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The Topic of Debate

January 26, 2015

"Why is the sky blue?" "Where do rainbows come from?" "How do planes fly?"

These are all questions that kids ask every day, and conveniently for parents, science gives us answers to many of them. We know the sky is blue and the rainbow is colorful because different colors of light act differently when they hit different objects, and we know planes fly because faster moving air creates lower pressure, and that creates an upward force that lifts up the large metal cylinder that is the airplane. Science can even answer some more complex questions, such as "what is cancer?" and "where is the ozone layer?" and even "why are galaxies shaped the way they are?" And for these decisively answered questions, we don't really argue* about the validity of the answers provided by science. The sky is blue because bluer light scatters into the atmosphere, and that's that -- an indisputable fact. Anyone would be crazy to try to propose an unsupported, shady theory on why skies are blue. In other words, these are scientifically proven facts, and these aren't debatable issues.

The same mindset applies to mathematics. The value of pi, the ratio between the diameter and circumference of a circle, is an irrational decimal, around 3.14159265... and so on, and that's an indisputable fact. But before I go on any further, let me introduce you to the wonderful intellect of Indiana's senators of the decades past, who tried to pass a bill changing the value of pi. In short, a bill was suggested that would essentially copyright a mathematical proof discovered by some mathematician in the late 1800s, so that others who published the proof would have to pay royalties to the mathematician. Never mind the sheer absurdity of this notion, or the fact that the claimed proof was incorrect; a part of the proof was based on a mere approximation, that the value of pi was exactly the inverse of "five-fourths to four", or 3.2. Fortunately, this bill wasn't passed, and hopefully our legislatures have improved in its common sense quite a bit in the past hundred years. But this leads us to think about what legislative debates should concern themselves with, or more importantly, what legislatures should not have a problem deciding upon.

Internal politics sometimes blind us from deciding our best courses of action against our biggest problems. (credit: Martin Falbisoner)

Of course, any reasonable high school student can tell you that it's completely purposeless to debate the value of pi -- debating it won't change the mathematical truth. But unfortunately, this ridiculous scenario of political debates on indisputable issues aren't that rare. Take climate change, for example. The scientific evidence and consensus, as a video from the YouTube channel Veritasium points out, is overwhelming. The pool of evidence confirming climate change is arguably equal to evidences for the dangers of drunk driving or the health harms of smoking -- for all intents and purposes, it's proven to be true. So why are some groups around the world still debating whether or not we should take action to minimize our impacts to the environment? If we're recognizing drunk driving as dangerous to our communities and are making it illegal, why are we still stuck talking about whether or not destroying nature is an OK thing to do? Humanity's impact on the environment and climate change is a fact, proven thousands of times through a multitude of very credible research, and this course of nature won't change just because governments decide that it's not our fault.

Now shift our focus to another topic, human rights, racial profiling against minorities has never been a non-issue in the United States. Every reputable statistical study agrees that there is disproportionately greater incarceration of African Americans and Hispanics in the US**, for example. Again, these facts are not debatable. The remaining discussion should not be on whether or not to take initiative against these issues, but on what to do next to solve these problems. Fortunately, this hasn't been a governmental issue so much as the issue of some small number of people under fire from these conflicts, but facts are facts, and denying them is possible the worst way to approach reality. Let's look at a different debate: two days ago, Alabama became the 37th US state to lift the ban on gay marriage. But where this change hasn't yet taken place, this issue isn't suddenly going to disappear just because the remaining 13 states ignore the fact, that people of what some may call unconventional gender orientations deserve no different than others in every part of life. So in case I haven't emphasized it enough, let me reiterate:

Our ignorance of important and influential social problems and moral issues is not going to make these problems disappear or solve itself. If anything, our decisions to stay inactive on these issues are what perpetuates them.

I think in the process of democracy, in every argument passing through the "majority rule" to be approved, we sometimes forget to distinguish invariable facts from debatable opinions and policies. Circles don't care if a congress decides to rule the value of pi as exactly 3.2 -- circles aren't suddenly going to change its shape, and planets aren't going to spin out of orbit because a group of mathematically illiterate legislators made some bad calls. And the same logic applies to other areas. Climate change isn't suddenly going to stop and rewind itself because some organization rules that we shouldn't worry about it. People who have minority gender orientations aren't going to disappear from our communities because the law simply chooses to pretend they don't exist. In other words, there are certain facts of reality and facts of nature, and these facts don't care what we think. As obvious as it sounds, our job isn't to decide how we want the reality to be. What we should be doing is realize what's true, and find the best solutions to the biggest problems that we face. We need to make sure that the facts are what leads our legislative processes, not the other way around; facts should never be the topic of debate; our actions should be.

* Those flat-earth theorists notwithstanding

** For a very nice overview of some of these numbers, check out John Green's Racism by the Numbers.