The Fact Act — restoring science integrity and influence

Across the last few years, we’ve seen all-out war against facts and fact-using professions, ranging from science and journalism to the FBI and Officer Corps. For instance, Donald Trump is the first president since Truman not to fill the position of White House Science Advisor. Meanwhile, staff for the Office of Science and Technology has been cut by two-thirds, diminishing the input of those knowledgeable about the enduring impact of science and technology on domestic and foreign affairs.

Here, I propose the “Fact Act” — which would help restore access to useful and confirmable information for public officials, politicians and citizens. Rather than establishing some suspect “Ministry of Truth,” this legislation will encourage systems that use diversity, competition and grownup adversarial methods, helping leaders and the public to parse lies and distractions from assertions that are supported by strong evidence.

Under the Fact Act, Congress will:

ONE: Restore the nonpartisan Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), shut down in the Gingrich era. Protect the Congressional Budget Office and Government Accountability Office. Take measures to ensure that scientific processes in government agencies will be both subject to critical accountability and liberated from partisan political pressures.

TWO: Restore full funding and staffing to the executive Office of Science and Technology Policy (OTSP). This bill further requires that the President must fill, by law, the position of White House Science Adviser from a diverse and bipartisan slate of qualified candidates offered by the Academy of Science, and the Academy will choose one, if the president does not. The Science Adviser shall have uninterrupted access to the President for at least two one-hour sessions per month.

THREE: Each member of Congress shall be summoned to choose, from his or her home district, two advisers: one a scientist and one a statistician, funded to counsel the member on matters of verifiable fact, and to take press or public questions referred to them by the member. They will not opine on political issues, only upon the degree to which assertions are supported by factual evidence.

Likely effects? (a) Congress-members will no longer be able to shrug off fact/scientific questions with “I’m not a scientist.” (b) Any member’s refusal to appoint these advisers will be an implicit insult to the member’s home district, implying she or he could find no one qualified.

FOUR: These congressional advisers — scientists and statisticians — shall gather a shadow “Fact Congress” (FC) twice a year to supervise the restored OTA and OSTP and ensure nonpartisan professionalism. Eclectic diversity and potent minority input will ensure there is no “Ministry of Truth.”

Without usurping Congressional authority over policy and confirmations, the FC will question top scientific appointees regarding grasp of important concepts in their field, e.g., ability to clearly describe factual disputes and forecast potential policy outcomes and tradeoffs, including levels of uncertainty.

If more than one quarter of Senators or Representatives submit a question to the Fact Congress, the FC will respond with advice according to best available models. Congress-members may bring their FC advisers to House or Senate committee hearings and may charge them to form ad-hoc shadow committees, to assist with explications of fact.

FIVE: The Fact Act must restore the media Rebuttal Rule, prying open “echo chamber” propaganda mills. Any channel or station using airwaves or accepting advertising will be required to offer five minutes per day during prime time and ten minutes at other times to reputable adversaries chosen by Competitive Argument Societies (CAS) that are approved by one quarter of the members of the Fact Congress.

Example: If the 25% most-conservative members of the FC approve the ‘Herbert Hoover Competitive Argument Society,’ then HHCAS may send a rebuttal spokesmen to MSNBC, tackling Rachel Maddow. A CAS chosen by the most liberal 1/4 of the Fact Congress will get rebuttal time on Fox.

Rebuttals shall feature under-banners offering links for more details… plus links to refutation of the rebuttal, or else to fact-debates offered by pairs of competing CAS.

Any channel or station not using the airwaves or accepting advertising that nevertheless engages in avid political polemic, with the intent to influence electoral outcomes, will be required to offer — at intervals &md a small link, in one corner, that the viewer can use (or not) to access counter-arguments, or else to track the sources of both the channel’s assertions and funding.

SIX: Under auspices of the Fact Congress, Competitive Argument Societies (CAS) and other entities will be offered infrastructure and encouragement to engage in public debates over policy or else disputations over fact. Fact disputations will argue matters of verifiable or falsifiable evidence, aiming to narrow — but never eliminate — uncertainties and to target specific questions meriting further study. Amateur or non-credentialed participation will be encouraged.

SEVEN: Whistleblower protections will be upgraded to encourage early/discreet problem solving within institutions, and later (if necessary) protection of whistleblowers who feel they are unfairly repressed by their own institution. By offering a scaled sequence of safe and secure steps, the Fact Act will encourage first self-reform, but ultimately the adversarial discovery of cleansing truth.

EIGHT: To encourage the establishment of a wide variety of competing, credible fact-checking services, Congress will appoint a commission of sages from all parties, starting with the former presidents and retirees from the Supreme Court and top federal appeals courts, along with other eminent Americans with unimpeachable reputations. Among the duties of this panel will be to issue findings when a fact-checking service is accused of “partisanship.”

NINE: Under the 13th and 14th Amendments, this act requires that states mandating Voter ID requirements must offer substantial and effective compliance assistance, helping affected citizens to acquire their entitled legal ID and register to vote. Any state that fails to provide such assistance, substantially reducing the fraction of eligible citizens turned away at the polls, shall be assumed in violation of equal protection and engaged in illegal voter suppression.

Corporations demand compliance assistance when government imposes new regulations. So, why can’t poor folks get help to comply with voter ID laws? If a state does this, then its demand for Voter ID might be sincere. Alas, not one red state allocates a cent to help poor citizens, elderly, the young, or divorced women comply with onerous new restrictions on franchisement. Most have moved to close DMV offices in counties where many Democrats live! (Why do no Democrats make this point? Opposing voter ID leaves Democrats open to accusations of excusing cheaters, but denouncing the GOP’s corporate-citizen “compliance assistance hypocrisy” is a clear win.)

TEN: Congressional committees and procedures will be reformed so that members will be free to negotiate as individuals, with less power vested in the majority leaders to control legislation. Each member — whether in the majority or minority — will have authority to issue one subpoena per year, compelling adversarial testimony before a congressional committee of his or her choosing for as long as five hours, so that the minority will always be able to question the party in power. These member subpoenas will have priority over those issued by committee chairs.

ELEVEN: The seventy-three Inspectors General of federal departments and agencies shall be brought under an independent office of the Inspector General of the United States (IGUS), whose appointment must be ratified by the council of sages (see SEVEN) as well as the Senate. IGUS officers shall be commissioned, uniformed, trained and held to quasi-military standards of discretion, honesty and meticulous devotion to law.

TWELVE: This act directs the administration to negotiate treaties extending transparency, accountability and truth worldwide.

1. The “Ministry of Truth” Orwellian accusation will surely be trotted-out , it must be prepared-for.

2. This principle underlies our competitive, fact-using arenas: markets, democracy, science and justice courts. We know how to do this.

3. Even Republican appointees on OTA kept demurring from GOP dogma, saying “That’s just not true,” so it was eliminated.

4. Donald Trump is the first President since Truman not to fill this post. Evidently, even far-right candidates like David Gelernter made the mistake of saying to him: “I’ll tell you, when something is clearly false.” That was, apparently, unacceptable.

5. This “one quarter” provision ensures there can be no accusation of majority bullying or “voting on facts.”

6. Again, emphasizing the competitive nature of these measures will stymie accusations of a “Ministry of Truth” or “free speech repression.”

Author, scientist, public speaker. My books include The Transparent Society, The Postman, Earth, Existence, and Startide Rising.