choose not to address it because this is an education blog, and I resolved long ago not to politicize it unless it directly related to education. However, at the heart of this phenomenon is fear. Fear that our planet might be dying, fear that vaccines hurt children, or fear that the economy might crumble if dangerous foods were outlawed, or even fears that the theological concepts we hold dear are threatened. Regardless the source, when people fear they tend to believe things they would not. They can be lead from facts to opinion. And now our country is doing it to its children. We now expect students in schools to learn only “non-controversial” topics, and not to learn of facts, truths, or theories that are controversial in that people do not wish to believe them.

At the heart of education reform in a free country must be a free dialogue and acceptance of facts, even if that acceptance creates anxiety or tension. There is no other way. Intellectual understanding is dependent on thinkers who have open access to what is known about the world. They may certainly challenge what is known by meticulous research, and add to the wealth of knowledge, or they may be told not to bother, because there is nothing factual at all. I hope the next generation is allowed to know things the previous generation has not fully come to terms yet. Today, I see a demonization or intellectualism as popular defense against undesired truths.  In the end what harm is there in this? Let’s revisit the five issues I began with:

  • Diseases such as Mumps and Whooping Cough continue to sicken and even kill children due to refusal of parents to vaccinate against them.
  • LGBTQ teens continue to be bullied and continue to commit suicide because of the negative stigma placed by society.
  • The planet continues to heat up, the ozone layer continues to disintegrate, and the polar caps continue to melt.
  • Genetic research relating to the evolution of human resistance to disease is hampered by legislation.
  • Young people continue to be fed diets consisting almost exclusively of processed, carb-heavy foodstuffs.

If only we knew enough about these issues to combat them…

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One thought on “Do we still believe in “facts?”

  1. Interestingly I think “facts” are being squeezed in 2 different ways:
    1) Some people don’t like that facts you have listed, and have decided to overstate the other side and pretend there is a controversy. This is a big fallacy I see in my students thinking, that any debatable issue has equal truth/validity/support on each side.
    2) Progressive/constructivists think that the learning of facts is schools is wrong. That students should be taught process/inquiry/critical thinking. I can’t tell you how many times information is called “mere facts” in educational discussions.

    Not to make this political or state the obvious, but most of the people in group 1 are conservative and most of the people in group 2 are liberal. Facts are getting eliminated from society.

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