Facts, beliefs and public debate

To the editor:

In a letter published in the Independent on Feb 19, John Frerich wrote that he was offended by an editorial published in the Feb 15-16 edition of the Independent. The editorial praised football player Michael Sam for having the courage to tell the world that he is gay, and it mentioned that homophobes were silent about this story. But Mr. Frerich made it clear that he is not a homophobe.

There was no reason the editorial should have offended Mr. Frerich.

Then Mr. Frerich complained about intolerance against certain beliefs. However, the beliefs he highlighted are contradicted by facts. When facts are well supported by evidence they are not matters of belief. They are simply facts.

Mr. Frerich pleaded for public debate on these issues. Public debate can help us decide whether to use daylight savings time, but it cannot decide for us when the sun will rise. Public debate helps us make policy decisions. But we determine the facts by careful analysis of the evidence.

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, amateur detectives dragged the names and photos of innocent bystanders through the mud.

In the meantime, professional detectives carefully sifted through the evidence until the actual bombers were identified.

Public debates often produce unfounded claims at a rate too fast for fact checking. In a recent public debate, creationist Ken Ham claimed that rock dated at 45,000,000 years contained a tree fossil which would be dated at 45,000 years by carbon 14 dating. However, carbon 14 dating cannot not be used in this case. After 45,000 years, more than 99.5 percent of the carbon 14 from the tree would have decayed. After 45,000,000 years, not a single atom of carbon 14 from the tree would remain.

Mr. Frerich’s letter stated that ice formation is continuing as usual in Antarctica, a fact which surprises no one. An ice cube does not melt first in the center; it melts first on the outside. The ice shelves around Antarctica are melting away at an alarming rate. Trying to keep up rapid fire fact checking in public debate distracts from the main points at issue.

Fact checking on complicated issues is better done slowly and carefully by dispassionate experts. For example, I want my dentist to interpret my dental x-rays rather than the voting public.

And what good is public debate if one side is not persuadable? Ken Ham admitted in his debate that no amount of evidence would change his support for creationism.

Does it make sense to debate with people who admit that no argument could ever change their minds?

Mr. Frerich mentioned three beliefs not given enough respect. One was the belief that gender identity is a choice. I never chose to be straight; nevertheless, I could not help noticing girls when I was a teenager. Gender identity is known to be part of a person’s nature. We cannot expect homosexuals to play-act as straight people throughout their lives.

Second among Mr. Frerich’s disrespected beliefs is creationism, which (in most versions) is directly contradicted by evolution, the bedrock of biology with solid supporting evidence collected over 150 years.

Evolution is accepted by nearly all scientists. The Answers in Genesis website found fewer than 200 scientists who support creationism; many more (at least 1,300) scientists named Steve support evolution according to the Project Steve web page – Project Steve is tongue in cheek, but the scientists who signed its petition are real. Nearly all scientists support evolution.

Third among Mr. Frerich’s disrespected beliefs is skepticism about climate change. An overwhelming majority of climate scientists support as fact the notion that climate change is real and caused by human activity.

Public debate on this issue tends to emphasize personal experience. Where we live, January felt like one of the coldest months in memory. However, scientists must consider the global picture. Around the world, temperatures were generally warmer than usual, making last month the fourth warmest January on record.

Richard Muller, a physicist at Berkeley, was a vocal skeptic of climate change just a few years ago – even a respected scientist can be confused by the public debate. A foundation (supported by the Koch brothers) provided Muller with a grant to review climate change data with a skeptical eye. After reviewing the evidence, Muller is now convinced that climate change is real and that human activity is the cause.

Matters of fact are not determined by personal belief or by public debate. Facts are best determined by collecting and analyzing mountains of data. Much of the climate data is available to anyone who, like Dr. Muller, is willing to make the effort to retrieve it. But only those with a lifetime of training and commitment have the time and expertise to properly analyze the data. We need to respect the work of scientists just as we respect the work of our dentist in protecting our teeth.

Sherwin Skar