We’re experiencing an unprecedented level of lying in American politics right now, mostly courtesy of our “so-called” president. What is there to do about this? Right now it seems like no amount of calling out bullshit stops Trump from baldly lying, or his supporters from accepting the lies, or congressional Republicans from spinelessly hiding in a corner pretending it’s not happening. Trump is doubling down on his lies and lashing out at the media for exposing him, which threatens our free press and our ability to fight back against his wannabe-authoritarian regime. I’ve talked about how hopeless this makes everything seem before, but also how we don’t have much of a choice except to fight back. We are still scrambling to figure out the best way to fight.
As a scientist and someone who prefers to rely on logic to make decisions, I believe that one way to do this is by teaching people to get comfortable using the scientific method all the time. It’s not really that hard once you train yourself to think that way and apply it to all kinds of situations, even those that occur outside of the lab. So what is the scientific method? In a nutshell, it’s a set of principles used to conduct evidence-based inquiry. It’s founded in the idea that you can make an observation (“X phenomenon occurs”), extrapolate a hypothesis to explain the observation (“Y is acting on Z to cause X phenomenon”), and then do tests to find out if your hypothesis is correct or not (“If I remove Y, does X phenomenon still occur?”). A good scientist will form multiple possible hypotheses, including null hypotheses (“Y is not acting on Z to cause X” or “Y and Z have nothing to do with X”), and set up tests that will generate observations to address each hypothesis. At the root of the scientific method is thinking of multiple possible scenarios and applying skepticism to all of them, as opposed to just accepting the first one you think of without questioning it further. Oftentimes you come up with a hypothesis that makes logical sense and is the simplest explanation for a phenomenon (i.e. it’s parsimonious), but when you investigate it further you find that it is not at all correct.
Let’s apply this to politics today. Here’s a basic example: Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes, but he keeps claiming that this is due to massive voter fraud where millions of people voted illegally. You could just take his claim at face value and not question it. After all, he is the president, so he’s privy to lots of information the general public doesn’t have, and as the leader of the U.S. he should be acting with integrity, right? You could use this logic to form the hypothesis that he is correct and there is evidence of massive voter fraud. Or you could apply a bit of skepticism and formulate an alternative hypothesis: Trump’s claim is false, and there’s no evidence of the massive voter fraud that he cites. How to test this? You can look for the evidence that he claims exists just by Googling… and you won’t actually find any. What you will find are instances of his surrogates claiming that the voter fraud is an established fact, various reputable news agencies and fact checkers debunking the claim (even right-leaning Fox News admits there is no evidence for the claim), and a complete dearth of any official reports that massive voter fraud occurred (which I would link to, but I can’t link to something that doesn’t exist). In support of the claim you will find right-wing conspiracy websites like InfoWars that don’t cite any actual evidence. So based on that inquiry, you could conclude that Trump’s claim is false. It didn’t take much skepticism or effort to address the question, just enough to ask “Can I easily find any solid evidence of this?”
One problem with this strategy: we aren’t doing a great job at teaching people how to think rationally and critically. On a large scale, we would do this by refocusing our education standards around critical thinking (part of what Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards aim to do, albeit with mixed results over the methods and implementation with which they teach the scientific method/critical thought). There has been a lot of pushback to this, particularly in conservative areas. Why? One explanation could be general distrust of government and antipathy towards regulations/standards demanded by the federal government. Another could be over-reliance on religion, which fundamentally demands faith in the absence of evidence. I’m not going to fully wade into this murky debate right now, and before I do I’ll say that not all religion is bad, and it’s not true that no religions teach their followers to think critically and analyze things. But some religious groups don’t teach these principles, and they rely much more on encouraging their followers to just believe what they’re told by their pastor (or whatever religious leader), or face moral doom. This dangerously reinforces the idea that it’s okay to just blindly follow certain authority figures without question. It extends past the church doors, to the school teacher slut-shaming high school girls instead of providing them with comprehensive sex education, to the public official who expresses skepticism over climate change despite an abundance of evidence that it’s happening and caused by humans. People believe what these authority figures say. We’re seeing it now, as more than half of Republicans accept Trump’s claim that he really won the popular vote, with the percentage being higher among Republicans with less education. One of the main reasons we hear from Trump supporters why they voted for him was his tough stance on immigration, and they seem to be happy with his controversial travel ban, even though just recently the Department of Homeland Security found that people from the countries targeted by the ban pose no extraordinary threat compared to people from other Muslim-majority countries (Trump rejected this report, even though it was ordered by the White House). This underscores the importance of providing people with an opportunity to learn and practice critical thought. Rather than putting in a tiny bit of effort to look for the evidence that those claims are true, or thinking about their news source to figure out if it’s biased or not, they blindly trust what Trump says.
Fixing the education system to provide more training in critical thought and use of the scientific method is absolutely necessary long-term, but right now we need a strategy to deal with people who don’t have that training. So if you have conservative friends or family and you’re brave enough to talk politics with them, ask them why they believe things to be true. If they cite something as evidence that isn’t rigorous, ask them why they trust that source. I think it’s possible to do this without talking down to them; most people are probably capable of applying logic in their thinking even if they haven’t been trained to do so. Instead of trying to argue that someone is wrong and back it up by saying “here’s a fact to support my argument and you should believe it because it’s true” (even if that’s accurate), ask them why they think your fact isn’t true, and respectfully lead them to your evidence to back up your argument. Perhaps it won’t work all the time, but if the seed of skepticism can be planted in at least some people, they may be more careful in their voting decisions in the future. If you rely on logic and rational skepticism to make your decisions, you have an obligation to help other people do the same. It’s worth a try.
Featured image: Barbara Lee’s town hall, February 18th, Oakland.
This week I wrote a letter to President Obama, which I will post below (the version I sent was shortened somewhat to accommodate the White House website’s 2500 character limit). I decided to focus on some of the positives of Obama’s presidency, because there’s no point in critiquing him in such a short letter sent days before his presidency ends. I do not agree with everything he’s done as President, but overall I think he has accomplished a great deal and doesn’t always get the credit he deserves. For example, he averted a crisis by working to halt and reverse the recession, keeping it from becoming a full-blown depression. But I think a lot of people don’t think of this as one of his huge accomplishments, because he caused something not to happen; it was almost an invisible achievement. Think of where we’d be if all the President and Congress had done was to say “tax cuts for everyone!” He managed to pass a healthcare bill, something which other Presidents and many Congresspeople had tried and failed to do for decades. Even if it doesn’t last past Trump’s first year, people will start to miss it when it’s gone, and those who took it for granted will realize how important it was. He normalized acceptance and support of LGBT rights at the executive level. He fought to protect women’s rights and the rights of undocumented immigrants. He rebuilt our country’s reputation around the world.
Most of all, he was incredibly competent. He stood for calm, measured rationality, even in the face of intense and often unfair (or straight up racist) criticism. He set an example for how a leader should act. These things and more will set him in stark contrast to his successor.
Here is the longer version of my letter:
Dear President Obama,
First, I wanted to thank you immensely for your eight years serving us as President. You were the first person I voted for (when I was 19 and voted for you in the 2008 primary), and you have been an enormous inspiration to me and so many other young people for years. You were a light in the storm, and I am so grateful that you set an example of hope, pragmatism, and competence when many of us were feeling jaded from eight years of Bush. When you won in 2008, I burst outside of my college apartment to see dozens of people dancing and cheering in the streets, elated at the historic significance of an African American being elected President and the potential we all saw in your goals. I have not been disappointed, and I believe that tens of millions of Americans would probably love to give you a third term (though it would be totally understandable if you felt done, with or without the 22nd amendment).
It would take too long to thank you for everything you’ve accomplished, but a few things that specifically affected me are the Affordable Care Act, which I benefited from in multiple ways (most importantly by [redacted because of personal medical information that I don’t feel like sharing publicly at this moment]), your steadfast support for women’s rights, and your support of scientific research and critical thought. I don’t think you get enough credit for everything you’ve done, and you certainly would have accomplished more if it weren’t for the Republicans throwing a temper tantrum for eight years. It means so much to me and other progressives to see you fighting for those causes and trying to bring about meaningful change, even if your efforts are blocked.
Perhaps what I will miss most, though, is having you as the figurehead for our country. You and your family are paragons of decency. What’s more, you truly value rationality and forming your opinions based on solid evidence. Those are two things that will be sorely lacking in the incoming administration, and it’s been shocking to watch so many people in our country sit by as Donald Trump and his ilk trample upon the core principles of our society. I’ll admit that it’s been very hard to maintain a sense of hope that we will somehow bounce back from this disaster. I was hopeful that if Hillary Clinton won we could address a number of progressive issues, but now those things seem so far off the table because we’re going to be doing damage control for however many years the Trump dumpster fire lasts, and then clawing our way back to where we were when you left office, that we’re not even close to joining the rest of the developed world on things like paid parental leave and affordable college. We’ve been set so far back that people are having to re-learn what a fact is. So I ask that you stay vocal during your “retirement”. We need you as the voice of reason and morality, as you’ve always been.
Best wishes to you, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha. And once more (genuinely): Thanks, Obama!
Featured image: election night, 2012.
It’s ironic that the presidency of Barack Obama, whose election was fueled by a surge of hope for the future and motivation to work towards progress, will end with many of his supporters feeling perched on the precipice of a cesspit of despair.
I don’t need to tell you that Obama’s successor is a sexist, racist troll. I don’t need to tell you that Trump is either too stupid or too callous to stop himself from recklessly tweeting about expanding our nuclear capabilities, or that he insists on ignoring the shared conclusion of multiple US intelligence agencies that Russia’s government orchestrated interference into the US election in order to help him win, trying to deflect the blame onto anyone but himself. His online presence, which is nearly the only way he makes public statements, is that of an out-of-touch armchair political commentator who can barely be bothered to form a real opinion, let alone inform himself of the facts about the issue. Which wouldn’t be a big deal, if he were merely a washed up reality TV star and shady businessman, and not about to become president of the United States.
He has a made a habit of blatantly ignoring the law, ignoring the facts, ignoring criticism and consequences. “How can he do this?” we all wonder. The answer is he just does it. He just proceeds, where someone else with an ounce of sanity and regard for decency would pause and apply restraint. He gets away with it, possibly because we’re all so shocked that he would even do it in the first place. He tramples on decades of precedent, from refusing to release his tax returns to ordering all US ambassadors appointed by President Obama to leave their posts by inauguration day, showing that he doesn’t care about how our society currently functions, and that he’s perfectly willing to act outside our established norms if he believes it benefits him.
In short, he is terrible. I could say so many other things about why he is terrible. But he isn’t the only problem. Republicans in Congress are all too willing to fall in line behind him to save their own skins from the wrath of his supporters, or because they think it will benefit them to get on his good side, regardless of whatever “deeply held” beliefs they have. The millions of people who voted for him (a minority, but enough that the flawed electoral system we use made him the winner) are either rabidly in support of him, or hope that whatever he accomplishes will align with their conflicting desires. They all ignore the horrendous things he’s said (and probably done), because they’ve decided that the prospect of bringing manufacturing jobs back, or building a giant wall, is more important than having a president who understands there’s a problem with sexually assaulting people. They are willing to ignore facts that are backed by solid, provable evidence, even evidence that shows him directly contradicting himself about important issues. They do this because they like the idea that he will fulfill whichever campaign promise it is that appeals to them. Even if he has presented no plan or evidence that he can/will fulfill those promises, it probably feels good to assume that, like some kind of cheeto-colored genie, he will deliver on everything they want.
This is why it is so hard to have hope right now.
One of the words commonly used in 2016 was “post-truth”. This is one of the most frightening things to emerge from the election, in my opinion: the idea that provable, observable facts don’t matter, and that all opinions are given equal weight regardless of what evidence exists to back them up. I fear that if we accept the idea of living in a “post-truth” world, we will never recover from it. Scientists and others who attempt to demonstrate with observable, testable evidence that what they say is reality will never be taken seriously, because the reality they’re trying to educate people about is unpleasant. We will exist in a society where the statement that people like the most, or that makes them the angriest, will be accepted as true simply because more people are emotional about it. As a scientist and a progressive, I’m not only despondent, I’m afraid. I feel as though I’m watching our country collectively stick their heads in the sand on issues like climate change and globalization. I’m watching pro-choice women and men who voted for Trump close their eyes to the consequences of having a president who doesn’t care about women’s reproductive rights and a Congress controlled by people who actively seek to dismantle women’s access to reproductive healthcare (despite clear evidence that comprehensive sex education and easily accessible birth control lowers the rate of teen pregnancy and abortion).
Another irony: Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is about a dystopian, theocratic Christian version of the US where women are literally male-owned commodities based on their fertility, is being made into a TV series that will air later this year. The irony is that it will air only a few months after the inauguration of a president whose actions and words have made it clear that he views women as disposable sexual objects, and a vice president who probably thinks that what’s described in The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t sound like such a bad society to live in. The story is one that is especially relevant right now, but I fear that it will do nothing to convince people to change their views and votes, like so many other well-laid arguments.
What is there to do, then? One of the reasons why the aftermath of this election has felt so devastating is because it seems like we have taken a giant leap backwards. Our country isn’t perfect, and there was much work yet to be done before the election; we still needed to increase our use of renewable energy, make healthcare available and affordable to everyone, give everyone access to family paid leave, affordable childcare, and affordable education. But before the election it seemed like we were in a reasonable position to tackle those issues in the near future. It seemed like gains in those areas were within reach, and that people were coming around to the idea of progressive reforms. Now, not only are those items no longer on the agenda, but the people in power are actively working against making those ideas a reality. The consequences of Trump’s presidency plus a Republican-controlled Congress will be years of damage control before we can even start addressing what was once our progressive agenda, and that’s assuming that Democrats won’t drop the ball yet again and Trump/the Republicans won’t find some way to enshrine their regressive values so deeply that we can’t undo them.
As a Millenial, my political awareness began with George W. Bush’s presidency. As long as I’ve been paying attention, I’ve watched Republicans start costly, deadly wars, fight against the rights of historically oppressed people, and stand in the way of regulation as the economy crumbled and young people’s future prospects became bleak across the board. I’ve watched as they stonewalled President Obama every step of the way, neutering his efforts to bring about meaningful change, and now I’ve seen how their obstructionism and vitriol have succeeded in giving them most of the power. Is it surprising at all that I am filled with cynicism?
The prospect of moving to another country that has their shit figured out is very appealing (and I do recognize that it’s my privilege that allows me to even entertain this idea), both because I’m not expecting much progress from the US and because I feel alienated by the people in power and those who voted for them. The US doesn’t feel like my country anymore, because every notion I have of what should be used to decide policy and dialogue seems under attack. I don’t have much hope. But right now, I also have no idea what else to do other than keep working towards progressive goals. It feels like a losing battle, and I’m worried that by staying here I will be resigning myself to a life where my rights as a woman and a political dissident are under fire, and that no matter what, any future children I have will be brought into a world of economic hardship and climate catastrophe. Beyond that, it seems that our society as a whole will become much more hostile to people of color, queer and transgender people, and those without the means to pay for a better life for themselves. But what else is there to do? So I will try to drum up as much enthusiasm as I can muster and keep fighting. I’m not sure if this is hope. But whatever it is, it will have to do.
(Featured image: sunset in Berkeley.)