Science, Politics and Water Levels
In politics it is often claimed that perception is reality. The basic idea is that politicians and their minions can shape the perception of people and thus define what they take to be reality. A quick look at the political landscape in most countries shows that politicians and their minions are rather good at this sort of thing.
In some cases, the idea that the shaped perceptions are the reality has some appeal. After all, some matters are such that whatever people think is thus correct. A non-controversial example of this is etiquette: what people think about manners determines what is polite or rude. As might be imagined, things get a bit more controversial when it comes to matters of value, such as ethics. While it can be argued that ethics are merely a matter of perception (that is, what people think is bad is bad because they think it is so), this is not something that can simply be assumed. Not surprisingly, politics often involves battles of value and the various sides attempt to define and redefine the perceived “reality” of particular values.
However, when it comes to physical reality, it would seem absurd to say that perception is reality and it would seem rather odd to try to impose on reality through laws. After all, reality is reality and this can be easily and painfully tested. As philosophers and scientists see it, we should generally endeavor to make sure that our perceptions are matching reality rather than assuming that what we believe is the reality because we believe it. Rational people also endeavor to make decisions based on reality rather than attempting to mentally re-define matters to suit what they would like. After all, insisting that something is not true because one does not want it to be true is the classic wishful thinking fallacy.
One unpleasant fact that people would general prefer not to be true is that the sea level is supposed to rise. In particular, a recent study for the NC Coastal Resources Commission predicted that the sea level in North Carolina would gradually rise by about one meter. Given the importance of coastal property to North Carolina it is no surprise that the Republicans in the state legislature sprang into action. What is surprising is the response: Replacement House Bill 819 seems to make measuring the rise in sea level using the methods used by scientists against the law. A key bit of wording is that “these rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of seas-level rise may be extrapolated linearly. …” In short, scientists would be forbidden from extrapolating exponential (which seems necessary to account for the existing data) and would be required by law to extrapolate linearly and within the time limit set by the law.
This, to say the least, seems rather bizarre. To use an obvious analogy, it would be like addressing an oncoming storm by forbidding meteorologists from using certain data when making predictions. To use another analogy, it would also be like address a patient’s illness or injury by forbidding doctors from using certain data that would show that the patient is very ill or seriously injured.
This approach is also rather problematic on at least two grounds. One obvious concern is that this sort of approach seems rather Orwellian-that is, if reality does not suit the views of those in power, then the response will be a law aimed at redefining reality. This seems to be a clear form of willful and systematic deception which seems to be rather immoral.
A second obvious concern is that the approach does nothing to solve the problem. In fact, it makes its less likely that the problem will be solved by requiring that the data be re-calculated to show that there is not a problem. This will clearly cause more harm than good, making it rather wrong-if only on utilitarian grounds. To use an obvious analogy, this would be morally comparable with responding to a predicted severe epidemic by insisting that the doctors change the tests so that the epidemic is no longer predicted to be severe.
It could, of course, be replied that the bill can be justified on utilitarian grounds, namely that changing the methodology so that the results are better would have more positive than negative consequences for the right people. The challenge is, obviously enough, showing that this is the case. While not impossible in principle, it does seem unlikely.
Another possible reply is that the scientists who conducted the initial study are in error and they have been using the wrong method. The bill, it could be contended, does not seek to change things so the data looks better. Rather, the bill is aimed at ensuring that the science is being done properly. It is presumably merely a matter of coincidence that the redefined data would be in accord with what certain people want others to believe (and perhaps wish to believe themselves). This is, of course, a matter that would need to be settled by those who are experts in the relevant fields-that is, a matter best addressed by scientists rather than politicians. Naturally, if the majority of experts agree that this new methodology is correct and the other usual conditions for an argument from authority are met, then the new methodology should be accepted. However, to accept that the methodology should be changed merely because a bill says so would be poor reasoning indeed.