Sunday, March 14, 2010

Are the facts neutral?

Are the facts neutral?

Responding to John Baez's latest, March 13, Diary entry (March 2010 diary):

It would be nice if the facts as presented were neutral and spoke for themselves. We would then have quite enough trouble understanding the implications of the facts and making correct, or at least reasonable, policy responses. The trouble is that once the facts have impact on public policy then we find lots of people who want to influence public policy for good and bad reasons. The engines of disinformation start running flat out on both sides of the debate. When people start looking for facts to support an argument, rather than to discover the truth, then they quickly do so.

Democracy needs an extra arm. It needs an open, vigorous, well-funded investigation of the facts on matters that relate to important public policy. It needs to evaluate the people giving evidence as well as the evidence itself, so that those who have made fraudulent or disingenuous claims about the facts are not allowed to waste everyone's time. It needs to have the powers of a Royal Commission (not sure what the American equivalent is), to acquire evidence and interrogate witnesses, and particularly to overcome the tendency of the sides in a debate to ignore each other's points. Most particularly the lead investigators need to be good mathematicians. They also need to have a good track record of being able to change their mind. They should be people whose prior recorded opinions on public policy have been measured rather than strident, and once they get the job they should keep those opinions to themselves.

To help the public understand why we need mathematical expertise just to understand the facts, it would be nice if Mathematicians would stop arguing about what Mathematics is about, and get behind this simple definition:
The subject matter of Mathematics is: how to think clearly about problems.
This would also encourage everyone to get as much maths as they can. It would also act as a good guide to educators about what should be taught [In particular Mathematics does not have facts the way other subjects do, though one does have to learn its language].