Sunday, November 27, 2016

Is Scientific Thought in Danger?

This morning I read a fascinating opinion article posted on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company, Canada's national news network) online called "How 'common sense' came to mean its opposite under Donald Trump" by Kate Heartfield. Here is a quote from the outset that encapsulates the popular, and worrisome, turn against scientific thought in North America and elsewhere:

Donald Trump's victory was the most dramatic demonstration yet that liars can win elections. All he had to do was demonize reason and fact as the province of hated "elites."

To a scientist, facts aren't taken lightly. It takes months, even years, of hard work gathering data and then running it through statistical analysis to make sure it offers a solid conclusion to a question posed in the form of an hypothesis. To get to a fact that describes a process, event or object requires a formal process of investigation that adheres to the scientific method and which is open to scrutiny, repetition, verification or refutation by one's peers. This standard ensures that fact is separated from guesswork, fiction, emotion and opinion. It is very important because scientific knowledge can only be built upon a solid foundation of factual knowledge and a strong theoretical base. Put in everyday language we in the sciences know that the facts we labour to gather are building blocks that can be used to invent new tools, approaches and methods that benefit all of humanity. Think of the many scientific facts you need to know in order to build a steam engine for example.

You might think the importance of facts is limited to the sciences but the utility of fact-checking goes far beyond. This past American election gave many people reason to distrust facts because statements passed off as facts were thrown about everywhere. Raw unexamined conclusions were drawn about people, their actions and their ideas so often that it was difficult to tell the difference between empty catch phrases and facts. Over several months of being saturated with out-and-out lies (tossed about even during televised debates!), you get used to the lying and it becomes normalized. You no longer gasp in horror. You think instead, well, that's Trump again. However, the war against facts wasn't intitiated by Donald Trump (our late Toronto mayor Rob Ford had the lie down to an art) and it didn't start with this election (think of the tobacco lobby hyping its own "studies" while suppressing unbiased independent research decades ago). It's ironic that this war against facts began in our current post-industrial era, where knowledge and expertise overtook physical labour as the most valuable asset of a society. The last 18 months in the U.S. saw the culture of lying come to its ugly head. The standard of telling the truth is gone and a number of economists, lawyers and constitutional experts are trying to figure out what repercussions will befall the U.S. as president-elect Donald Trump attempts to make real his shaky electoral platform built upon lies.

In her thoughtful article, Kate suggests that Trump's outrageous lies were effective at least in part because of a psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Quoting directly from her article, "People who know a very little about a subject - whether it's the stock market, the rules of grammar or a political policy - are more confident in their expertise than people who know a lot. 'The problem isn't that voters are too uninformed. It is that they don't know just how uninformed they are,' writes Dunning.

The cure for Dunning-Kruger is, paradoxically, more knowledge. But you can't convince someone to read a fact-check or an explainer with an open mind if they already think they know it all, and especially not if the person they trust is telling them everyone else is conspiring to trick them."

This describes a perfectly vicious circle. There seems to be nothing that even the most eloquent journalist could write at this point that could stop the war against facts. So many people have thrown up their arms and can no longer be reached. As she mentions, the popularity of trusting one's gut feelings over evidence and the widespread use of talking points play into our growing willingness to accept information point-blank, especially when it comes from someone we think of as familiar, famous or in a superior position of power. Trump, being familiar, rich and famous, seems to get away with conjuring up his own set of "facts."

I mentioned before that I believe democracy is North America's most precious core value. But when the majority of citizens accept what candidates and leaders say uncritically, what happens to democracy? People unknowingly throw away their chance to voice an informed opinion, one that reflects their OWN best interest not the candidate's, when they buy into emotionally charged fact-starved campaign rhetoric.

Trump essentially fashioned himself into a snake oil salesman, and he sold many snake oils: a budget that adds up, an "amazing" Mexican wall paid for and built by Mexicans, a thousand new coal mining jobs, a "great" new healthcare system, and the list goes on. Snake oils are appealing because they appear to be simple easy solutions to difficult problems. They are dangerous because they are, by their nature, too simplistic (do you wonder if Putin is going to take advantage of Trump's naivety, or if China will use the U.S.'s new protectionist stance to emerge as the world's new global trade leader? Will Trump influence negotiations between Germany's Deutsche Bank and U.S. federal regulators while his business owes that bank several hundred million dollars? What are the long-term and probably unintended consequences of a Trump presidency? To be able to foresee some of the problems, one has to dig into complex matters of constitutional and conflict of interest law, international and homeland economic policy and matters of national security, subjects that when explored in detail in journalistic articles are guaranteed to have far fewer readers than troll news articles armed with catchy emotionally triggering headlines, scandalous-looking photos and dumbed down downright false content. I feel so badly for those hard-working accredited journalists out there facing this onslaught of garbage.

We don't know it but they are trying to save us from ourselves. The stakes of whom we elect are high. Our choice affects our taxes, our healthcare, our environment, our kid's education and whether we have a job or not. We should owe it to ourselves to demand that every candidate's platform be based on fact. We should understand we have the right to immediately call out where things don't seem to add up and demand that we have the details explained to us in a satisfactory way. That is our foremost democratic right, and only serious fact-based journalism gives us the tools to exercise it. Otherwise we let our countries run without our consent; we open the door for them to run agendas no one asked for and which benefit no one but themselves. We let our system slide into a dictatorship.

Is it worth it to gravitate to the titillating Trump tweets or late night comedy shows to laugh at Trump's latest blunder? We all enjoy being entertained. The new populist politician doesn't talk down to us. He says it like it is. He doesn't overwhelm us with responsibility. He downplays the seriousness of his post. And he makes us laugh, either at him or with him. He gives us permission to pound our fists in righteous rage (also either at him or with him). Trump has brilliantly found our collective kryptonite and he knows how to use it.

This is the post-truth era. Maybe we have the luxury of choosing people who entertain us and talk like one of us. Maybe we also have the luxury of choosing pseudo-medicine, pseudo-science and pseudo-education for our kids. But those of us who still defend scientific rigour, who still uphold that there is a difference between facts and lies, they are looking around us these days and asking where everyone took off to. They are still at the worksite building away toward a solid future that cannot be easily torn down while the rest of us buggered off to get entertained, angered or appeased. Reading endless troll news and tweets became our soul-sucking addiction as the garbage piled up around us.

Maybe some of us left to build our own house of dreams. We will quickly discover that we are grossly unqualified. Built not from facts but from emotion, gut feelings and/or the easiest solution, our house is going to look like Ned Flanders' "Hurricane Neddy" house: a hallway shrinking down to nothing, a toilet in the kitchen, another room entirely electrified. Immediately upon inspection it falls down entirely.

Those of us who want to sift fact from fiction and who are exhausted of following circles of lies, have several tools at our disposal that will defend us against the snake oil. This is not a weapon only "the elite" can wield. It's right there online too and all we need to do is take some time to read and think. Soon we can be masters at critically evaluating any kind of information. Here are just a couple of non-partisan, non-affiliated articles designed to help us:

1) "10 Tips for Telling Fact From Fiction" by Howstuffworks.com. The website itself describes why it is a reliable source of information here.
2) This brings me to my own hint: always look for the "about us" button and see what's there. If it is easy to find and the information there is clear and understandable, the site gets a nod for reliability. Google the author's name and the names of the website's creator or editor to find out what that person's affiliations are.
3) "Don't Be Fooled: Use the SMELL Test To Separate Fact From Fiction Online" by John McManus at Mediashift.org. This article is especially useful for political content. The author is a former journalist, professor and author who has twice won the annual research award of the Society of Professional Journalists.