Politics and post-factualism – What Trump means to science
If you are reading blogs like this one and are interested in the rich and sometimes joyous discourse of the sciences, it is likely that the result of the US elections last week has created a similar mixture of shock, anxiety, grief, shame, and disgust for you as it has for the author of these lines (possibly in a variety of different weightings of these). This is probably the case for the vast majority of people who claim to display a minimum level of honesty and reflection – or to express it with a beautiful, albeit somewhat old-fashioned word: of intellectual integrity. The science community is almost in unanimousagreement when it comes to the new president: Donald Trump stands in stark contrast to nearly everything scientists consider their canonical values and notions of integrity.
For science, this is (in the ideal sense) the uncompromising willingness to really want to know things and relationships, combined with the total sincerity that we do not know everything about many things, or with the recognition of the possibility that things which we believe to know perhaps we do not know correctly. Science contains a radical reflexive attitude to what it thinks and believes, and, ultimately, an unconditional intellectual apprehension of the expected consequences of a particular belief. Richard Feynman thus said: „Science is a culture of faith, science is a culture of doubt.”In other words, (real) scientists are driven by the serious and uncorrupted yearning for truth,knowing that they will never finally get it (this does not mean, of course, that science is the only discipline of this kind, many spiritual traditions share this motivational frame).
The path from intellectual dishonesty, i.e.to think (or to believe) something despite knowing better, to ethical corruption, i.e. to act against better knowledge, is rarely everfar. For incorruptibility means nothing more than integrity, i.e. to be, think and act “in a whole”. And furthermore, this attitude possesses an important political and social dimension: the commitment to maximum transparency and unconditional openness.
This attitude is now met by a US president, who when it comes to truth, to say the least, could not care less. It has certainly been known to most observers of political disputes that professional politicians have generally a highly opportunistic understanding of truth. But here we are experiencing completely new standards of systematic misinformation, unscrupulous propaganda, and open, blunt, and shameless lies. We have to go back at least 85 years in the history of Western civil societies to recognize something comparable. The fact that scientist are thus pulling out their hair over Donald Trump must be regarded as self-evident.
Thus Trump polemic against the „establishment“ and the „elites“ has little to do with wealth, successful businessmen, or even political experience. His propaganda is directed against the American „intelligentsia“, which by its nature is open and liberal: left-liberal professors, climatologists, teachers, writers, artists, etc. with all their „political correctness“ and „fake recipes” for social justice in times of a stormy globalization (and for that Trump found profound dissatisfaction especially in a traditional „left“ leaning working class, which his political opponents did not see, he deserves a certain amount of credit¸ clearly here the intelligentsia lived on its own information island). Instead, Trumptargets his followers’ admiration for the ruthless, but creative undertaker, for the business man, who somehow “gets things done”. It is especially uncanny that Trump’s movement matches precisely the understanding of „elite“ and „establishment“ expressed by the right-wing populist icon Ayn Rand.
Scientists are naturally experts in specific areas (most of those being very limited though). And these experts is no longer to be trusted, according to the voices of the populists. Corresponding rhetoric was already fierce in the Brexit campaign this summer: experts are arrogant know-it-alls who have no idea about the „true will“ of the people. Such rhetoric speak volumes on the role of science in society, as the populists would like to have it. They scatter the poison of mistrust. And so we are steering into what the political feuillet on calls the „post-factual society“ (Oxford Dictionaries just voted the word “post-truth” as the international word of the year). This concerns nothing more directly than science and its methods.
The fact that the word „post-factual“ is based on a gross semantic misunderstanding – namely, that „factually“ refers to something free of doubts and objective, namely „facts“ – does not alter much in the dissonance between Trump and science. Indeed, the word „factum“ finds it origin in the Latin „facere“, which means „making“ or „doing“. Facts are something “that is done”, or even better, something “that is created”. In this sense, political lies are also „facts,“ something created by human beings. Only this hermeneutic fine adjustment should not distract us much further.
It is not easy, after almost every intellectual, politician, and celebrity has given his or her remarkon the election of the new US president, to add something new to the canon of statements. Foreign policy, economy, budget and taxation, trade policy, immigration, justice, health, arms legislation, defense, climate protection, social policy, security – on all these subjects hundreds or thousands of articles, interviews and talk shows have been provided in recent days. But what does Trump actually mean for science, which must consider itself in strongest intellectual opposition to him?
Not much is known about his concrete scientific agenda (as is probably the case for every political field). But scientists are already worried. The announcement of massive fiscal expansion and investment is likely to benefit public infrastructure and the military, in good tradition of Republican budgetary policy since Ronald Reagan. It is quite possible that science is cut short in return. Consistent with Trumps rejection of factual and knowledge-based argumentation and rhetoric that would certainly be (for Reagan this was not the case, as he had recognized that science is of great military importance). In addition there is the threat of stricter immigration policy. What other social forcedepends so strongly on the openness in exchanging ideas and theories as science? For the Chinese-born professor at MIT it is crucial to exchange ideas with his Indian colleague in Delhi or an expert from Brazil. The United States have become the world’s most important science power, not least because of its open and liberal immigration policy over decades.
The new US president’s attitude towards science is most clearly expressed in his „climate policy“. Here, on the basis of empirical „facts“ and model-theoretical coherence, the scientist have come to a very clear picture. Scientific evidence have moved far beyond any level of reasonable doubt. Although the complexity of the underlying relationships still forbids entirely unambiguous forecasts or formulations of unquestionably clear causal links by those who understand the most about the issue, plus it is in the nature and professional ethics of the scientific-protagonists to always declare their statements and models unfinished, there exists nevertheless overwhelming circumstantial evidence for an inconvenient truth: Our climate is changing dramatically. And all reasonably plausible causal relationships indicate that this change is man-made.
But with an unpleasant mixture of arrogance and ignorance, the canon of political actors of the likes of Trump is: „We reject climate change“.It probably escapes the protagonists that their choice of words entails a naked irony. They should think about what happens to them, if they for once reject the laws of gravity (they would thus see themselves on the level of many contemporaries of Isaac Newton): Would they thus be able to fly? It would not be surprising if such a statement were to make it into the rhetoric of a US president Donald Trump.