Recently there has been much buzz about “alternative facts,” especially since Kellyanne Conway used the term on January 22, 2017 to explain why White House press secretary Sean Spicer falsely (and in spite of photographic evidence to the contrary — see below) called the crowds at Donald Trump’s swearing-in ceremony “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period….” http://time.com/4642689/kellyanne-conway-sean-spicer-donald-trump-alternative-facts/
During an interview with Kellyanne Conway on this topic, CNN’s Anderson Cooper literally couldn’t stop laughing. (Multiple clips are on YouTube.)
In May 2015 Andy Borowitz, a New Yorker magazine humorist, took aim at the “war on facts” with a satire piece entitled: “Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans.” http://www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report/scientists-earth-endangered-by-new-strain-of-fact-resistant-humans
Under the jokes and laughter lies the widely-voiced concern that — with monotonous frequency — our current president and his administration rely on to distortions, half-truths, misrepresentations, and outright lies to support their actions and agendas. Many (myself included) have hinted that Donald Trump seems to be steering us towards an authoritarian government that uses propaganda and disinformation to suit its own ends. The fear of a fascist takeover of this country is real and pervasive. Michael Moore tweeted the following on January 30, 2017:
I will argue here that if we are to have a viable future with an effective democratic government, free of fascism and authoritarianism, we will need to all share a respect for facts and science. I will show how democracy is inextricably linked with science historically, philosophically, and existentially.
Let’s break that down: first historically, then philosophically, and finally — wait for it — existentially.
- The historical link between science and democracy: The 1776 American Revolution gave rise to the first more or less democratic government in modern times. It was an indirect product of the Scientific Revolution, which is generally agreed to have started in 1543 — the year when Nicolas Copernicus published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Bodies), which introduced the now widely-accepted theory that the earth orbits the sun (and not vice versa). The Scientific Revolution gave rise to “the Age of Enlightenment” (1715-1789) or “the Age of Reason,” an intellectual movement centered mainly in France, emphasizing the scientific method and questioning religious teachings. The European Enlightenment crossed over to the thirteen colonies in the early 1700s. The “American Enlightenment” applied scientific reasoning to politics, science, and religion and advocated for religious tolerance. It influenced formerly religious or theological colleges and universities such as Princeton and Harvard to include science and mathematics in their curricula. Representatives of the American Enlightenment included many of our founding fathers: John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. (While the Religious Right claims that the USA is and must be a Christian country, ruled by the Christian Bible, in fact our founding fathers shared a profound distrust for theocracy and worked to keep religion out of our government by placing provisions in the Constitution for separation of church and state.)
- Philosophically, the scientific method is fundamentally democratic, egalitarian and inclusive. It is founded upon the principle that anybody — from the leader of a country to its poorest, least-educated worker — can observe the same phenomenon and see the same thing; or that any scientist, in any country, can perform the same experiment and get the same results. The scientific method says that a janitor will agree with a university professor, for example, when they both observe water freezing at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), and boiling at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius); or that a Muslim, a Hindu, a Sikh, a Jew, a Buddhist and a Christian will all agree upon observing mercury that it is in fact a liquid, even though technically it’s a metal. The scientific method establishes systematic rules for observing and evaluating phenomena in such a way that personal biases, beliefs, moods and/or opinions do not affect observations of — or conclusions about — those phenomena.
- Existentially, science and facts are necessary for the continued existence — the very survival — of democracies (and, by the way, for life on planet Earth as we know it). Scientific methods provide reliable information that allow voters in a democracy to make informed decisions and shape a future that the majority deem desirable — and to steer clear of policy decisions that would be calamitous for great numbers of people (e.g. epidemics, disastrous changes in climate, rising sea levels, nuclear wars, etc.).
Sadly, history and current events show corporations and wealthy individuals manipulating the flow of information, especially by funding (and therefore directing the focus and messaging of) researchers, educational institutions and think tanks, and through the purchase of deceptive advertising and media coverage. A well-known past example is how between 1960 and 1988 tobacco companies spent $370 million to conduct research minimizing public perception of the health risks posed by tobacco smoke. Similar tactics have been employed to use biased “research” and the media to shape public perceptions of other consumer products — especially fossil fuels. For example, witness this story from BBC (November 2015):
Oil giant Exxon Mobil is being investigated for misleading the public about the impact of climate change.
The New York attorney general has sent a request for emails and financial records to the company.
Allegations surfaced last month that the company’s own scientists raised concerns about global warming decades ago and that Exxon had worked to suppress that information. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34750196
As most of us know too well, the new U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was CEO of Exxon-Mobil until very recently. He and others in the Trump administration have poo-pooed claims that human activity causes of global warming (Trump calls it “a hoax”), and the Trump agenda includes a full-court press to revive fossil fuel industries, especially oil and coal. This is in spite of widespread consensus among climate scientists around the world, and growing scientific evidence, that the use of fossil fuels has put the world on a path to widespread climate-related disasters, including:
- extreme and freakish weather conditions
- the eradication of forests and wetlands
- severe and permanent droughts
- rising sea levels that — especially in league with storms coming in from the ocean — threaten to inundate coastal areas, where hundreds of millions of people live
Clearly, we need to curtail our use of fossil fuels, and stop using them entirely as quickly as possible, but the billionaires and corporations who got rich from fossil fuels — and who stand to lose much if we shift to wind power, solar power, and other sustainable energy sources — have the money to “buy” public opinion, which influences how people vote. They also have the money to shape government policies, which they can do now more than perhaps ever before, because of Citizens United.
And so now, we have the Trump administration disseminating half-truths, distortions and outright lies — and large (but apparently diminishing) numbers of Trump followers lapping it up. Increasingly, we need reliable news media to keep us informed. There we encounter a new challenge called “fake news” (also sometimes calling itself “Fox News”). Let’s leave that for another post.
In the meantime, what can we do? Let’s stay informed, keep our eyes open and our minds clear, keep speaking up, keep calling our government representatives, and VOTE like crazy in every election, from now until those of us who live near the coast are swallowed by rising sea levels.