The fact of the matter is, you can’t make up facts
There is something profoundly disturbing about the furore surrounding US politician Todd Akin – but it’s not what he is being hammered for by other politicians and commentators.
Akin, an 11-year veteran of the US Congress and committed anti-abortion campaigner said in a live TV interview last weekend that he believed women were unlikely to become pregnant after suffering legitimate rape.
The resulting shock and fury has continued unabated with everyone from the President down belting Akin. President Obama’s comments epitomised the popular angle of attack – that it was unacceptable for rape to be parsed into categories of legitimate and illegitimate.
Akin has explained his comments were a mistake; that in the heat of the interview he had used poorly judged words – “misspoke” – but that he does not legitimise rape in any circumstance. It is an explanation that at least should be considered feasible – that he added an adjective without particularly meaning anything by it.
Anyone who has done a live media interview would be aware how easy it is to be imprecise in language, or how cringe-worthy an explanation sometimes sounds on playback.
But barely rating a mention is the extraordinary proposition that Akin DID mean to make – that raped women have some automatic physical mechanism that “turns off” their fertility. Akin has since withdrawn that proposition, but that an experienced, educated, long-standing politician made such a loony remark in the first place is surely astonishing in the extreme.
Akin’s explanation for making the comment was basically “someone told me”. Really! That’s the basis for policy making in the world’s most powerful democratic nation? And not on some minor issue, but on one that has been contentious and controversial for decades.
The truth is that a piece of fantasist nonsense it might be, but it was a convenient piece of absurdity, because it could be used as a phoney proof point to support his moral position on abortion.
The admonition of one of Akin predecessors in the Congress, Pat Moynihan, that “you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts” appears quaint and old-fashioned in modern American politics.
Yet, sadly, we can see the same phenomenon in modern Australian politics.
The cause of climate change is one of the most researched and settled of modern scientific issues. In fact, there is bipartisan support for the proposition that human activity is causing carbon to increase in the atmosphere, that this is causing climate change, and that carbon emissions must be reduced and/or captured to reverse this trend. The issue between the major parties goes to the appropriate policies to effect this.
But somehow that does not appear to be the impression in the broad community. The public acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change has decreased rather than increased as a handful of extremist non-believers have achieved attention massively out of proportion to their qualifications or representativeness of the scientific community.
A group of senior politicians has contributed to the celebrity of these climate change deniers because they provide a convenient – if false – proof point for what they would like to believe. Sadly, as much as we want to say that we regard politicians as not to be trusted, when a senior politician declares that something is fact, it does carry a degree of authority for that person’s followers.
So, a politician uses a convenient untruth to justify a position they want to hold for ideological or faith-based reasons, and in so doing provides a veneer of credibility to the untruth itself. It’s a kind of reverse proof point.
This creates another curious problem for observers of politics. It is fashionable for politicians to declare themselves advocates of “evidence-based policy”. But when it is apparent that politicians now regard themselves as being free to invent their own evidence, how do we tell the difference between made up evidence-based policy and factual evidence-based policy?
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