Energy & Environment

What is a fact? The scientific versus political definition


What is a fact and how do we know when something is true?  These are not just philosophical questions.  In this era of intense partisan polarization, especially in the United States, the very notion that both objective facts and truth exist is contested.  

Contrary to the assertion of former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who once declared that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts, it now seems that each person and political party does have their own facts and truth. Why? Simply put, scientific facts and truth are not the same as political facts and truth; democracy and science are often in conflict, and the differing groups that support the Democratic and Republican parties have vested interests in endorsing rival conceptions of truth.

{mosads}For 30 years, I have taught American politics, law, and public policy.  As someone with graduate degrees in astronomy, philosophy, law, and political science, my research and teaching centers on how policy making can be more evidence-based.


In most aspects of our lives and in business we are taught to draw upon the best available evidence before making decisions. The same should be true for politicians and government.  Decisions crafted on political myths and faulty or no evidence yield bad public policy, causing a waste of taxpayer dollars and failed or ineffective programs. Yet too much policy is crafted without real evidence.

There are many reasons for this. One can clearly point to intense interest group politics and the corrosive impact of money on politics as possibilities. But there is also a profound difference residing in how scientists and politicians gather facts and think about the world.

Scientists (and most social scientists) ascribe to the scientific method. It is a rigorous approach ideally using controlled experiments where the inductive process of gathering discrete data is aggregated to test hypotheses. Statistical sampling is often employed as ways of estimating the probability that some samples are truly representative of the phenomena being studied.  One cannot examine every molecule in the universe to conclude about all of them. Good samples allow for generalizations, but there is always a slight probability of error.

For scientists, facts are rigorously tested but cannot be proved with 100 percent certainty.  Science is about falsifying claims.  Scientific knowledge is also incremental, built upon what is previously known like with bricks upon one another to construct a wall.  Scientists have built a wall of knowledge, facts, and truth.  The laws of gravity, Einstein’s famous e=mc2, and 1 + 1 = 2 are examples.  Scientific facts and truth have made telephones, television, the Internet and the cure for polio possible.  If one denies scientific truth one might as well deny civilization.

But scientific knowledge is different from political knowledge.  What is political truth, especially in a democracy?  It is what 50 percent plus one of the population says, majority rule.  For elected officials, what counts as facts and truths is what they learn from their constituents.  A politician’s world is not of controlled experiments, hypotheses, and statistically valid samples; what counts as valid evidence in making policies are the stories and interests of constituents.  

Hearing something from voters is powerful evidence to someone who many need their support in the next election.  What is true has less to do with rigorous method of investigation than it does with how some assertion plays well with the media or voters.

On occasion, scientific and political truths or knowledge converge, resulting in good public policy.  But, historically, they do not. The tension between scientific or expert knowledge culled from rigorous testing versus political knowledge based on majority rule is deep and has existed since Plato discussed it nearly 2,500 years ago.

This is the technocracy/democracy gap.  Some have more or specialized knowledge compared to others. Should the people defer to the experts or choose for themselves what they consider true?

While science and democracy are in tension, how do we explain the partisan war on science between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.? Battles over global warming and alternative facts are sourced in competing economic interests that support or sustain specific biases or factual world views.  The two parties represent divergent interests, creating financial interests in rival conceptions of truth. But this could change.

The gap between scientific and political knowledge might be bridged with more scientific education in schools.  It might also be good if we elected more scientists to office.  Together they might create conditions that make the political process more hospitable to science, yet there is no guarantee.  Differing economic interests drive scientific skepticism, as does simply fear and prejudice and something needs to be done to address both.  

Yet even with all that, the challenge for scientists is convincing the public and politicians that science is not a threat but that its enables and enriches our society, not hurts it.

David Schultz is editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education and professor at Hamline University’s Department of Political Science.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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