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Public Discourse in Peril - Science to the Rescue

Tiffiniy Cheng

What's stopping us from finding solutions to world hunger, environmental crises, poverty, and health issues? It's not that we don't have answers. It's that lobbying and special interest public branding has turned us into a society that makes decisions without observable facts and in a fundamental way, disregards science. We have moved far from a society that makes decisions based on the knowable, reasonable cause, and reliable research; the role of empirical evidence in policy-making has been turned into a side conversation. Any industry that has a lobbying arm to promote maximum profit for a select few corporations has kept us far from ever becoming a more optimistic culture, able to bring about sound solutions and a more vibrant culture.

Whenever an issue is tackled for academic reasons only, we get answers that are closer to the truth - really. How can it be any other way? Yet, looking over all the largest political debates, it hasn't been. Education, science, and academia by far get closer to presenting real facts on actual phenomena and create a framework for working towards solutions better than any lobbying group or corporate arm. That seems obvious when put on paper. But, as lobbying groups have gotten smarter, every issue has seemingly gotten too complicated to talk about and understand at our own dinner tables. It's led to healthcare bill shouting at town halls. Of course, when decisions are made in the name of profit alone rather than to solve the exact problem we set out to solve, we don't solve problems, we make money. We don't have the products that are in the best interest of the consumer and our society at large. General Electric used to deny that their waste polluted our neighborhoods and made our world a worst place to live. Now, the evidence is hard to dispute. That seems obvious now, but at the height of the debate, corporate opinion has been seen as an unbiased and much needed voice - really. Why have we let thin arguments become so powerful? The fundamental slowdown to solving world hunger, poverty, environmental sustainability are the lobbies and powerhouses -- they garner more sway on the laws that govern the things we interact with than any peer-reviewed picture of reality based on observable facts and phenomena. Corporations have usurped our collective ability to think about the issues.

I'm not saying that private companies shouldn't be a part of the solution, but they shouldn't lead the brainstorming session on the solution. Basic solutions follow a simple formula -- understand what is going on, then address the circumstances.

But, no.

Look at today's major topics. On the environment, the big oil companies have actually introduced and made semi-permeable the argument that pollution doesn't matter or that we don't even pollute. And on the economic crisis, the largest, most irresponsible banks that have taken down the US economy have convinced us that we should consider not holding them more accountable than we have in the past but rather to allow them to be as irresponsible to their investments as they have been in the past (even though they took down the country EMPIRICALLY). President Obama's plan to cut out unreasonable and excessive billing schemes practiced by corrupt healthcare insurance companies is somehow not important to the debate on universal healthcare. Instead, the health insurance lobbies and the Republicans have trained public on-the-ground lobbyists to focus on myths and their deepest fears.

Only since banks were allowed to balloon out of control have we seen such a huge lobbying force. After Ronald Reagan started to shelve regulatory rules and Clinton continued in his footsteps, the banking sector has increased significantly in size and contributions - Bank of America increased contributions by 1700% between 1990 and 2008, Citigroup increased contributions by almost 500% in the same period. Between 1998-2000, a huge spike in contributions to election campaigns from the Finance, Insurance, Real Estate (FIRE) sector jumped can be seen; the spike coincides with the dismantling of rules against banks becoming mega-supermarket banks. And since then they have convincingly distorted reality - large banks that have effectively shut down numerous companies and millions of jobs are able to say that they shouldn't have a layer of bureacracy or transparency as they grow through their investments. And since then they have convincingly distorted reality - large banks that shut down numerous companies and millions of jobs are able to say that they shouldn't have a layer of bureacracy or transparency. They should not be telling us this, period. I point out these examples, which if you've care about empirical evidence you probably already think. What's not obvious is how much large corporations have muddled the discourse and how we constantly are forced to react to them.

If economics teaches us that people make buying purchases based on rational and sometimes irrational decisions. We also learn that free markets work to the extent that the choices given us are rational. Free market ideology shouldn't determine our monetary policy, rational options and rational monetary policy should determine the free market.

Frederick Kaufman in Harper's Magazine had an article about Bill Gates' model for solving world hunger. The plan most elaborated on in the article relies on the latest research and real empirical evidence to show that the leading proposal has a chance at working. I appreciate that. The proposal makes sense. But further into the article, you learn that, actually, similar plans don't make rational sense and have not worked in the past. The conclusion I walk away with is that the evidence is inconclusive and the proposal is pretty much worth trying. If it fails, we know not to do it that way again. But, if the conversation on world hunger is solely run by large corporate arms, we'd simply hear speeches on how the free market is a cure-all for all and we'd make little of studies that show people dying in droves while corporations reap profits. The point is that if it were not for for Nobel laureates, public interest lawyers, hard working academics, and thinkers we wouldn't have any inkling of what the heck is going on with the most hungry.

Right now, the fact that most bankruptcies in this country are caused by unexpected medical expenses (including those that are insured) is insignificant to our national debate on healthcare. In the empirical realm, it is examination number 1. Our ability to revere looking at issues objectively has been taken out of national discourse as the lobbies peddle self-interested ideology as value-adds to mainstream media and Congress. This is so because we've helped corporations get so big that these corporations have taken over political decisions and our national culture.

Science might not have the ability to expose the end-all-truths, but it at the very least allows us to develop a greater understanding of the way things work and an ability to organize complexity when it exists. If the public can have an honest look at the science, we may stumble as we move forward, but we do actually progress as a society (and my hunch is that more people would engage in understanding politics).

Science itself moves forward - they have a system of peer-review that is effective, effective in the sense that people work together in a transparent manner to make sure there are no loose nuts and bolts or worse, fake nuts and bolts. With the internet, we need to get to a more sane and respectable way to peer review bills and issues. We need a way to see all the facts that aren't distorted by any special interest, including government. Wikipedia is a good model for peer review. But, what can we do about understanding politics? Kill politics and put up a website, have town halls that allow us to peer review empirical evidence without lobbyists, industry and their puppet Congressperson muddling the process. A few websites can help people vote on what evidence and research is more lobby than fact, and the public can learn to shun, shun all the pollution. Do this, until we all feel confident we know enough about the issue to make an objective opinion for the good of everyone. Then we can set a path to start working on developing the most logical solutions, and then we'd actually be working on something. But, most importantly, we need to redevelop a culture of being suspicious of ideas and facts coming from any profit-that-doesn't-get-back-to-the-science-interests, including government. We already have the Congressional Budget Office (they determine costs for a bill), we're close.

Reality has been distorted and truth muddled. Stop lobbying on all sides, then maybe we can get somewhere. We need publicly-financed elections, return to one person-one vote, a scale-based economy, and academic research on every political issue. As it stands, our common sense has left the room.

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Tiffiniy Cheng is Campaign Coordinator for A New Way Forward and founder of OpenCongress and Miro.

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