Rev. Thomas Reese: Science, Facts, and Truth Matter Most When Human Lives Are at Stake

Pope Francis sits with Syrian refugees at the Vatican on August 11, 2016. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

In politics, it is common to have disagreements over values and goals. What makes government decision-making even more difficult today is that we disagree not only on goals but also on the facts.

Is the planet warming? Are asylum-seekers in danger if they are returned to their countries or told to wait in Mexico? Would a single-payer health care system bankrupt the government?

The easy problems are those on which we agree about facts and goals: The bridge has collapsed and needs to be replaced. There are lots of additional issues that will need to be resolved (design, contractors and how to pay for it), but we know how to build a new bridge. Agreement on the facts and goal makes subsequent decisions easier to make.

When we have agreement on facts but not values and goals, then we need a political process.

For example, if a city has a million-dollar surplus, what should we do with the money? We agree on the amount of the surplus, but not on what to do with it.

Disagreements over goals and values can only be resolved through negotiations, compromise or the exercise of power. We have the votes; you lose.

There are even political situations where we agree on goals but disagree on facts, or don’t know how to reach the goal.

During World War II, we wanted to defeat our enemies, but at the beginning of the war it was not clear how to do that. During the space race, we decided to put a man on the moon, but no one in Congress had the scientific and engineering knowledge necessary to make that happen.

In both these cases, we called on experts to research the problem, find solutions and do the work. Often that meant trial and error until a good solution was found.

Research and science, however, get corrupted when people play fast and loose with facts. Biased researchers are commonly funded by special interest groups who want the facts on their side. Politicians use “alternative facts” to support their case. Disputes over facts have become so common that it has created a new branch of journalism devoted to fact-checking statements of politicians of both parties.

St. Augustine believed that the prohibition against lying was absolute for Christians, even if it cost them their lives. In his view, lying was an intrinsic evil. Later moralists argued that one could lie to protect oneself from an evil person or state.

Today, we have gotten so far from Augustine that people will lie simply to win an argument or make a buck. The end justifies the means. And when caught lying, they have no shame or sense of guilt.

The immigration debate is one in which we see disagreements over both values and facts, which is what makes it so difficult to resolve.

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Source: Religion News Service