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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Ben Carson, the Neurosurgeon Who Can’t Think

Along with Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson is way ahead of the pack for the Republican presidential nomination.

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD – MARCH 8, 2014: Neurosurgeon and author Ben Carson speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
Photo Credit: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

What does it say about higher education, that you can graduate from Yale and still believe that the devil made Darwin do it?  What does it say about medicine, that you can both be a gifted neurosurgeon and also declare, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away”?

Along with Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson is way ahead of the pack for the Republican presidential nomination.  When Trump, an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says that climate change is a hoax, I can believe it’s a cynical lie pandering to the Republican base, rather than an index of his ignorance.  But when Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, denies that climate change is man-made, or calls the Big Bang a fairy tale, or blames gun control for the extent of the Holocaust, I think he truly believes it.

It’s conceivable that the exceptional hand-eye coordination and 3D vision that enabled Carson to separate conjoined twins is a compartmentalized gift, wholly independent of his intellectual acuity. But he could not have risen to the top of his profession without learning the Second Law of Thermodynamics (pre-meds have to take physics), without knowing that life on earth began more than 6,000 years ago (pre-meds have to take biology), without understanding the scientific method (an author of more than 120 articles in peer-reviewed journals can’t make up his own rules of evidence).  Yet what does it mean to learn such things, if they don’t stop you from spouting scientific nonsense?

This hasn’t hindered his campaign.  Participants in focus groups of Republican caucus and primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, conducted in recent days by Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, used these words to describe Carson: “deep,” “thoughtful,” “intelligent,” “smart,” “brilliant,” a “top mind.” I get this.  According to a recent Public Policy Polling report, 46 percent of Carson supporters (and 61 percent of Trump supporters) think President Obama was not born in the U.S., and 61 percent of Carson supporters (and 66 percent of Trump supporters) think the president is a Muslim.  Carson’s being called brilliant by that base ain’t baffling.

What I don’t get is how his rigorous scientific education and professional training gave Carson’s blind spots a pass.  Was it, in George W. Bush’s memorable phrase, “the soft tyranny of low expectations”?  Or was it the tyranny of fundamentalism over facts?

In the humanities, the equivalent conundrum is the failure of a deep appreciation for masterworks of art, literature and music to instill virtue.  I first came across this disturbing indictment when I was an undergraduate at the chief rival of Carson’s alma mater.  My field of concentration (Harvard’s pretentious term for “major”) was molecular biology, and I would have quickly flamed out if I’d maintained that science was consistent with creationism, or any of the other canards that survived Carson’s education.  But I was also in love with literature, and ended up with a doctorate in it.  On the way there, what troubled me about my studies was an essay called “To Civilize Our Gentlemen” by George Steiner. Its thesis ran so counter to the bedrock of an elite education – the belief that the humanities humanize – that I went to England for two years to study at Cambridge with Steiner, as passionate an embodiment of academic high culture as could be, in order to reconcile my love for humanistic learning with its apparent inability to prevent barbarism.

My copy of the essay, and the book it appeared in, “Language and Silence,” is full of a 20-year-old’s underlining and marginalia (“right on!”).  These are some of the passages that jangled me:

“We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to the day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that is ear is gross, is cant…. The simple yet appalling fact is that we have very little solid evidence that literary studies do very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception, that they humanize…. Indeed, I would go further: it is at least conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text… diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response…. The capacity for [moral response]… is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fictions, and thus the cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room…. [S]urely there is something terrible in our doubt whether the study and delight a man finds in Shakespeare makes him any less capable of organizing a concentration camp.”

When Wolf Blitzer asked Carson if he wanted to amend or take back his comparison of Obama’s America to Nazi Germany, he replied, “Absolutely not.” Am I comparing Carson to Nazis? Absolutely not. I’m comparing the compatibility of a scientific education and intellectual ignorance with the compatibility of a humanistic education and moral ignorance.

The simple yet appalling fact is that we have at least some solid evidence that a top scientific education and a distinguished career in medicine does not make a man any less capable of believing untruths to be true and truths to be false.

I don’t know how I’d react if a shooter opened fire in my classroom.  Maybe I’d risk my safety to protect others. Maybe I’d be too petrified do anything. But I do know the feeling that would devastate me if someone I loved became “a body with bullet holes”; it would not be the feeling that the Second Amendment is in jeopardy. It is at least conceivable that the clinical detachment required by a doctor to deal with the deaths in this room makes the deaths in the next room less urgent, less real.

I know plenty of physicians of whom that is not true. But when Ben Carson blames a mass murderer’s victims for failing to foil him, I know of at least one man of science whose capacity for moral response has been absorbed by fictions.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

How our botched understanding of ‘science’ ruins everything

Intellectuals of all persuasions love to claim the banner of science. A vanishing few do so properly.
We're not doing science any favors if we don't properly understand it.
We’re not doing science any favors if we don’t properly understand it. (iStock)
 

Here’s one certain sign that something is very wrong with our collective mind: Everybody uses a word, but no one is clear on what the word actually means.

One of those words is “science.”

Everybody uses it. Science says this, science says that. You must vote for me because science. You must buy this because science. You must hate the folks over there because science.

Look, science is really important. And yet, who among us can easily provide a clear definition of the word “science” that matches the way people employ the term in everyday life?

So let me explain what science actually is. Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That’s the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says “science” is something different.

To most people, capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It is a thing engaged in by people wearing lab coats and/or doing fancy math that nobody else understands. The reason capital-S Science gives us airplanes and flu vaccines is not because it is an incremental engineering process but because scientists are really smart people.

In other words — and this is the key thing — when people say “science”, what they really mean is magic or truth.

A little history: The first proto-scientist was the Greek intellectual Aristotle, who wrote many manuals of his observations of the natural world and who also was the first person to propose a systematic epistemology, i.e., a philosophy of what science is and how people should go about it. Aristotle’s definition of science became famous in its Latin translation as: rerum cognoscere causas, or, “knowledge of the ultimate causes of things.” For this, you can often see in manuals Aristotle described as the Father of Science.

The problem with that is that it’s absolutely not true. Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. For Aristotle, science started with empirical investigation and then used theoretical speculation to decide what things are caused by.

What we now know as the “scientific revolution” was a repudiation of Aristotle: science, not as knowledge of the ultimate causes of things but as the production of reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation.

Galileo disproved Aristotle’s “demonstration” that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). What was so important about this Galileo Moment was not that Galileo was right and Aristotle wrong; what was so important was how Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment.

This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon. What distinguishes modern science from other forms of knowledge such as philosophy is that it explicitly forsakes abstract reasoning about the ultimate causes of things and instead tests empirical theories through controlled investigation. Science is not the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It’s a form of engineering — of trial by error. Scientific knowledge is not “true” knowledge, since it is knowledge about only specific empirical propositions — which is always, at least in theory, subject to further disproof by further experiment. Many people are surprised to hear this, but the founder of modern science says it. Bacon, who had a career in politics and was an experienced manager, actually wrote that scientists would have to be misled into thinking science is a pursuit of the truth, so that they will be dedicated to their work, even though it is not.

Why is all this ancient history important? Because science is important, and if we don’t know what science actually is, we are going to make mistakes.

The vast majority of people, including a great many very educated ones, don’t actually know what science is.

If you ask most people what science is, they will give you an answer that looks a lot like Aristotelian “science” — i.e., the exact opposite of what modern science actually is. Capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. And science is something that cannot possibly be understood by mere mortals. It delivers wonders. It has high priests. It has an ideology that must be obeyed.

This leads us astray. Since most people think math and lab coats equal science, people call economics a science, even though almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments. Then people get angry at economists when they don’t predict impending financial crises, as if having tenure at a university endowed you with magical powers. Countless academic disciplines have been wrecked by professors’ urges to look “more scientific” by, like a cargo cult, adopting the externals of Baconian science (math, impenetrable jargon, peer-reviewed journals) without the substance and hoping it will produce better knowledge.

Because people don’t understand that science is built on experimentation, they don’t understand that studies in fields like psychology almost never prove anything, since only replicated experiment proves something and, humans being a very diverse lot, it is very hard to replicate any psychological experiment. This is how you get articles with headlines saying “Study Proves X” one day and “Study Proves the Opposite of X” the next day, each illustrated with stock photography of someone in a lab coat. That gets a lot of people to think that “science” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, since so many studies seem to contradict each other.

This is how you get people asserting that “science” commands this or that public policy decision, even though with very few exceptions, almost none of the policy options we as a polity have have been tested through experiment (or can be). People think that a study that uses statistical wizardry to show correlations between two things is “scientific” because it uses high school math and was done by someone in a university building, except that, correctly speaking, it is not. While it is a fact that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads, all else equal, to higher atmospheric temperatures, the idea that we can predict the impact of global warming — and anti-global warming policies! — 100 years from now is sheer lunacy. But because it is done using math by people with tenure, we are told it is “science” even though by definition it is impossible to run an experiment on the year 2114.

This is how you get the phenomenon of philistines like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne thinking science has made God irrelevant, even though, by definition, religion concerns the ultimate causes of things and, again, by definition, science cannot tell you about them.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson (Facebook.com/COSMOSOnTV)

You might think of science advocate, cultural illiterate, mendacious anti-Catholic propagandist, and possible serial fabulist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and anti-vaccine looney-toon Jenny McCarthy as polar opposites on a pro-science/anti-science spectrum, but in reality they are the two sides of the same coin. Both of them think science is like magic, except one of them is part of the religion and the other isn’t.

The point isn’t that McCarthy isn’t wrong on vaccines. (She is wrong.) The point is that she is the predictable result of a society that has forgotten what “science” means. Because we lump many different things together, there are bits of “science” that aren’t actual science that get lumped into society’s understanding of what science is. It’s very profitable for those who grab some of the social prestige that accrues to science, but it means we live in a state of confusion.

It also means that for all our bleating about “science” we live in an astonishingly unscientific and anti-scientific society. We have plenty of anti-science people, but most of our “pro-science” people are really pro-magic (and therefore anti-science).

This bizarre misunderstanding of science yields the paradox that even as we expect the impossible from science (“Please, Mr Economist, peer into your crystal ball and tell us what will happen if Obama raises/cuts taxes”), we also have a very anti-scientific mindset in many areas.

For example, our approach to education is positively obscurantist. Nobody uses rigorous experimentation to determine better methods of education, and someone who would dare to do so would be laughed out of the room. The first and most momentous scientist of education, Maria Montessori, produced an experimentally based, scientific education method that has been largely ignored by our supposedly science-enamored society. We have departments of education at very prestigious universities, and absolutely no science happens at any of them.

Our approach to public policy is also astonishingly pre-scientific. There have been almost no large-scale truly scientific experiments on public policy since the welfare randomized field trials of the 1990s, and nobody seems to realize how barbaric this is. We have people at Brookings who can run spreadsheets, and Ezra Klein can write about it and say it proves things, we have all the science we need, thank you very much. But that is not science.

Modern science is one of the most important inventions of human civilization. But the reason it took us so long to invent it and the reason we still haven’t quite understood what it is 500 years later is it is very hard to be scientific. Not because science is “expensive” but because it requires a fundamental epistemic humility, and humility is the hardest thing to wring out of the bombastic animals we are.

But until we take science for what it really is, which is both more and less than magic, we will still have one foot in the barbaric dark.

(Top photo: Leemage/Corbis)

http://theweek.com/article/index/268360/how-our-botched-understanding-of-science-ruins-everything