Illustrative image for Civic Learning When the Facts Are Politicized: How Values Shape Facts, and What to Do about It

Hastings Center Report

Civic Learning When the Facts Are Politicized: How Values Shape Facts, and What to Do about It

Abstract: Social debates about highly technical topics are often driven by values yet dwell on facts. The debate about whether genetically modified organisms are acceptable in food, for example, focuses on causal claims about consumers’ health or the environment, but the language and imagery surrounding it often point to underlying misgivings about the human relationship to nature or the use of science. In such cases, it is not always possible to resolve the factual disputes simply by articulating the facts better. Because of various features of human reasoning—cognitive biases and heuristics, the very nature of facts, and the central role of social trust in how people learn—facts cannot be fully disentangled from values. Three lessons can then be drawn.  First, values sometimes need to be discussed at the outset of debate, before or while addressing facts. Second, factual issues can and should sometimes be framed in less politicized ways. Third, factual claims that have a limited evidentiary basis may nonetheless need to be aired and discussed. 

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