My friends are a diverse lot. Some advocate nuclear power as a way to slow climate change. Others deny climate change. A few are preparing to flee California, depending on the status of the radioactive plume from Japan. Most are passionate and totally convinced they have complete understanding of these issues, and other like hydrofracking (for natural gas), electric cars, paper versus plastic bags, the efficacy or dangers of vaccinations, megadoses of vitamins and more.
For most of these, I have more questions than answers, and many of my answers are not absolute. We live in world where story trumps facts, data gets distorted, critical thinking is nearly dead, and everyone has an opinion. It seems like a good time to outline my approach to controversial issues.
Probably because I have a scientific background (with a very large dose of philosophy), the base of my pyramid is tested data, logic and critical thinking. I call this Touching the Real World, and it is my attempt to make my decisions and opinions results-driven. Acting on wishes and hopes does not always lead to desired outcomes.
Level two is called Trade-Offs. Analysis that does not recognize that we are choosing from imperfect possibilities is suspect. So I acknowledge that fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, electric cars may get their charges from the burning of coal, and the paper plants that make those bags create a big stink. A subtle part of trade-offs is the time element. Some things that are terrific today create problems for future generations. When people take a closer look, their arguments have more credibility.
Level three is Passion. It is important (especially for a scientist) to acknowledge that values play a role. To me, someone who is passionate may be completely wrong, but they also may be sounding an alarm about something vital that is not being noticed or where the powers that be are making values-based assumptions and not acknowledging it. As I recall, AIDS advocates accelerated use of experimental drugs, cracking open the U.S. Food and Drug Administration new drug approval process. The FDA wanted an orderly process that would not muddle the testing pool and that would demonstrate drugs were safe and effective. AIDS advocates were working against a different clock with death as the endpoint. The difference was values that pointed to different views of the trade-offs.
I call level four Story. People respond to simplified messages, and these messages are persistent. No one wants a story they have bought into demonstrated to be an urban myth. When the vaccine/autism fraud was demonstrated, none of my friends reconsidered their views. I respect the power of story, so I look closely at how technically, well-intentioned conclusions on issues are presented and how their implications might be broadened. (Einstein’s theory of relativity was, in my opinion, abused by those who broadened it out to questions of morality.)
The top level I use is Think Local. Where things happen, where they are done, and who does them makes a difference. An oil spill in Manhattan the size of the one in the Gulf of Mexico would have had much worse consequences, both in terms of human exposure and in terms of the ability for natural mechanisms to fight back. We cheer on the workers in Japan who are fighting to secure the nuclear plants, but our opinion might be different if they were less aware of the consequences or if they were forced to work at gunpoint.
An issue may arrive at my doorstep at any of these levels. I make a point of examining them across all of them before I form an opinion. Of course, without perfect knowledge, my opinion may still be wrong. But at least I end up asking some interesting questions. And sometimes, I even change my point of view.