Death of evidence alive and at work

October 9, 2023 3:00 am

Opponents of LB 574 filled the Nebraska State Capitol Rotunda, as they have during nearly all previous rounds of debate on the bill, on Friday, May 19, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Last week Nebraskans began reaping the benefits of Legislative Bill 574. 

Women are now forced to cede yet even more autonomy over their bodies, setting a place at the most personal of tables for a government official to weigh in on the details of their family planning. 

Young Nebraskans for whom the question “Who am I” is more than teenage angst but rather a life-affirming journey, were able to start enjoying all that goes with being unwelcome, truly treated as second-class citizens, if any at all. And for good measure, just weeks before happy days returned, the governor passed along a biology lesson, the effect of which further isolates transgender Nebraskans.

Medical professionals, too, were put on report at the beginning of the month, reminded that even the most compassionate, clinically sound care they could provide with a clear conscience to a desperate patient may cost them their own livelihoods.

All that because lawmakers ignored or dismissed or simply chose not to believe the evidence.

In order for LB 574, especially its original intent to eliminate gender affirming care in Nebraska for anyone under 19, state senators had to ignore input from those best equipped to provide medical and psychiatric expertise and experience on the subject. In addition to the over 1,000 medical professionals from Nebraska who signed a letter opposing LB 574 as it risked “patients’ lives” and medical professionals’ careers, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association and a slew of mental health, school and psychiatric counseling and social work professional associations were on record as opposing the type of legislation that is now the law in Nebraska.

Over 110 Nebraska businesses jumped in, too, penning a letter to the governor calling a ban on gender-affirming care “harmful social legislation.” The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce said as much in a statement regarding LB 574.

Yet, all that evidence, from the empirical to the clinical to the experiential to the well-reasoned and thoughtful, wasn’t enough to persuade enough Nebraska state senators. In fact, when a more extreme abortion ban lost on the floor of the Legislature, they used LB 574 to pass it as an addendum to the ban on gender-affirming care.

All of which began defining Nebraska as of Oct. 1. 

No surprise, really. The death of evidence — either by omission, commission or some other modern post-truth trigger — is as common as TikTok in a school cafeteria. The U.S. House Oversight Committee, for example, opened an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden a couple weeks ago. Members promised “mountains” of evidence, none of which actually appeared. Perhaps to omission and commission we should add pure, unadulterated invention.

When evidence dies, the vacuum is filled with those seeking power and control rather than solving problems. That was abundantly clear just a couple weeks ago when Congress averted a government shutdown with a stopgap measure that funded the federal government for 45 days. A few of them tried to applaud themselves afterward, arguing they saved the nation. The response was mostly crickets. That’s because problem solvers use evidence; the power hungry use everything but.

Even when real evidence is in play, we need to be able to assess its relevance, currency and origin. I read a story about renowned astrophysicist Robert Jastrow, who, after giving a lecture at Dartmouth on the feasibility of a “Star Wars” defense shield, was challenged by an undergraduate. After several back and forth volleys during which Jastrow displayed patience yet held his ground, the student finally said, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

To which Jastrow responded: “No, no, no. My guesses are way better than yours.” 

Two recent examples underscore the consequences of “Your guess is as good as mine”: Choosing to ignore or berate a learned, experienced epidemiologist with sterling credentials and credible science for a talk radio host or internet influencer. Or diminishing the academic heft of historians with books to their credit and a mountain of research in their corner for a political candidate who trafficks in lies and lunacy because it appears to be what we want to hear.

Whatever side of a debate on which you find yourself, asking “based on what?” should be part of the decision-making equation. Evidence dies when it is unused, ignored or discounted by belief or feeling. The logicians call the latter the “Incredulity Fallacy.” Indeed.

When evidence dies, we make decisions without the best, most current, most relevant and abundant set of facts and science available. Nebraskans deserve better.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.