I recently read a sobering report on climate change; apparently, the pace of the predicted rise in sea levels is accelerating. The effects will not be uniform–some areas will see a more rapid rise than others. As the introductory paragraphs noted,
polar ice is melting and the seas are rising faster than at any time in at least 2,800 years. The sea level has climbed by up to nine inches since 1880 and by three inches since 1993, according to research published in Nature.
For Americans living near the coasts and wondering how long before their homes are inundated, a new NOAA report — released on the last day of Barack Obama’s administration — offers region-specific predictions to help them prepare.
I was struck by the matter-of-fact tone of the article. The authors were scientists who obviously believed that they were communicating with readers who would respect settled science based upon verifiable fact and evidence.
Fact and evidence are critically important to human survival.
Because distinguishing fantasy from fiction is so important, we cannot afford to ignore Donald Trump’s constant assaults on reality. That point was made–cogently and emphatically–by Bret Stephens, a Wall Street Journal reporter, in a recent essay for Time Magazine.
You really need to read the entire essay, which is a defense of the importance of objective fact by a conservative journalist.
We honor the central idea of journalism — the conviction, as my old boss Peter Kann once said, “that facts are facts; that they are ascertainable through honest, open-minded and diligent reporting; that truth is attainable by laying fact upon fact, much like the construction of a cathedral; and that truth is not merely in the eye of the beholder.”
And we honor the responsibility to separate truth from falsehood, which is never more important than when powerful people insist that falsehoods are truths, or that there is no such thing as truth to begin with.
Stephens is defending not just reporting, but the importance of credible sources of information in a world where misinformation is a weapon wielded by the unscrupulous.
Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute news for propaganda, information for boosterism.
His objection to, say, the New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.
As Stephens notes, Trump has a habit of defending questionable or clearly false assertions by saying that “lots of people” agree with him.
Now many people also say Jim Morrison faked his own death. Many people say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “Many people say” is what’s known as an argumentum ad populum. If we were a nation of logicians, we would dismiss the argument as dumb.
We are not a nation of logicians.
I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention than certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument.
For Trump, truth is what you can sell, what you can get away with. For those of us who are astonished by the obvious fact that Donald Trump has gotten away with lying about virtually everything, Stephens has an explanation:
If a public figure tells a whopping lie once in his life, it’ll haunt him into his grave. If he lies morning, noon and night, it will become almost impossible to remember any one particular lie. Outrage will fall victim to its own ubiquity. It’s the same truth contained in Stalin’s famous remark that the death of one man is a tragedy but the death of a million is a statistic.
We all know people who prefer to live in their own realities, no matter how divorced from demonstrable fact. Donald Trump appears to be one of them, and the danger that poses for the nation is–or should be– obvious.
The seas are going to rise whether the new EPA Secretary believes in climate change or not. Home-grown terrorists will continue to pose a greater danger than imported ones, despite Trump’s insistence on blaming Muslim refugees. A “wall” won’t stop the significant percentage of undocumented immigrants who fly into the country legally but then overstay their visas. Protectionism isn’t going to save American jobs that are overwhelmingly being lost to automation, not trade.
To paraphrase Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the thing about facts is that they’re true whether you believe them or not. Basing policies on fantasies rather than evidence is a recipe for disaster.