The Trump Administration’s proclamation of “alternative facts” to suit the arguments they wish to make, and the branding of journalistic outlets that demonstrate the inaccuracy of the President’s statements as “FAKE NEWS!!!” have prompted me to do something I am not normally inclined to do: to actively campaign for the value and integrity of a broadly scientific approach as an important input to public deliberation. It’s not at all that I needed to be convinced of the value of such an approach; rather, it’s that I was somewhat blissfully unaware of the extent to which the current wave of populist politics was almost completely untroubled by notions of factuality. Sure, I had known that there was a hard core of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism that felt that scientific results and verifiable pieces of information were matters of opinion or belief — anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, people who worried about the U.N.’s supposed fleet of black helicopters that were waiting to swoop in and destroy national sovereignty — but I guess I always believed that such a minority would be held in check by the good sense of the rest of the electorate, even those with whose policy positions I disagreed. Apparently not. Apparently significant numbers of people in the U.S. were willing to vote for a demonstrated purveyor of convenient falsehoods — convenient in the sense that they support his, and their, preferred positions on a whole slew of issues. Welcome to the post-truth era.
Or: welcome to an era in which truth, and the earnest seeking after truth, is under assault, and under assault not for anything like defensible reasons. Instead, the political order of the day seems to be to make up whatever claims support one’s conclusions and then pass them off as “facts.” In my view what has changed is not politicians; politics was never about seeking truth, and frankly, shouldn’t be about truth but should instead be about making compromises and balancing priorities in order to make our common lives together work as well as they can. Believing that you and you alone have the truth makes you a poor politician, because you can’t compromise, and if you had the truth, why would you even want to? Politics is messy and imperfect, so we should never expect it to conform to ideal standards for the production of factual knowledge. Indeed, I suspect that most politicians would lie about and misrepresent situations as much as they could get away with doing so in pursuit of their agendas, because the central virtue in politics is effectiveness rather than integrity — and in the first instance that means effectiveness and gaining and retaining political power and influence.
All of which means that if we the people want our elected officials to make policy that engages facts instead of just making stuff up, we cannot rely on politicians or on the political process to defend that stance. We have to instead actively advocate and diligently defend the proper role of facts and factual explanations in relation to political contestation. Continue reading