View From Sapsucker Woods: Facts Are at the Center of Our Universe

By John W. Fitzpatrick
April 11, 2017
Sunruse over Cape May. By Nikographer via Birdshare Photo by Nikographer via Birdshare.
From the Spring 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

In 1633, the Roman Catholic Church convicted Galileo Gali­lei of heresy for publishing Di­alogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. In the book, a fool named Sim­plicius defends the case for earth being the center of the universe, while an ar­ticulate philosopher, Salviati, presents astronomical facts accumulated over the previous century proving that earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. Sagredo, a neutral layman, eas­ily spots the flaws in Simplicius’s case and concludes in strong support of the evidence for a heliocentric solar system. Forced to renounce the implications of his own writings, Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest, and for 200 years his book remained on the church’s Index of Forbidden Books. To­day it is regarded among the most im­portant books ever published.

The absurdity of Galileo’s heresy con­viction warrants our attention today, as a disturbing and pernicious malignancy threatens not just environmental policy, but civil society itself. Oxford Dictio­naries recently designated the phrase “post-truth” as their 2016 internation­al word of the year. Other oxymoronic couplets from today’s headlines—such as “fake news” and “alternative facts”— might be 2017 nominees. Such phras­es would be laughable were they not reflective of a widespread mistrust of science and outright dismissals of facts, knowledge, evidence, and truth.

Science is neither religious nor po­litical. It is simply a way of conducting, documenting, and organizing human curiosity. For thousands of years, hu­mans have cataloged and strived to understand the elements, relationships, mechanics, and laws of nature. Im­portantly, we also have systematically found ways to put this understanding to our use. As a result, every person in the world today has gained enormously from the steady accumulation of facts and rigorous, evidence-based testing of ideas regarding what is “true” about the world around us. Science benefits everyone’s daily life and longevity, and its cornerstones are facts.

Last century we also began amass­ing information about how humans al­ter natural systems, and how to reduce or mitigate these impacts. Previously obscure words such as extinction, pol­lution, ecotoxicology, acidification, in­vasives, and greenhouse gases became everyday terms reflecting an accumu­lating body of fact-based knowledge about human environmental impacts. Whole disciplines arose to organize this knowledge and prescribe strategies for minimizing or even reversing these impacts. Again, human society gained immeasurably as science brought us cleaner air, cleaner water, renewable energy, sustainable fisheries, resource recycling, and countless other advances built around stabilizing our relationship with the natural world.

All this progress is threatened by the post-truth reality, which harkens back to Galileo’s era: facts do not matter or somehow can coexist with respective “anti-facts” such that neither holds sway over the other. Mountains of peer-re­viewed evidence and robust scientific consensus about profoundly important matters are swept aside or suppressed. In this worldview, “I don’t believe in climate change” replaces “let’s examine the evidence.” Specific issues such as climate policy, impacts of lead, impor­tance of streams and temporary wet­lands, and coastal zone management are current headlines, but far more dangerous and potentially long-lasting is the underlying attitude that facts, evi­dence, and science are irrelevant.

For anyone committed to responsi­ble stewardship of earth’s natural sys­tems, this approach to environmental policy must be treated as intolerable. For the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, our bedrock currency is accurate in­formation, and our commitment is to public service through dissemination of knowledge—to all who will listen, and even to those who may choose not to.