A Skeleton in America’s Closet

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

The government shutdown has dragged a nasty skeleton out of America’s closet and put it on full display for the world to see: Americans are bitterly divided, and there is little hope on the horizon for reconciliation.

The “us vs. them” nature of our public discourse has grown so sourly partisan that we can no longer agree on basic facts. Each team has its own experts and news sources, so it is entirely possible for a person to never hear an intellectual point of view from the opposite side. In the rare few instances we choose to interact with the “enemy,” accusations of dishonesty are among the first words on our lips.

In other words, we live in a society where it is “my facts vs. your lies.”

The government shutdown is just the most glaring manifestation of this. Many Americans are inclined to blame the Tea Party — a small conservative caucus in the House of Representatives that has played a key role in grinding the government to a halt. But, an objective person would also recognize that the Tea Party wasn’t born in a vacuum but in the wake of President Obama’s health care plan. Prior to that, Democrats roared to power in 2006 by stoking voter anger toward President George W. Bush, and Republicans did the same in 1994 against President Bill Clinton.

The sad fact is that, over the past 20 years, American politics has been driven less by policy disagreements and more by partisan vitriol. The government shutdown, therefore, is simply the culmination of decades’ worth of growing mutual resentment.

But apparently very few people see it that way. A recent CBS poll showed that 44% of Americans blame Republicans for the shutdown and 35% blame President Obama and the Democrats. A paltry 17% blame both. Once again, Americans have chosen sides.

Not Even Scientific Facts Are Sacred

C. P. Scott once famously wrote, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” Today, that quote could be replaced with, “Comment is king, and facts are relative.” Frustratingly, this relativistic attitude — where opinion is more important than reality — pollutes not only politics, but science itself.

Several days ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). It contained no surprises, but simply restated what scientists already knew: The planet is warming up, and humans are responsible for more than half of it. It didn’t take long, though, for conservative media outlets to criticize the report as “hilariously flawed.” In fact, denunciations of the report could be found before it was officially released.

Similarly, progressive outlets have touted a new “documentary” by Jeremy Seifert called GMO OMG, which — as the title likely gives away — is nothing more than a propaganda-laced, anti-scientific screed against biotechnology. How likely is it that Mr. Seifert or other anti-GMO zealots will seriously consider a massive new literature review which concluded that GMOs are safe for human consumption?

Climate science and biotechnology are just the tip of the iceberg. It is equally easy to find rampant misinformation and bitter division over topics such as vaccines, nuclear power and embryonic stem cell research — all of which are considered settled issues by the scientific community, but “controversial” among the public at large.

A Failure to Communicate

Blind partisanship and uninformed opinion, reinforced by our media echo chambers of choice, are greatly harming our country. It doesn’t take a therapist to sense that America is in a very unhealthy place.

We commonly speak of Red States and Blue States, but in actuality, we are developing a “Red Language” and a “Blue Language.” Unfortunately, there aren’t many translators.