Trump’s assault on science ultimately rests on his hostility toward truth, an idea with a complicated history

Trump’s war on environment and science are rooted in his post-truth politics — and maybe in postmodern philosophy

Trump's war on environment and science are rooted in his post-truth politics — and maybe in postmodern philosophy
(Credit: AP/John Locher/Getty/David McNew)

The Trump administration’s war on the environment, which was accelerated this week with the president’s executive order to dismantle various environmental protections, is a product of the administration’s larger war on science, which is in turn a manifestation of President Trump’s unrelenting assault on the truth.

While “truth” and “objectivity” are endlessly debated in the field of journalism, no branch of human knowledge is more established on empirical evidence than the natural sciences, which seek to understand and describe the world through experimentation. One’s attitude toward the natural sciences and the scientists who dedicate their lives to research, therefore, can reveal a lot about one’s attitude toward truth in general.

By now it should be obvious that Trump, who once claimed that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese, has very little respect for the natural sciences. This week we learned just how little the president cares about the expertise of scientists, with a New York Times article reporting that the staff of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been completely decimated since Trump entered office. This elimination of STEM experts from advisory positions is consistent with President Trump’s other anti-science policies, including his call for cuts to the EPA, NASA and NOAA, as well as his sweeping deregulatory agenda on the environment.

Trump’s hostility towards science and scientific facts like climate change is characteristic of his “post-truth” outlook, and his administration’s anti-science agenda is just one part of his larger crusade against objective truth.

This crusade has involved the president relentlessly attacking the media as “fake news” while simultaneously peddling false stories and citing genuinely fake news publications himself. He has been so successful at this that Time magazine came right out and asked it on its latest cover: “Is Truth Dead?” With same font and format as the magazine’s famous “Is God Dead?” cover from 1966, it includes a remarkable interview with the president, who manages to make about a dozen false, unverifiable or misleading statements in one sitting.

Whether deliberate or not, the cover headline alludes to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who is best known for proclaiming the death of God, but also for rejecting the idea of objective truth (“there are no facts, only interpretations”). For the philosophically inclined, then, our “post-truth” era can be traced back to Nietzsche, as the lecturer in philosophy Alexis Papazoglou did last December in an article for the Conversation on the philosopher’s theory of “perspectivism.” According to Papazoglou, Nietzsche posits that, “once we realise that the idea of an absolute, objective truth is a philosophical hoax, the only alternative is a position called ‘perspectivism’ – the idea there is no one objective way the world is, only perspectives on what the world is like.” Papazoglou continues:

According to perspectivism, we agree on [basic facts, like that Paris is the capital of France] not because these propositions are ‘objectively true,’ but by virtue of sharing the same perspective. … but when it comes to issues such as morality, religion and politics, agreement is much harder to achieve.

While it is doubtful whether Trump has ever heard of Nietzsche — and even more doubtful whether he could get through one paragraph of the philosopher’s cryptic prose — the president is quite the perspectivist in his own crass and superficial way (much as he is a crude caricature of Nietzsche’s idealized Übermensch). In his Time interview, the president claimed to be a very “instinctual person,” which one can take to mean that he seldom questions his own perspective or feels the need to verify a claim that he feels in his gut before stating it as fact (even when, as president of the United States, he has access to top secret information).

If there are really no facts and only interpretations, and if millions of Americans are ready to unthinkingly embrace your perspective, then why bother adhering to a rigid line that separates fact from fiction? If you interpret a period of cold weather as evidence that climate change isn’t happening, and if millions of other people agree with your point of view, then climate change is a hoax. If your subjective experience perceives record attendance at the inauguration, then there was record attendance — aerial photographs that prove otherwise are simply illustrating another perspective.

Nietzsche was a major influence on the French postmodern philosophers of the late 20th century, who adopted a similar perspectivist view of objective truth and rejected the “grand narratives” of the Enlightenment and modernism. (Not surprisingly, these thinkers do not have a good reputation in the scientific community; see the notorious Sokal affair). As a philosophical movement, postmodernism is mostly known for the contention that all human knowledge is a product of social constructions and competing narratives — including scientific knowledge, which is no more or less true than, say, Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction.

While prominent postmodernist thinkers were almost all on the left, and used their theories to critique dominant ideologies and powerful interests, their work did not go unnoticed by those on the right. In an interview with the New Yorker last October, Mike Cernovich, one of the leading online personalities of the alt-right, discussed postmodernism and the importance of narratives: “Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Walter Cronkite lied about everything. Before Twitter, how would you have known? Look, I read postmodernist theory in college. If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative.” Like many other alt-right figures Cernovich made his name on Twitter, which has become an invaluable tool for promoting different “narratives,” whether it be climate change denialism or voter fraud conspiracy theories or fables of the deep state.

So the right has managed to successfully adopt a postmodern style of politics, where alternative facts counter objective truth and alternative narratives create a new, paranoid picture of the world. It is far from certain, however, that this kind of postmodern (or post-truth) politics is sustainable in the long run — especially now that Trump and the Republican Party are in control of the government.

Two and a half months into his term, Trump’s presidency has been nothing short of a disaster, and this is largely because the president has shunned experts who operate in the real world (like, er, scientists), while surrounding himself with know-nothing sycophants who dare not contradict his fact-free worldview. If Trump continues to govern as a post-truth president disconnected from reality, all signs point to an eventual collapse. Then again, it’s all a matter of perspective.

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.
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Trump executive order vows elimination of government regulations

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By Nick Barrickman
31 January 2017

On Monday, President Trump signed an executive order mandating that “for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination.” Trump declared the measure to be “the largest ever cut by far in terms of regulations,” adding, “If you have a regulation you want, number one we’re not going to approve it because it’s already been approved probably in 17 different forms.”

“Government regulation has actually been horrible for big business, but it’s been worse for small business,” Trump said, posturing as a friend to workers and small business owners. In addition to excoriating supposedly unnecessary regulations, the president stated that the order “goes way beyond that,” adding that the slate of minor regulations passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, most notably the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, were a “disaster.” Trump declared that his administration would do “a big number” on that legislation, without specifying what.

The “one in, two out” regulatory rule would mandate that for every new federal regulation introduced, two others must be singled out for elimination. In addition, the text of the order declares that for fiscal year 2017, “the total incremental cost of all new regulations, including repealed regulations … shall be no greater than zero.”

Business lobbyists lauded the action, with Jaunita Duggan, president of the National Federation of Independent Business, stating “[The] president’s order is a good first step on the long road toward eliminating ball-and-chain regulations so small businesses can create jobs and expand the economy.” Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan responded to the executive order by declaring, “President Trump’s executive order helps bring the nation’s regulatory regime into the 21st century by putting regulators on a budget, and addressing the costs agencies can impose each year.”

Trump sought to present the executive order as the fulfillment of campaign promises to do away with regulations which were supposedly “killing” American businesses. However, rather than supporting the interests of small businesses, Trump’s new rule would continue the consolidation of big business’s domination over American society, including the bankrupting of small businesses, while facilitating the exploitation of workers and the environment.

Elaborating on the administration’s intentions at a White House press briefing Monday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer noted that the goal of the administration would be to “unleash the American economy,” adding that Trump was focusing on “the energy sector, how to unleash America’s natural resources.”

The executive order comes on the heels of Trump’s meeting last week with manufacturing industry executives, where the president promised to eliminate “75 percent” of industrial regulations. In particular, Trump has been focused on environmental regulations which have placed higher fuel efficiency requirements on vehicles produced in the US.

Members of the scientific community expressed horror at the arbitrary measure. Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Washington Post the executive order was “absurd, imposing a Sophie’s Choice on federal agencies.”

“If, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to issue a new rule to protect kids from mercury exposure, will it need to get rid of two other science-based rules, such as limiting lead in drinking water and cutting pollution from school buses?” Kimmell asked. The scientist asserted that Trump’s order was “likely illegal,” declaring, “Congress has not called upon EPA to choose between clean air and clean water, and the president cannot do this by executive fiat.”

Trump’s executive order would concentrate power in the hands of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), whose agency is charged with overseeing federal regulations. Trump’s nomination for OMB director, Republican Congressman Mick Mulvaney, is an adamant opponent of federal spending.

According to the New York Times, “Within the Trump team, the views of Representative Mick Mulvaney… rank as among the most reactionary.” Mulvaney, who according to the Times possesses “an almost perfect conservative voting record,” has spent his six-year congressional career opposing disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy as well as backing the 2013 government shutdown, which was instigated by right-wing Republicans in an effort to force the adoption of austerity measures.

Mulvaney is a proponent of ending government-provided health care, having declared that “[we] have to end Medicare as we know it” in 2011 while being interviewed on the Fox Business Network.

The onslaught against federal regulation comes as Trump’s nominees for cabinet secretaries continue to be placed at the head of departments of which they have a record of opposition. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency, has a long career of leading lawsuits against the agency on behalf of the energy industry.

Myron Ebell, who led Trump’s EPA transition team, declared in a recent interview with the Washington Post that his prescription for the EPA would see the elimination of 5,000 employees and the halving of the agency’s $8.1 billion budget. “My own personal view is that the EPA would be better served if it were a much leaner organization that had substantial cuts,” stated Ebell in an interview to the Post .

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is scheduled to vote on Pruitt’s nomination on Wednesday. In addition, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon and Trump’s pick for Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin are set to receive committee votes this week. All three nominations would then proceed to the Senate floor for confirmation by the full Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow 52-48 edge.

Mnuchin’s vote was originally scheduled for Monday, but was postponed as Senate Democrats delayed the hearing in order to attend a candlelight vigil opposing Trump’s executive order which bans visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/01/31/regu-j31.html

Donald Trump isn’t backing down from his terrifying climate policy

His approach would revoke crucial climate protections and open up huge amounts of land to fossil fuel drilling.

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI

On Thursday, Donald Trump spoke before an audience full of natural gas and energy industry leaders — and the message was exactly the same as his economic policy proposal from last week: fewer environmental regulations and more land available to fossil fuel companies.

“We need an America-First energy plan,” Trump said. “This means opening federal lands for oil and gas production; opening offshore areas; and revoking policies that are imposing unnecessary restrictions on innovative new exploration technologies.”

If elected president, Trump has pledged to revoke both the Clean Power Plan and President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the cornerstones of Obama’s domestic climate agenda, and important signals to the international community of the United States’ commitment to climate action.

Trump has also promised to roll back the Waters of the United States Rule, which would extend drinking water protections for millions of Americans. Instead, he said that he would redirect the EPA to “refocus…on its core mission of ensuring clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans.”

Trump does not seem to understand that regulations he so deeply wants to cut are crucial to preserving clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans.

A recent Harvard study found that the public health benefits of the Clean Power Plan are so robust that they outweigh the costs of the carbon standard in 13 out of 14 power sectors within five years of implementation. The same study estimated that the plan could save some 3,500 lives every year. Similarly, the Waters of the United States rule would protect the drinking water for a third of Americans that currently get their water from unprotected sources.

Beyond rolling back crucial protections, Trump’s speech on Thursday showed that he does not intend to back down on his policy proposal that would open up vast regions of the United States to fossil fuel production. His desire to open both federal lands and offshore areas to drilling is the antithesis of the Keep It In the Ground movement, which has called for an end to new leases for fossil fuels on public lands — under a Trump presidency, not only would these leases continue, but leases would likely increase.

During his speech, Trump noted that less than 10 percent of federally-managed surface and mineral estates are currently leased for oil and gas development, while almost 90 percent of our offshore acreage is off-limits to oil production. Instead of viewing these protections as a benefit to both climate and the environment, however, Trump pledged to dismantle these restrictions, calling them “a major impediment to both shale production specifically, and energy production in general.”

“Trump’s dirty-fuels-first plan is pretty simple: drill enough off our coasts to threaten beaches from Maine to Florida, frack enough to spoil groundwater across the nation, and burn enough coal to cook the planet and make our kids sick.”

Trump’s speech comes on the same day that Oil Change International released a study illustrating that the potential emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in currently operating coal mines and oil fields is enough, if those mines and fields are operated through to the end of their projected lifetimes, to take the world well above 2 degrees Celsius of global warming. Several studies have already argued that for the world to remain below 2 degrees Celsius — the threshold agreed upon by more than 170 countries during the U.N. Conference on Climate Change last December — the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves need to remain untapped.

After Trump’s speech, Sierra Club Political Director Khalid Pitts criticized the Republican presidential candidate’s policies, calling them polluter “talking points.”

“Trump’s dirty-fuels-first plan is pretty simple: drill enough off our coasts to threaten beaches from Maine to Florida, frack enough to spoil groundwater across the nation, and burn enough coal to cook the planet and make our kids sick,” Pitts said in a statement. “In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton is the only candidate in this race who is committed to grow the booming clean energy economy to create jobs and help tackle the climate crisis.”

Trump’s speech on Thursday was a keynote address for Shale Insights, an annual conference by sponsored by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based pro-drilling group, and is co-sponsored by both the Ohio Oil and Gas Association and the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association. The conference’s agenda notes that it extended speaking invitations to both major candidates, but Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton declined to speak at the event, citing a scheduling conflict, according to the Associated Press.

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66, a pro-fracking union, withdrew from the conference over Trump’s appearance, with the business manager for the group calling Trump a “snake oil salesman.” Labor groups including United Steelworkers and the AFL-CIO also held an anti-Trump rally on Thursday morning, in an attempt to “dispute the notion that Mr. Trump has wide union backing,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s energy blog PowerSource.