Donald Trump: who needs scientific rigour in a post-factual era?

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Like many who have been following American politics, I woke up to news that I thought would never happen on Wednesday 9th November – Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. My amusement for this almost comedically bad candidate soon turned to abject horror. Now we’ve had time to enter the ‘acceptance’ stage of grief, there are serious questions facing the world. The concerns people have about his presidency range from his closeness to the autocratic and aggressive regime of Vladimir Putin, to his views on women and his harnessing of the racially-charged fears and grievances of America’s rural white population. Then there’s his lack of experience. And his lying. And his bankruptcy cases. And his almost glass-like fragile ego. To top it all off he is, near objectively speaking, a misogynistic, narcissistic, incompetent, racist, liar.

Let’s put that aside however, what does his election mean for science? The answer, like a lot of things surrounding his election, is unclear. Ironically “unclear” is an anagram of “nuclear”. Sorry, let’s keep this light. When I say it’s unclear, I mean we don’t know what he’s going to do because so many of his election promises were so outrageous that it’s hard to know which are actually deliverable. He’s already backtracked on several promises, including his pledge to dismantle Obamacare. In fact, he has repeatedly lied about things he’s said, often claiming when challenged he never said any such thing.

Take climate change as an example. We all thought we knew what he believed on this; famously tweeting that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to make US exports less competitive. However, when challenged in a debate he claimed to have never said it, despite obviously having done so. He also promised to take the US out of the Paris agreement on climate change. This is fairly alarming but again we have no idea if it’ll really happen. Legally speaking, he can’t for another 3-4 years by which point it may be more effort than it’s worth. Once again, we just don’t know.

We’re still not even sure who some of his team will be – some speculating that the list of hard-line conservatives which included Ben Carson, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich is being tactically ventured to soften expectations. Those we do know about make for some grim reading, especially for someone with an interest in factual information and scientific reasoning.

Vice President elect Mike Pence is on record as saying he thinks tobacco doesn’t kill, a view he expressed in 2000 and has never retracted. As someone who has worked on a respiratory ward, the idea that anyone in a significant position of authority holds such crazy views is disturbing. Meanwhile, lobbyist Myron Ebell will be in charge of Mr Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition. Mr Ebell, in keeping with his preposterous name, believes that global warming is erroneous and is on record as saying that scientists actually think it’s “silly”. The scientific consensus has been clear for a number of years that the planet is getting hotter. Almost as if to highlight the seriousness of the global situation, recently it was reported 2016 is projected to be the warmest on record.

On closer examination of the situation, perhaps the most damaging thing about this American election is the advent of the post-fact era. Politicians and leaders need to understand facts about our world and should respect that facts and science are not something you can pick and choose if you don’t like what they’re telling you.

Throughout the election whenever Donald Trump claimed any number of things which are demonstrably untrue, he legitimised the corruption of facts in lieu of convenience or popular opinion. In a modern age, we need to be able to confront and accept things which are complicated, even unpalatable, to have a true look at what is real and what is false. This doesn’t stop with Donald Trump. Recently news has been awash with Facebook’s role in the proliferation in ‘fake news’, stories which carry clickbait sensationalist headlines, and appeal to the reader’s pre-conceived prejudices. These include liberal targeted stories as well as those aimed at people more on the right of the spectrum, although with an apparently higher proportion appearing on conservative pages.

Coupled with the echo-chamber of social media and the abundance of conspiracy theories online, it seriously endangers the legitimacy of inalienable facts. Studies have shown that the more often false information is repeated, the more it becomes established and believed. We can now decide whether or not something is worth believing, not on the legitimacy of its evidence, but on whether or not we want to believe it. This Orwellian environment of nonsense enables Donald Trump to stand up at a rally and proclaim support for the coal industry, claiming that spraying aerosols can’t possibly contribute to global climate because his apartment is sealed. It enables him to say he’s going to pull out of the historic climate change agreement to rapturous applause, even though no one’s sure if he can, when or how. It enables him to say that climate change is a hoax.

His election can be seen as a victory for an anti-scientific, anti-intellectual movement. On top of all of those things, it enables him when challenged to just claim he never said any such thing.
If we don’t look critically at information and discard what is false from untrustworthy sources, we erode what we think truth actually is.

Politics is not like science. Science is built on facts and rejecting evidence-free opinion as the fanciful, unreliable guess work that it is. Politics is about having an opinion and then co-opting facts that support that view. This has always been the case, but when you have a President who will say whatever people want to hear at the time and has actively participated in spreading misinformation whenever he feels like it, the detrimental effect on the world at large could be considerable. It threatens the primacy of critical thinking and accuracy and that, in turn, threatens science.

Leo Kindred

(Image courtesy of Yahoo)

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