Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

Do Facts Matter? Should they?

Former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously quipped: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

If only it were so simple.

New research and events demonstrate that facts, science, and evidence don’t really matter when we’re discussing controversial issues—even if the controversy is engineered.

A recent letter in the journal Nature examines the relationship between science literacy and the perception of risk from climate change.  Surprisingly, the researchers conclude that:

Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change.  Rather, they were the one among whom cultural polarization was greatest.

The up-shot?

As worthwhile as it would be, simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict so long as the climate change debate continues to feature cultural meanings that divide citizens of opposing world views.

The letter itself is very much intended for a professional audience, but it makes for fascinating reading, especially set against the news from North Carolina where Republican legislators insist on using historic trends to assess sea level rise, when the science predicts accelerated rise.  (They were unfairly criticized in some places for “outlawing” sea-level rise.)

The divide comes down to this:  if you accept the scientific predictions about rising seas and begin to plan for adaptation now (mitigation no longer being an option), then the cost will be significant and we’ll have to start paying it now.  But if you insist on waiting for evidence of acceleration before beginning to adapt, then enduring costs and to coast lines, property, and economies will be even worse.

This is the essence of Pay Now/Pay Later—a research project we launched in my last year at the American Security Project.  We examined the cost of doing nothing but adapt to climate change in all 50 states.  Yes, we had to make assumptions about projections and impacts, but they are well within the bounds of established science.  And the conclusions were stark: every state in the union will suffer economically from climate change.

But to accept that conclusion, you have to accept that science, imperfect as it might be, has predictive value.  We’re not talking about certainty.  This isn’t metaphysics, it’s science.  And models, based on our understanding of how climate works, are the best tools we have to deal with a phenomenon that is changing our world.

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