What Happened Versus Why It Happened

How can we address alternative facts?  I think we should differentiate realities that can be empirically verified versus assertions about why these realities have occurred.  Succinctly, we need to differentiate data and evidence from various pundits’ interpretations.

I am constantly amazed at the wealth of pundits available who will comment on anything.  There are thousands of commentators on the intentions of 535 Members of the US Congress.  There are thousands of commentators on the prospects and performance of the 1,700 players in the National Football League.  Of course, we need to keep in mind that this is entertainment, not reporting.

Perhaps this distinction is no longer relevant.  Some would argue that commentators tend to say anything to keep people paying attention.  From this perspective, the veracity of their assertions matter little.  Rather than journalists or reporters, they are entertainers.  The public wants to be entertained, not necessarily informed.  Data and evidence can be far too difficult to consume.  Opinion is much easier to digest, regardless of the veracity.

Given this context, how do we separate legitimate evidence and real facts from fake facts and news?  This question reminds of the reaction of one of my young children when I told her that a story I had just read her was real history rather than fiction.  She asked, “How do you know?”  This struck me as a very difficult question?  How do I “know” that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, or that the Red Sox won the 1918 World Series, or that the Sun is 93 million miles from Earth?

I don’t really know.  I was taught these facts and I remember them.  There are a variety of sources that I can use to verify these lessons, but I have no direct experience of these “facts.”  Perhaps I need to redefine “knowing” as “believing to be true.” But, why do I believe?  Perhaps I have confidence in my teachers.  However, this just seems like another way of saying that I have faith in my teachers.

Another line of reasoning starts with scientific methods and concludes that there is not, as yet, any evidence that contradicts the facts at hand.  Thus, all knowledge is contingent on the evidence thus far accumulated.  We might be surprised to learn, via new measuring technology, that the Sun is actually considerably closer or farther away.  Such surprises have long been quite common in science.

If we switch to the “why” question about the Pilgrims, Red Sox, or the Sun, we are at the mercy of the pundits, who tend to “know” why the Pilgrims migrated, the Red Sox bested the Chicago Cubs, and Sun is where it is.  Some of these pundits are well educated and well informed, but it is still punditry as practiced on cable television, various websites, and carnival midways.  We can usually safely ignore such “why” explanations.

But, “what” can be risky to ignore.  If we ignore the best scientific evidence of global warming and sea level rise, what risks are we accepting, if only implicitly?  Consider the consequences of the Antarctic ice caps melting.  How much would sea levels rise if all the ice melted?  300 feet!  When I first encountered this assertion, I found this number to be rather astounding.  So I did the calculations myself, i.e., 5.4 million square miles of ice (42% bigger than the US), times the one-mile thickness of the ice, added to so many square miles of oceans and seas.  It is 300 feet!

Even a slower rate of melting is projected to threaten the homes of 300 million people by 2050.  How will we respond?  Unlike epidemics, we cannot develop vaccines for ocean waters.  We can learn much from the Dutch, but even their amazing engineers cannot hold back the global oceans.  There are not enough Dutch fingers, or global fingers for that matter, to protect the dikes – real ones and others we will wish we had built.  Water always wins!

Why are so many playing down these risks?  At the risk of playing pundit, they are not worried about 2050.  Their primary concerns are about this year’s, indeed this quarter’s, revenues and profits.  Their bonuses and incentive plans depend on “hitting their numbers.”  2050 or 2040 or 2030 are not in their planning horizon. They will be retired long before then, living on their ranch in Montana.  So much the better if Montana ends up being a coastal city.

I think we will eventually face reality.  We are not going to let 300 million people get their feet wet, which has long been a top national priority of the Dutch.  This will not involve defeating the water, but working with the water to take advantage of its benefits while avoiding the negative consequences of its wayward tendencies.  New revenues and profits will be made in the process, based on creating millions of new jobs, as well as the education needed to enable people to fill these jobs.  Embracing the reality of what is can have enormous upsides.

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