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Does Society Need a Science Court to Help Establish "The Facts"?
It’s interesting that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was not only a U.S Senator and U.N. Ambassador, but a sociologist. Interesting, because Moynihan is usually credited with the pithy sounding observation that “You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts”, which any entry-level sociologist ought to understand is a really dumb thing to say. If the facts about cognition are clear about anything, they are clear on this one fact…that there are no true facts, just our selective perceptions of the evidence, informed by feelings and instincts and experiences and subconscious mental shortcuts and values and worldviews, all of which help explain why such established “facts” as evolution and anthropogenic climate change and the safety of vaccines are hardly established facts at all to so many.
Reasoning is not pure and objective, but ‘motivated’, principally by the deep animal imperative of survival. We see the facts, particularly the facts about risk, not merely for what they are but how we feel about them. As a result of this subjective and emotion-based risk perception system, we sometimes worry more than the evidence warrants, and sometimes we worry more than the evidence warns. We get risk wrong, and those errors create risks all by themselves.
So how can a democratic society get risk right? We can’t make people perfectly objective, and their feelings and values must have a voice in the debate. Might one approach be to start with an objective analysis of the evidence, and then have a separate debate about how we feel about that evidence? Wouldn’t that help us make more informed evidence-based choices, which ostensibly would mean smarter choices that would keep us safer?
Take genetically modified food. The scientific facts about the safety of GM food get badly distorted in what is essentially a values debate. Each side has its own opinion, and therefore it’s own view of the facts. Wouldn’t it be great if instead we could first objectively consider the hard scientific evidence, and then, separately, have the values debate about how some people don’t like big rich powerful companies like Monsanto, or corporate large scale agriculture, or the ways that human-made technology, for all its benefits, has also harmed the natural world.
This is not as naïve as it sounds. There is actually a proven model for doing precisely that. It’s an organization called the Health Effects Institute, created in 1980 by the EPA and automobile manufacturers to establish a trusted independent arbiter of the facts regarding the health effects of air pollution, facts those two sides were warring over and getting nowhere except deeper into expensive and time-consuming legal battles. Each side put up 50% of the money to create an independent organization - neither side has control - to analyze research already done or do original research when needed, creating HEI as, in effect, a science court empowered to rule on “the facts”.
A roster of HEI sponsors reads like the invitation list to what could turn into a really nasty dinner party; Exxon and the EPA, the American Petroleum Institute and the Renewable Energy Foundation of China, vehicle makers and the environmentally active William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. But HEI works precisely because, unlike most independent think tanks and academic institutions and national science academies, the competing parties have declared a truce in pursuit of the truth, purposefully empowering a trusted independent referee of the facts. HEI is their creation, to provide neutral, reliable high quality research, and everybody agrees that the HEI view of the evidence will be accepted as fact. Once that evidence is established, there are still plenty of battles over what society should do. But those are clearly battles about values and emotions and worldviews. “The facts”, as Moynihan meant them, have been established.
You and I have benefited significantly from HEI’s work. By establishing what the evidence tells us about the health effects of air pollution, their respected research has informed numerous state and federal rules that have made the air we breath cleaner and safer. Now HEI is considering a role as a referee on the scientific evidence about fracking, an issue with huge stakes for air quality and climate change.
Now imagine if something like HEI, a publicly accepted and trusted ‘science court’, served as the independent neutral referee on vaccines, or GMOs, or any of the other contentious issues where facts are twisted and distorted and used as weapons in a larger war that’s really about feelings and values. Imagine an organization, created by stakeholders with conflicting values, who jointly accept that society would be healthier and safer if a neutral arbiter, with no stake in the issue and supported by all the competing parties, can first establish what the body of evidence indicates, and then everybody can go to war over what they think society should do about that evidence.
In the end, of course, each side would still have their own facts, cherry picking and distorting the evidence to their ends. That’s human nature. But with the finding from the ‘science court’ in hand, policy makers would have their own facts, THE facts as Moynihan meant them, and the regulations and programs based on those facts would be more evidence-based and have a stronger foundation against political and legal challenges. That’s just what HEI has achieved with air pollution.
The need for an independent science court has never been greater. More and more in these polarized times we tend to see the facts the way our friends do. And the threats we face in our global technological world continue to grow more and more complex, and further beyond the capacities of a risk perception system based more on feelings and gut intuition than facts and careful objective reason. The risk of getting risk wrong has never been greater. Across a broad range of issues, an HEI-like science referee could help objectively establish what the evidence tells us about so many issues, and that can help us make more informed and intelligent choices about the best ways to keep ourselves safe.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.