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Facing the Facts (Or Not) – 9/25/2016

In 1633, the Italian astronomer, Galileo Galilei, was summoned to Rome by the Inquisition to defend himself against the charge of heresy. He stood accused of holding Copernican views – the then quite radical idea that the earth revolves around the sun – and of trying to convince others of this same position through his writings. In Europe in the 1630s, this was a very serious crime – the church still taught then that the sun revolved around the earth, and the contradiction of that doctrine could be answered with imprisonment, or even death.

Of this crime, he was convicted, and found “vehemently suspect of heresy.” Galileo was ultimately sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life, prohibited from publishing any further writings, and required to recite the seven penitential psalms at least once each week for the three years following his conviction. Even before he could begin this punishment, before he would be released from prison, Galileo first had to officially recant, declaring the view of the cosmos he had articulated and championed in the past to be both odious and wrong. This he did; in order to preserve himself against any further punishment, including the real threat of torture, Galileo declared before the court that the sun revolves around the earth, while the earth remains perfectly still. And so the story goes that once he had been released and his jailers were out of ear-shot, he made a small addition to what he’d said of the earth in court: “And yet, it moves.”

Each year, at our annual church auction, I offer up a sermon as one of the items for bid, with the winner to choose the topic I will reflect on or the question I will attempt to answer. This morning’s message is this year’s auction sermon, and its topic was chosen by Bruce Egan. A man of science and a person concerned with the plight of our planet and our society, Bruce asked that I speak to the observed fact of climate change and its steadfast deniers, but more broadly to explore where in us this impulse to stubbornly ignore compelling arguments comes from.

We’ll begin with climate change itself, the smaller of the two topics, being only a question of the survival of innumerable species of plants and animals and of human civilization as we currently know it. Globally, average temperatures are rising, glaciers are melting, sea levels are climbing and deserts are expanding. Each of these things is a fact – observable, verifiable, and monitored closely by a vast array of scientific professionals and amateurs devoting their time and effort to better understanding the predicament of the world we share. If – as is almost mathematically certain at this late date on the calendar – 2016 proves to be the hottest year ever recorded by human beings, it will be the third straight year in a row that that has happened. There have never been three such record-breaking years in a row in the history of that record, but 15 of the top 16 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since the year 2000.[i] Our planet, on the whole, is getting hotter; there is no way around that truth short of dismissing virtually all of the data collected in an entire field of science, and to do so would be tantamount to dismissing the scientific method itself.

That this heating of our earth is traceable to human behavior is very nearly as certain. The consensus among climate scientists is that the massive amount of greenhouse gases we’ve added to earth’s atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels, is climate change’s primary culprit. Again, that increase is measureable and well-documented; another fact, rather than a judgement or opinion. This means that we have, as a species, made the world hotter, that this process will continue and worsen for at least as long as we continue to burn coal and gasoline and other carbon-based sources of energy, and that the consequences for life on earth are vast.

Yet, not everyone accepts this, rejecting either the facts themselves or the rather straight-forward conclusions drawn from them. I feel I should point out that this denialism happens to be an almost-uniquely American phenomena; climate assessments rendered by the scientific community are largely accepted – if not always acted upon – in most other countries, particularly industrialized ones, and those most likely to be adversely effected by rising temperatures and sea levels. But the supreme self-confidence, bordering on self-worship, required in order to pick and choose amongst observable facts according to our own biases or preferences is not something that we as a nation have the monopoly on.

This past week, there was something of a kerfuffle as it was announced in the press that NASA issued a unilateral revision of the astrology’s zodiac, adding a 13th sign and modifying the dates associated with each symbol so that 86% of all people now have a different sign. Never mind that more than half of this is the salacious invention of media outlets more interested in drawing clicks than in covering the world of science accurately. NASA neither claimed nor wished for the right to redraw astrological charts. A NASA employee simple mentioned, on a blog intended to help children get interested in science, that the ancient Babylonians – who first laid out the zodiac – cut some corners in doing so. Because astrology is premised on where certain stars appear in the night sky at certain times of year, it’s possible to check these assumptions against the observations of modern astronomy – and the two simply don’t line up. Casually mentioning this – once again – verifiable fact, raised enough ire to almost completely distract from what ought to have been the week’s far more surprising astronomical news that Pluto has been found to be emitting X-rays.[ii]

I want to make a confession here. Those of you that know me will likely not be surprised when I say that I do not put much stock in astrology, or in any special connection between the motion of the stars in the heavens and events here on earth. But it is not a tradition that I’m completely ignorant of, and having known the astrological sign I associated with my birthday for the whole of my life, I am well-accustomed to it. The common personality descriptions associated with my sign – Scorpio – I happen to feel describe me fairly well. I consider its assignment to me arbitrary, but that doesn’t stop me from resonating with it. And certainly, if someone were to try to tell me that though I had always understood myself to be a Scorpio, I was, rightly, a Libra, I would not be open to their argument, no matter how solid their logical take-down of historical astrology. So though it has its origins in sloppy reporting, I can sympathize slightly with the folks who got caught up in all this hoopla.

From the significant (if passing) success of flat-earthers, moon-landing conspiracists, and the purveyors of the pernicious lie that there is any credible evidence to link the development of Autism with routine vaccinations – there would seem to be something in us ever-ready to ignore the facts before us. Bruce, you asked me to reflect on what the cause here might be, and I have identified three main factors in the rejecting of copious but somehow unsatisfying data. The first and perhaps most predictable of these is the motive for profit. As the great muckraker Upton Sinclair observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”[iii] This goes a long way towards explaining climate denial, at least among its chief proponents: major petrochemical companies have vested interests and deep pockets, and have bank-rolled media stories, junk science, and political campaigns all pointed towards countering or obfuscating the broad consensus among climate scientists.

Of course, it’s not only misinformation that materially benefits us that we sometimes cling to. Often it’s information that would be significant and useful to us that we struggle to ignore. For instance, the ratio of worker to CEO pay in the United States has become less and less favorable to workers over the last 40 years, and this is far from secret – it’s been analyzed, publicized, and discussed at length. The ratio currently sits at something approximating 300:1 – on average, it would take the annual salaries of 300 workers to amount to the yearly pay of a single CEO. Yet, when Americans are asked to estimate this ratio, their average answer comes out to 30:1, underestimating by a factor of 10.[iv]

There are at least two other major reasons beside personal gain for why we ignore facts: fear of the truths those facts point to, and the satisfaction of being in-the-know, of being somehow more clever, knowledgeable, or wise than those whose status is supposed to derive from their intelligence, learning, or wisdom. In addition, in our current society, I also see four more specific factors compounding this problem. The first is a mood of anti-intellectualism which alienates experts from non-experts and holds up a lack of expertise as qualification in and of itself. The second is a public discourse obsessed with false-equivalency: everything, it seems, must have a counterbalance; there must be an alternate side presented on every point, no matter how ridiculous or irresponsible that alternate side might be. Third, there is a sort of pre-sorting that goes on when we choose our sources of information, insuring that we will usually only have to confront those facts which complement our worldview, rather than challenging it. And finally, there’s the simple problem of complexity. If any society ever was elegant enough for one person to grasp all its crucial dimensions in full, ours certainly is not. No one can hope to be an expert, or even a well-informed lay person on every possible subject and issue. And again, that wouldn’t be so much of a problem if, as a society, we were not so mistrustful of experts.

Distrust pervades our society, in fact, and nothing is so likely to make one person less likely to trust another than the discovery that they differ in their most important conclusions – so that the stage of comparing facts seriously and critically with one another is only rarely reached. Yet it is the comparing and the testing of those things believed to be true that is completely essential to the project of science.

Oliver Cromwell once wrote to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, saying, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” The American jurist Billings Learned Hand opined centuries later, “I should like to have that written over the portals of every church, every school, and every courthouse, and, may I say, of every legislative body in the United States.” Less the extremely distinctive and colorful metaphor, this describes one of the pillars of the scientific method: a willingness to entertain the idea that one could be wrong in order to test and retest hypotheses and remain open to new evidence. “I can live,” said the famous 20th-century physicist Richard Feynman, “with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”[v]

The key, though, is not to mistake this principled humility for weakness in the face of delusional certainty. This problem is not unique to the matter of scientific inquiry – it also speaks to our own faith as Unitarian Universalists, which requires of us a similar discipline of humility in spiritual matters, and which counsels us explicitly to heed the results of science. This can, at time, leave us feeling as though we are defenseless, lacking the armor of theological hubris that any of the competing modes of orthodoxy offer to their adherents. But to seek the truth in the active presence of doubt requires strength. It asks of us a profound commitment, and as we live that commitment out it, in turn, makes us stronger – by the insights it offers, and the follies it frees us from making.

It is fitting, perhaps, that we began this meditation on fact and falsehood with a story that is most likely apocryphal: there is no contemporary record of Galileo’s ever having said, “And yet, it moves.” Still, the phrase does seem to have been associated with him even before his death; people, whether they’d heard the words from him or not, had by then already come to associate him with the plight of facts before the power of political authorities. In the short term, power has many ways to win out; but on a long enough timeline, the facts, however inconvenient or unpopular, are all but inescapable. Now that may seem a frightening reality – the truth is rarely all good news, and the implications of climate science are that we must, beginning as close to yesterday as possible, reorder our society dramatically to stem and resist its effects or else face an inevitable and far more dramatic reordering brought about by its unmitigated consequences. But the other side of that fact is the truth that we have, as a species, built something so vast and so complicated that it has fundamentally changed the nature of the world we live on. Having done so once, it seems undeniable that we have the capacity to do so again – it is only a question of whether we will face the reality before us, and put our strength and courage to work.



[iii] From his book, “I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked”


[v] From “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman”


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