The Facts Don’t Matter


I always love John Oliver’s take on current issues. I think we can all agree that in a world beset by uncertainty, it is nice to look upon it and laugh.

The video above shows his report on the Republican National Convention, with the main theme that they are appealing to emotions, and ignoring facts. Newt Gingrich, who was once at the top of the Republican leadership ladder back in the 90s, basically said that facts were some liberal ploy, and that he would defer to how people feel. Of course, people feel scared despite statistics proving otherwise mainly because of the rhetoric of politicians.

This brings me to the sad reality of 2016 politics – the facts increasingly don’t matter. Facts are regarded as a partisan wedge to a far too large segment of the voting public. This is a huge problem for democracy, because democracy works best when the voter is well informed and selects candidates that intend to make a more fair and equable society. However, in many countries there has been a rise in populist movements that seek to play on peoples’ fears. The politicians are increasingly looking to gain power by outright lying to people, and outright dismissing opposing viewpoints. And it is working.


On climate change

As mentioned in my last post, I regard climate change as the biggest threat our species faces. Rising sea level and increased frequency of extreme weather events will have a profound impact on where humans can inhabit. We are already seeing the outcomes of this – the Syrian civil war started due to a heavy-handed response to food shortages caused by droughts in the late 2000s. The people affected by this civil war have flooded into Europe, causing unrest. Obviously, not everyone is going to like dealing with a bunch of culturally different people suddenly becoming their neighbours.

Despite the great work by people like those who run the website Skeptical Science, I think we are losing the battle to combat climate change. Just now, I read an article saying the 1.5 degree limit set out by the Paris climate agreement last year is probably going to be broken very soon. The time for action was thirty years ago, and I very much expect that we are heading towards the worst case scenario from the last IPCC report. Keep in mind that the IPCC report was conservative in its projections, I believe that the projections made by models underestimate the sensitivity in the Earth system.

With such a dire problem, where we should be listening to experts, we now have major political campaigns, appealing to emotion, that say “don’t trust the experts”. When someone is convinced by arguments based on emotions rather than facts, it is usually not possible to get them to change their minds.

Democracy – the only way

It should go without saying that the only way to solve the climate crisis is by inclusive solutions. Of course people are going to be threatened when there are experts out there that say we have to stop using cars, or that we can’t all live in a suburban mansion, or that we must reduce meat consumption. People are naturally conservative and don’t want big changes to how they live.

I think one of the problems with “experts” is that they know what should be done, but have little perspective on the fact that there will always be winners and losers in any political act. Just look at Brexit. It seemed self evident to the highly educated upper class that the benefits of the EU were enough to convince people to stay in it. The facts don’t matter to people who are struggling to get by. When the small town factory shuts down to move production to another place in the EU where labour is cheaper, who can blame them for lashing out at the experts?

How did it come to be like this? While it would be easy to blame poor education, I would argue that education levels globally are at all time highs. Democratic institutions were strong in the mid-20th century, even though only a fraction of the people had university degrees. It would also be easy to blame the corporatization of the news media that has prevented a diversity of voices from being heard. This certainly has contributed to the problem, but with the Internet it has become easy to find accurate sources of information.

I think the biggest cause of this is the centralization of the economy in large cities. With this concentration of wealth in small centers, I think it becomes hard for the power brokers to realize that this is hurting a lot of people in rural areas and smaller towns/cities. It may make sense to outsource production to a third world country, since the headquarters will still get their money, and the consumers are largely urban based. However, those job losses are disproportionately in smaller centers. Guess where Donald Trump’s biggest supporters are! And big companies will purposely make sure the management is isolated from areas that are/were the basis of production. Here is a personal anecdote: when I worked at mining company in Ontario – one of the first things the (foreign based) company did when it bought the original Canadian company was to move the management out of the mining town and to headquarters in Toronto. That way, the management could not see in person how their cutbacks would affect the community.

For climate change to be addressed, I think this sharp urban-rural divide in the economy needs to be fixed first. If people are already distrusting of urban-based experts, it won’t matter how much we say this is the major problem of our time. Climate change is just too much of an abstract concept. The facts don’t matter. The erosion of trust needs to be addressed immediately.  There needs to be dialogue, and the concerns of people outside of big cities need to be on the front stage. Otherwise, we are going to continue to see the rise of populist movements. And if we look at the collapse of Venezuela after years of populist rule, this isn’t a good outcome for anyone.