You're not entitled to your own facts

LUEPadmin's picture

While I certainly appreciate that the reality of many community planning situations can be messy and confusing, making good planning decisions generally starts with facts. Want to know if you should set aside money to build a school? You’ll need some facts to go on. Want to know if your public safety response times are up to snuff? You’ll need some facts to go on. Sometimes however we encounter situations in which opposing sets of facts exist or where the validity of a fact is in dispute. Sometimes we mistake opinions for facts. In these cases, conflicts can break out. When they do, I’m reminded of a quote attributed to former US Senator Dan Moynihan, “You’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts”.

The dictionary describes facts as true pieces of information. Opinions are defined as judgments one holds as true. While both definitions contain the word “true”, it’s important to recognize the difference. Facts are true whether we want them to be or not. Opinions, being judgements, are not necessarily based on facts.

Sometimes facts challenge our opinions. Sometimes they support our opinions. Judgements made from evidence lead to verifiable and reliable conclusions about why something is happening. This is what makes fact-based opinions powerful! They help us understand what we can do about our problems and in turn lead to improvements in the condition of our lives. The process of collecting verifiable and reliable facts is called the scientific method.

Virginia Tech and Virginia State University are the commonwealth’s land-grant universities. For those unfamiliar with the phrase “land-grant university”, it basically means that these institutions have been given a special role by the government to explicitly work for the betterment of the lives of all those in the state.

Virginia Cooperative Extension helps lead the engagement mission of our land-grant institutions by “building local relationships and collaborative partnerships. Extension helps people put scientific knowledge to work through learning experiences that improve economic, environmental, and social well-being.” The Land Use Education Program, being part of Extension, lives that mission daily.

Is science infallible? Certainly not! Scientists are humans after all, and no human can be said to be infallible (well maybe the pope but that’s another matter). There are many examples of scientific findings being overturned or coming into conflict with other facts. Depending on the day, coffee is either good for me or I’m a dead man walking. There are also, sadly, examples of science-based community plans that were terrible for their residents (right, Jane Jacobs).

It turns out the most critical part of the Extension mission statement is the bit about partnerships. Mike and I respect the wide variety of views held by our partners, program attendees, and those we have not yet met. In situations where science is misapplied or its findings are mischaracterized the best remedy is adding more voices to the conversation. The functional diversity (look it up) of community planning has long been known to improve the quality of land use plans and policies. Facts are facts, no matter where they come from (see the works of John F. Forester). Scientists simply have a good system for generating and validating truth claims.

While it’s just our opinion,  providing science-based knowledge doesn’t mean shutting out opinions that don’t conform to our view of things. It means providing information that has been verified and tested for its ability to provide useful improvements to the lives of our fellow Virginians. Respecting the views of others means being open to facts that we hadn’t yet encountered and working to understand how they may shape our existing opinions. That said, we agree with Senator Moynihan’s sentiment.

Public support for science and the institutions that make the fact-finding process possible goes back to our country’s Founding Fathers. We like to think of ourselves as part of a long national tradition, initiated by our founding statesmen. Our hope is that the science-based knowledge we provide is useful to your decision-making. After all, LUEP’s goal is to inform the discretion of all Virginians to make wise land use decisions. We even use science to help us understand how effective we have been in that pursuit!

Thanks to those that support science, STEM education, and the institutions that make that education possible. We appreciate you every day!