Post-Truth and Alternative Fact in the First Week of Trump’s Presidency

Where I live, we’ve only had a couple real snow this winter, and considering that it’s already late-January, I can’t help but feel slightly scared when I recall the snow-filled winters of my childhood here and compare them to the landscape outside, where it still looks like autumn. At the confirmation hearing for Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee for head of the EPA, Pruitt responded to Bernie Sanders’ question of whether climate change is caused by human activity by stating “the climate is changing and human activity contributes to that in some manner,” and later on, “I believe the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activity’s impact on the climate is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity contributes to that.” Over the past decade, the rate of global sea level rise has nearly doubled that of the entire last century. 2016 broke the previous year’s record for warmest year, which itself had broken 2014’s record.

And just look at this chart of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels:

203_co2-graph-021116

In light of all this, it’s hard to understand why someone would be so adamant in doubting what what scientists have been demonstrating in research for decades. However, it seems perfectly in line with the rest of Trump’s staff and especially Trump himself. On Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made several incorrect claims about the size of the crowds at Trump’s inauguration and defended his statements with “sometimes we can disagree with the facts,” a statement which was later reported to be ordered by Trump himself. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager and current counselor, told NBC’s Chuck Todd that Spicer had been using “alternative facts.” This blatant denialism and willingness to manipulate the truth, along with Trump’s constant need to win bringing to mind the term “cult of personality,” seem to be veering us further from democracy and closer to totalitarianism

But why is truth so vital? It might seem like a no-brainer, but the search for objective truth and the debate over whether there really is an objective truth has been plaguing philosophers for centuries. While many rationalists, such as Plato support that an objective reality exists, empiricists such as David Hume and George Berkeley, who hold respectively that nothing is positively knowable and that material objects exist only when perceived by a mind, argue otherwise. Although it might be hard to argue either way, to act on such a belief that you are the only thing that exists (following the logic of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum without taking the leap of faith necessary for his proof of God) is dangerous, and, quite frankly, rather arrogant.

In his essay “Does Truth Matter?” Carl Sagan attacks pseudoscience for getting in the way of appreciating the beauty of the world that science presents to us and states

“Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it.”

So, too, must we make the best of the facts we are given, and if we don’t like them, to try better next time or search for improvement instead of being hung up on the past.

That is not to say that doubt is not essential to democracy, especially doubt of authority. But to proceed in doubt without critical thinking and conclude that what has shown clearly to be objectively true is relative, or in Conway’s words, “alternative,” is to threaten the foundation of this democracy. Citizens cannot hope make good, valid decisions without the right information. We live in an era where statistics and “facts” are thrown around willy-nilly, especially by politicians, and the media is often biased in favor of one side or another. However, Trump’s growing penchant for omitting facts altogether – for example, telling the EPA to take down the climate change page on its website – could prove to have far worse consequences.

When Trump first announced his candidacy, I didn’t take it too seriously. When I woke up the day after the election, having fallen asleep while watching the results roll in, I still felt like I was living in some kind of post-reality. But as Søren Kierkegaard put it in Either/Or:

A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.

In his first week, Trump has signed executive orders to complete the Dakota Access pipeline and to begin building the wall. Of course, Trump does not have unbridled power – he still has to go through Congress, and there’s always the Supreme Court – but there’s also another force at play here: ourselves. As hate crimes rise, alt-right white supremacist movement grows, and our new president signs an order wreaking havoc on women’s health (in a room of smiling men) it is easy to feel hopeless and powerless. However, we must be unrelenting our search for truth. Personally, I recommend Sagan’s baloney detection kit, from an essay in The Demon-Haunted World, as a good starting point, no matter who our president is.

In other news, scientists are organizing a march on Washington, date TBA.

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