Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Cherry Picking, Politics, & Pop Divas

With all the political debate brewing this election cycle, I am trying to drink it all in from a buddhist perspective. So far, I find that I am fascinated by the passion-drunk discourse certain topics create, mixing truth and fiction.

In buddhist philosophy, final validation for truth comes from reason and logic in ways that are very close to the scientific method. Sometimes I wonder if people and candidates are really interested in reaching the truth of an issue or just enjoy picking sides and verbally 'duking' it out.

Today, fact and fiction-believed-passionately are often conflated and confused. I remember in elementary school learning the difference between fact and opinion. This seems like a lesson we, as a collective, could revisit--at least for some of our politicians.

Imagine this: before you stand two doors and you must go through one of them knowing that one will lead you to safety and the other to certain death. With you in the room are 100 people who have been allowed to look behind the doors. When you turn to them for help, 97 say door A and 3 say door B. Which door would you enter?

Before answering, you might question the validity of their advice. I know I would. So, let’s assume that all 100 are earnest and sincere. No one is trying to fool you; 97 honestly believe door A is safe and 3 honestly believe door B is safe. Unless you are exceedingly skeptical, common sense and reason will lead you to choose door A. I know I would.

Reason as a tool for finding the truth works both in my made up door of doom situation and in real life issues like climate change. For example, I want to know whether climate change is real or not. I don’t have a preference. (If anything, I might have an emotional preference that it is false--it sure would be reassuring to think that we as humans are not messing up the planet. But, I am not going to let that get in the way of finding the truth.)

If climate change is true, I want to get busy making helpful changes. If climate change is false, I want to avoid making wasteful changes. Furthermore, I want our elected officials to have at least the same (preferably more) desire for the truth, especially since they create policies that have wide-ranging consequences.

"We're seeing weekly, or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what's causing the climate to change." ~ Texas Governor Rick Perry on August 17, 2011

Perry paints the picture with this comment that the scientific community is turning away from climate change. However, the truth is that the 97% to 3% scenario I presented above are the numbers for climate change as a consequence of human activity.

According to the paper Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change published by Peter T. Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman of the University of Illinois at Chicago, 97.4% of climatologists who actively publish research on climate change agree that humans are causing global warming.

Perry is spreading misinformation, either knowingly or mindlessly. By referencing the scientific community, he is assigning credibility and validity to the opinion of scientists, but then he chooses only to listen to the opinion of 3%. By ignoring the consensus in favor of the answer that he emotionally prefers, he is cherry picking from the data.

He is either incredibly ill-informed about the facts (failing to look deeply into the subject) or he is flat-out denying what does not fit with his emotional preference. Either way, the thoroughness of his decision-making process is highly suspect.

"Denialist arguments are often bolstered by accurate information taken wildly out of context, wielded selectively, and supported by fake experts who often don’t seem fake at all." ~ Michael Specter from Denialism

Now, I do not mean to belittle the 3% of scientists who dissent. Scientific skepticism is necessary, vital and healthy. Science is naturally skeptical, but true skepticism means taking in ALL of the evidence before jumping to a conclusion, not just the little bit that works in your favor.

Unfortunately, the more I look into the arguments expressing skepticism about climate change the more I see cherry picking of the evidence while rejecting any information that does not fit one’s personal opinion. True skepticism does not replace “the rigorous and open-minded skepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment.” (Specter)

When it comes to political leadership, I want mindful, thoughtful and critical thinkers who look at all the facts to make well-informed decisions, even if it does not please their personal tastes. I don’t trust those who would choose a personal side before looking at the information and stick to their opinion no matter what reality and truth suggest.

"Denialism is denial writ large—when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie." ~ Michael Specter

While 97.4% of climate experts agree that humans are behind climate change, only 58% of the general public concurs. I wish the 42% of the public denying climate change were right. But reality persists despite their insistence. If 42% of the public suddenly decided to believe that Brittney Spears is a mathematical super-genius, it would not raise her I.Q. a single point. Reality is reality, whether we believe it or not.

And our current reality is that we have some politicians who, to appeal to a segment of the population in hopes of winning an election, will cherry pick facts, mindlessly spread misinformation, and forgo critical thinking in place of ideological commitment.

These are not the approaches and attributes I personally would want from the person making important decisions for our country. This goes beyond choosing whether to follow the 97 or the 3. This is a case of giving power to a person who chooses door B before looking, peeks and sees that door B leads to certain death, then turns around and tells you to choose door B anyway.

But don’t take my word for it.

“Traditions are not to be followed simply because they are traditions. Reports (such as historical accounts or news) are not to be followed simply because the source seems reliable. One's own preferences are not to be followed simply because they seem logical or resonate with one's feelings. Instead, any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one's understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise.” ~ translator Thanissaro Bhikkhu on the Kalama Sutta

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