Reality versus belief, and the American right

Warning: this post is entirely opinion about American politics.

Bret Stephens had an interesting op-ed in the NY Times recently. On first reading, it was great. Then I went through the comments, and realized it was quite one-sided. (He is a conservative, over from the WS Journal.) So I wrote the following letter to the editor.

In his column of Sept. 24 Mr Stephens sharp eye noticed, and sharp tongue castigated, only the left’s fundamental error in today’s discussions: judging arguments based on the speaker’s identity. But even more destructive is the fundamental error found primarily on the right: judging arguments based on the desire to believe them. That Congressman R believes something, no matter how strongly, does not make it true, nor a valid basis for setting policy.

I  am at a university that emphasizes science and engineering, and teaches little about Mr. Stephens’ Great Books. But we  teach our students that objective reality exists, and that it matters.  We base our arguments on empirical evidence. And if evidence is insufficient, we look for more.

Here are a few examples of facts that are somehow viewed as controversial: making contraception and information more available to teenagers reduces unwanted pregnancies, and abortions. (See Colorado for a large-scale proof.) Vaccinations reduce disease. Cutting income taxes of the rich will do little to stimulate the economy when the economy is near full employment. Pumping gases into the atmosphere creates a “greenhouse effect.” There is room to disagree about what actions to take as a result of these facts, but not about the facts themselves.

I have elsewhere argued that America (and other parts of the world) are retreating from Reason back to Faith, reversing the Enlightenment of the 1600s. If this continues, the consequences for our country will be dire. But that is a longer discussion.

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