KRWG

Post-truth politics assaults science and threatens liberty

Oct 11, 2017

Commentary: The problem of politics interfering with factual knowledge – “post-truth” politics, as it were – is not new. It was a concern of twentieth century philosophers, European dissidents, and some American politicians; like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."

The first update to New Mexico’s science education requirements in a decade would eliminate or obscure references to evolution and the actual age of the earth, as well as the role of human activity in climate change. My local school superintendent referred to it as “politically sanitized,” and so it is. Science education lies on a Procrustean bed, with the bits that are offensive to the oil and gas industry or Christianist ideologues sawed off.

In a recent essay, Professor Marci Shore described a side effect of factual truth being colonized by politics: “…we give up on believing that there is such a thing as a stable reality beneath or amidst the created narratives. ‘Post-truth’ represents the postmodernist position: ‘you have your facts – we have alternative facts.’ ‘Everything is PR.’ Now we inhabit a seemingly infinite number of seamless alternative realities, each with its own ‘alternative facts.’”

This also came up in my conversation with Jeff Hill, biologist and chair of the Natural Sciences department at Western New Mexico University. PED declined to answer my questions as to what role scientists and educators had played in drafting the standards, and so I sought the opinions of scientists and educators myself. 

“We’re suffering in this time from this lack of acceptance of – I don’t want to say authority, because it’s more about process, the way that information is vetted,” said Hill. In post-truth politics, science tends to be treated as just another special interest, a party embodying a static set of beliefs. Yet science, we agreed, is a method of inquiry. “There used to be a time that scientists had a high standing,” said Hill. “Now we don’t have as high a standing because people say, ‘Well, that’s your point of view.’ They don’t understand the difference between you using evidence to support something and them just saying, ‘This is my opinion, that’s your opinion.’ No, I’ve got data, I’ve got evidence.”

If there is no distinction between hearsay and vetted information – if something we see on InfoWars is of equal veracity to something reported by the Washington Post - then veracity itself is a matter of assertion, not evidence. Teaching this to children, wittingly or not, would be one more major failure of an education system that is already enthralled by standardized measures and concepts of value imported from corporate capitalism.

Hill drew a parallel between journalistic methods and scientific methods. Professionals in both fields can get bad information, but as the information is vetted and narratives explaining data are tested and revised, the process of inquiry illuminates the world. While there is a strong consensus about why the world is rapidly warming, other hypothesis with some supporting data can still be examined; but the purpose is to illuminate, not to vindicate one interest over another.

“If you want to be a critic,” said Hill, “Be a more informed critic…Learn more about something and you’ll be a better critic. It’s not my job to teach you a point of view, it’s my job to make you think in a scientific way and analyze data in ways that hopefully are useful.”

In a society even pretending to democracy, turning people against their own intelligence is a fatal threat to liberty.

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Algernon D’Ammassa writes the “Desert Sage” column, appearing weekly in the Deming Headlight, Las Cruces Sun News, and Silver City Sun News. Share your thoughts at adammassa@demingheadlight.com.