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Editorial: What to believe?

How is it that intelligent people can disagree about so many things?  Aren’t the facts well-known? Usually, yes; so why is there still all this argument? 

The mechanism by which we can all reject and totally ignore  facts when they contradict beliefs dear to our hearts is becoming better-known: The Oatmeal explained it graphically, and then produced a cleaner-language version for use in schools.  Both versions are very good -- though United States-centric in the illustrative examples used, such as stories about George Washington’s dentures -- and can be accessed here, and at the bottom of the comic there are links to other materials on the topic for enquiring minds.

A recent article in Aeon by Professor Klemmens Kappel of the University of Copenhagen also deals with how people can be at loggerheads over issues, when they can’t agree even on the basic methods of proof: one example given is a person who “believes in” the efficacy of homeopathic treatment, and another who believes that all homeopathy is unproven and ineffective.  The “believer” rejects the idea of using scientific studies to prove or disprove ideas about how effective homeopathy is – so the believer’s belief is safe from challenge. 

The Aeon article also uses climate change denial, controversy over vaccines and genetically modified crops, and conspiracy theories as examples of “deep disagreement” – disagreement in which even normally-accepted methods of proof are rejected by those who hold a belief that seems irrational to everyone who does not share the belief. Todays’ political world holds many examples of the type of “deep disagreement” Professor Kappel discusses in his article.  There are the deeply divisive issues fueling the wealth gap – the idea that if people are rich, they deserve to be rich, and that the poor deserve their poverty – versus a  more egalitarian world-view.  There are supporters of unregulated capitalism versus supporters of socialism.

There are racists, and people who believe that gays and other persons of “non-cis”  sexual orientation are worthy of excoriation and, if possible, “conversion”  versus people who accept and respect others regardless of their ethnicity and sexual orientation.

There are people who believe that expanding the Alberta tar-sands operations is crucial to Canada’s economy, along with building more pipelines, versus others who believe that expanding the tar-sands operations and building more pipelines will be a final nail in the coffin of the earth’s biosphere – that it will tip the earth’s climate into a “run-away hothouse” effect and that human civilization as we know it will not survive.

Readers can probably think of other examples.

A current example here in BC is the divide between those who fervently believe that changing our electoral system to Proportional Representation for a two-cycle trial run will bring economic chaos, will ruin our wonderful province, will isolate rural voters from representation, enable “extreme, fringe” parties to control the Legislature  -- and others who believe that changing to Proportional Representation will improve our democracy, diminish “attack politics,” make political parties work together for the common good, encourage more people to vote, diminish corporate control of government, and improve representation of BC voters in all parts of the province. And that it will not particularly encourage fringe parties.

How are undecided voters to make up their minds, in the face of strident,  impassioned  and contradictory claims from both sides? 

If a person has no preconceived ideas about which system is better, and doesn’t automatically reject all change, then some dedicated research should be able to settle the matter – provided one is willing to decide on the “balance of probabilities” rather than absolute certainty. 

We can’t have absolute certainty about most things that haven’t happened yet, but on this topic we can arm ourselves with facts from the experience of other countries that are most like ours, using a system or systems that are very similar to one or more of the systems being proposed for BC.

We can also consider recent experiences of countries and provinces using our current First-Past-the-Post system.

We can weigh the truth of the claims made by each side, based on the statements of  specialists in electoral systems; and based on research done impartially by Arend Lijphart in his book “Patterns of Democracy.”

Are you undecided?  Looking at statements made by one side of the issue?  Have you bothered going to check the various sources of information, such as Elections BC’s neutrally-presented information on the referendum, how it will work, what the voting systems are, what will be decided after the referendum and how it will be decided?

Ask yourself: are the claims you’re looking at supported by facts that can be looked up to confirm them?  Are the claims based on a system like the ones on offer for BC, or are they based on a different system somewhere else that has  a lower threshold (or none) for representation?  Are the claims designed to scare you?  Has the other side refuted the claim in question with evidence or reasoned argument?  Have you bothered to find out what the other side has said about the claim(s)?

We can look at the recommendations made by BC’s Attorney General, and discover why they're recommended – careful examination should put to rest all the “fear and loathing” being spread about the process.  Bear in mind that the BC Government accepted the recommendations and is acting on them, so the Report is very informative about the referendum.   Click this link to explore that Report:  https://engage.gov.bc.ca/app/uploads/sites/271/2018/05/How-We-Vote-2018-Electoral-Reform-Referendum-Report-and-Recommendations-of-the-Attorney-General.pdf   

I just want the best available system for this province that has been my home for over 70 years of my life.  I care about the future lives of my grandchildren.  So, yes, I have looked very hard at the evidence, I have read the books, and I have examined the claims made by both sides.

Yes, I have my biases, and I’m sure they have affected my choice:  here’s a selection of them, off the top of my head.  I am biased toward egalitarianism, toward collegiality and co-operation.  I am biased against adversarial systems and “attack ads” and unfounded scare tactics.  I am biased toward respect for others, regardless of their ethnicity or sexual orientation.  I am a feminist – that is, I object to the objectification and oppression of women, and believe we should all have equal pay for equal work, and I despise rape culture. (There’s more to it, of course, but that’s a start.) 

I favour encouraging biodiversity, and I am biased against human activities that tend to drive other species to extinction.  I am biased toward clean air and water.  I favour the availability of Medical Assistance in Dying. I strongly object to torture, genital mutilation and slavery. I believe the scientists’ warnings about climate change and what will happen if we fail to take drastic action to curb it – after all, I can see that things they’ve been predicting for decades are happening now, around the world.

I don’t like the undue influence exerted over our federal and provincial governments by large corporations, to further enlarge and – in many cases -- subsidize their profits and enable them to “export” many of their costs to taxpayers and the environment, and delay or prevent action to combat climate change.

I want our government to be more representative of the citizens it’s supposed to work for. I want it to work for the common good.

I found BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson’s declared intention to frustrate voters’ intentions if they don’t agree with him extremely off-putting.  He has lost the respect I might otherwise have had for him.  He has stated that, if the referendum results in voters choosing proportional representation, “the Liberals will do everything in their power to force an election before the scheduled date of October 16, 2021, since the referendum’s rules state that that election date is the earliest the new proportional representation system would be implemented.” 

Democracy, eh?   

All of that contributes to why I’m on this side of that particular “deep disagreement” and why  I’ll be voting for a form of Proportional Representation when the ballots come out.

We should all begin receiving the official Voters’ Guide for the referendum in the mail soon, ahead of the actual ballot packages; anyone who wants to see it on-line can click this link: https://elections.bc.ca/docs/referendum/2018-Referendum-on-Electoral-Reform-Voters-Guide.pdf.

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