That’s not a hypothetical question. How do we deal with people that don’t recognize facts?
Let’s say, for example, that we are doctors and we have an ill patient. A quick test reveals a bacterial infection, and the standard treatment is a penicillin like antibiotic. But let’s say that another doctor says that he doesn’t believe in modern medicine and thinks the best solution is the application of leeches and bleeding. Most people would say ignore the other doctor. But what if he is the chief resident? Or what if he is a United States Senator and the question is not what to do with a sick patient, but what to do with a sick economy?
Republicans are saying that President Obama’s stimulus package was a complete failure. Senator Mitch McConnell has said it, Republican Senatorial Candidate Rand Paul said it, and Congressional Candidate Andy Barr said it. Here’s a news report that says otherwise: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE67N55X20100824
According to the report:
The massive stimulus package boosted real GDP by up to 4.5 percent in the second quarter of 2010 and put up to 3.3 million people to work, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said on Tuesday.
CBO’s latest estimate indicates that the stimulus effort, which remains a political hot potato ahead of the November congressional elections, may have prevented the sluggish U.S. economy from contracting between April and June.
That is hardly a failure. Now the stimulus may not have been the best way to revive the economy, it might be bad economic theory, and it might be an inappropriate governmental intrusion into the economy. All of those statements are matters of political opinion. But to call the stimulus a failure is simply false.
And that brings me back to my question: how do you deal with people that do not recognize facts?
How can we address important public policy issues with people who are simply incapable of dealing with facts that they do not like? Would we go to a doctor who does not believe in modern science? Probably not. But the problem is that we have people who are in positions of power who are incapable of believing in facts and much of the modern world. And because of their elected position we have no choice but to deal with them on some level. But how?
I think that the only thing that we can do is to restate the base line facts in every interchange. Every time a Republican politician says the stimulus was a failure, point out that the CBO says otherwise, and then say we can debate the policy but we shouldn’t have to debate the facts.
There is an exercise in philosophical debate called the definitional inquiry. Before any philosophical discussion the parties agree on the basic underlying facts and the meaning of the terms that they will be using. That way they can have a rational debate. The law engages in a similar exercise. Early on in any case the parties have to set out some agreed facts so that the court and the parties know roughly what is in dispute. You don’t want the parties to a car wreck wasting time on issues regarding divorce or defamation. Unfortunately there is nothing even remotely similar in public and political discourse. But there should be. How can we debate the economy, and possibly craft a solution to current economic problems when the parties to the debate don’t even agree on underlying facts? It makes the process impossible. And that it part of the problem with our current national debate on most issues.