Sunday, November 27, 2016

Is Scientific Thought in Danger?

This morning I read a fascinating opinion article posted on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company, Canada's national news network) online called "How 'common sense' came to mean its opposite under Donald Trump" by Kate Heartfield. Here is a quote from the outset that encapsulates the popular, and worrisome, turn against scientific thought in North America and elsewhere:

Donald Trump's victory was the most dramatic demonstration yet that liars can win elections. All he had to do was demonize reason and fact as the province of hated "elites."

To a scientist, facts aren't taken lightly. It takes months, even years, of hard work gathering data and then running it through statistical analysis to make sure it offers a solid conclusion to a question posed in the form of an hypothesis. To get to a fact that describes a process, event or object requires a formal process of investigation that adheres to the scientific method and which is open to scrutiny, repetition, verification or refutation by one's peers. This standard ensures that fact is separated from guesswork, fiction, emotion and opinion. It is very important because scientific knowledge can only be built upon a solid foundation of factual knowledge and a strong theoretical base. Put in everyday language we in the sciences know that the facts we labour to gather are building blocks that can be used to invent new tools, approaches and methods that benefit all of humanity. Think of the many scientific facts you need to know in order to build a steam engine for example.

You might think the importance of facts is limited to the sciences but the utility of fact-checking goes far beyond. This past American election gave many people reason to distrust facts because statements passed off as facts were thrown about everywhere. Raw unexamined conclusions were drawn about people, their actions and their ideas so often that it was difficult to tell the difference between empty catch phrases and facts. Over several months of being saturated with out-and-out lies (tossed about even during televised debates!), you get used to the lying and it becomes normalized. You no longer gasp in horror. You think instead, well, that's Trump again. However, the war against facts wasn't intitiated by Donald Trump (our late Toronto mayor Rob Ford had the lie down to an art) and it didn't start with this election (think of the tobacco lobby hyping its own "studies" while suppressing unbiased independent research decades ago). It's ironic that this war against facts began in our current post-industrial era, where knowledge and expertise overtook physical labour as the most valuable asset of a society. The last 18 months in the U.S. saw the culture of lying come to its ugly head. The standard of telling the truth is gone and a number of economists, lawyers and constitutional experts are trying to figure out what repercussions will befall the U.S. as president-elect Donald Trump attempts to make real his shaky electoral platform built upon lies.

In her thoughtful article, Kate suggests that Trump's outrageous lies were effective at least in part because of a psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Quoting directly from her article, "People who know a very little about a subject - whether it's the stock market, the rules of grammar or a political policy - are more confident in their expertise than people who know a lot. 'The problem isn't that voters are too uninformed. It is that they don't know just how uninformed they are,' writes Dunning.

The cure for Dunning-Kruger is, paradoxically, more knowledge. But you can't convince someone to read a fact-check or an explainer with an open mind if they already think they know it all, and especially not if the person they trust is telling them everyone else is conspiring to trick them."

This describes a perfectly vicious circle. There seems to be nothing that even the most eloquent journalist could write at this point that could stop the war against facts. So many people have thrown up their arms and can no longer be reached. As she mentions, the popularity of trusting one's gut feelings over evidence and the widespread use of talking points play into our growing willingness to accept information point-blank, especially when it comes from someone we think of as familiar, famous or in a superior position of power. Trump, being familiar, rich and famous, seems to get away with conjuring up his own set of "facts."

I mentioned before that I believe democracy is North America's most precious core value. But when the majority of citizens accept what candidates and leaders say uncritically, what happens to democracy? People unknowingly throw away their chance to voice an informed opinion, one that reflects their OWN best interest not the candidate's, when they buy into emotionally charged fact-starved campaign rhetoric.

Trump essentially fashioned himself into a snake oil salesman, and he sold many snake oils: a budget that adds up, an "amazing" Mexican wall paid for and built by Mexicans, a thousand new coal mining jobs, a "great" new healthcare system, and the list goes on. Snake oils are appealing because they appear to be simple easy solutions to difficult problems. They are dangerous because they are, by their nature, too simplistic (do you wonder if Putin is going to take advantage of Trump's naivety, or if China will use the U.S.'s new protectionist stance to emerge as the world's new global trade leader? Will Trump influence negotiations between Germany's Deutsche Bank and U.S. federal regulators while his business owes that bank several hundred million dollars? What are the long-term and probably unintended consequences of a Trump presidency? To be able to foresee some of the problems, one has to dig into complex matters of constitutional and conflict of interest law, international and homeland economic policy and matters of national security, subjects that when explored in detail in journalistic articles are guaranteed to have far fewer readers than troll news articles armed with catchy emotionally triggering headlines, scandalous-looking photos and dumbed down downright false content. I feel so badly for those hard-working accredited journalists out there facing this onslaught of garbage.

We don't know it but they are trying to save us from ourselves. The stakes of whom we elect are high. Our choice affects our taxes, our healthcare, our environment, our kid's education and whether we have a job or not. We should owe it to ourselves to demand that every candidate's platform be based on fact. We should understand we have the right to immediately call out where things don't seem to add up and demand that we have the details explained to us in a satisfactory way. That is our foremost democratic right, and only serious fact-based journalism gives us the tools to exercise it. Otherwise we let our countries run without our consent; we open the door for them to run agendas no one asked for and which benefit no one but themselves. We let our system slide into a dictatorship.

Is it worth it to gravitate to the titillating Trump tweets or late night comedy shows to laugh at Trump's latest blunder? We all enjoy being entertained. The new populist politician doesn't talk down to us. He says it like it is. He doesn't overwhelm us with responsibility. He downplays the seriousness of his post. And he makes us laugh, either at him or with him. He gives us permission to pound our fists in righteous rage (also either at him or with him). Trump has brilliantly found our collective kryptonite and he knows how to use it.

This is the post-truth era. Maybe we have the luxury of choosing people who entertain us and talk like one of us. Maybe we also have the luxury of choosing pseudo-medicine, pseudo-science and pseudo-education for our kids. But those of us who still defend scientific rigour, who still uphold that there is a difference between facts and lies, they are looking around us these days and asking where everyone took off to. They are still at the worksite building away toward a solid future that cannot be easily torn down while the rest of us buggered off to get entertained, angered or appeased. Reading endless troll news and tweets became our soul-sucking addiction as the garbage piled up around us.

Maybe some of us left to build our own house of dreams. We will quickly discover that we are grossly unqualified. Built not from facts but from emotion, gut feelings and/or the easiest solution, our house is going to look like Ned Flanders' "Hurricane Neddy" house: a hallway shrinking down to nothing, a toilet in the kitchen, another room entirely electrified. Immediately upon inspection it falls down entirely.

Those of us who want to sift fact from fiction and who are exhausted of following circles of lies, have several tools at our disposal that will defend us against the snake oil. This is not a weapon only "the elite" can wield. It's right there online too and all we need to do is take some time to read and think. Soon we can be masters at critically evaluating any kind of information. Here are just a couple of non-partisan, non-affiliated articles designed to help us:

1) "10 Tips for Telling Fact From Fiction" by The website itself describes why it is a reliable source of information here.
2) This brings me to my own hint: always look for the "about us" button and see what's there. If it is easy to find and the information there is clear and understandable, the site gets a nod for reliability. Google the author's name and the names of the website's creator or editor to find out what that person's affiliations are.
3) "Don't Be Fooled: Use the SMELL Test To Separate Fact From Fiction Online" by John McManus at This article is especially useful for political content. The author is a former journalist, professor and author who has twice won the annual research award of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

To My American Readers

This is strictly my opinion. Feel free to disagree with absolutely everything here but please don’t clog up my feedback with hate mail.

When I look at my stats page for this blog I always notice most of my readers are in the United States, and thank you so much for that. Like my friends up here in Alberta, Canada, I watched your election coverage with disbelief. I think almost no Democrat saw a Trump win coming except maybe Michael Moore. I want to understand why half of you chose him. Your choice hits us deeply because many of us see ourselves in you. I certainly do; we are just not that different from each other. In fact, your 18-month-long (?!) election process seems to have kicked off a parallel discussion up here. I should warn you if you are thinking about moving to Canada it is not the socialist Eden some of you might envision. We have a number of Trump-esque political voices here too and by the time you go through the paperwork, we're just as likely to have voted in someone far-right ourselves. The political pendulum always swings back and forth. That said, come on up, welcome! At least come visit and the first round's on me.

If you've read some of my posts you'll know I am unabashedly left-leaning, especially on social issues and our environment, so I can relate to the policies of President Barrack Obama, as well as our Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and my NDP Premier, Rachel Notley. But here in Alberta we also have a healthy right-wing voting block, based both on social issues and on our oilsands-enriched economy. About half my friends and family would call themselves right wing so we have to find common ground, and we do, and it has made for some of the most stimulating conversations I've enjoyed. Yet, President-elect Donald Trump, according to his tweets and what I've seen of his rallies, has gone far into new territory. It seems to be not just a move back toward right-wing ideology, but toward a darker angrier incarnation of it. Why?

Donald Trump won well over the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win. He was fairly and decisively voted into power. The American people spoke very clearly it seems to me, and ongoing anti-Trump demonstrations and riots won't change that. I admit that I tend to read left-leaning news articles online so I see people trying to explain the vote by conjuring up voter manipulation or even stupidity on the part of Trump supporters. That guy's a moron, many are saying, and he hates women and that's why Hillary lost – because too many Americans are backward anti-feminists. As a woman it was pretty darn easy to agree with all that and leave it there. I thought: I'm going to try and write something supportive to my fellow democratic Americans in this dark time, and I assumed those reading my articles are Democrats because I figured no Republican would read my articles. Then I ended up writing four drafts of this article and none of them came out right. I realized I didn't get it. Maybe I don't get Americans and I sure don't get Trump winning.

I gave up for a few days and this morning I said to myself screw it and picked up an Edmonton Sun newspaper to read – a right-wing paper that out of habit I normally avoid. Wow, do Trump supporters really see people like me as smug left-wing elitists that are used to getting our own way and cry like babies, like we are right now, when we don't? Are we soft-minded proponents of a nanny state that is so over-regulated it stymies any new ideas before they even have a chance? Do we elitists think only our view is the correct one and refuse to look outside our bubble of self-satisfaction? If this is true then it turns everything on its head. Democrats are now the elitist slick well-financed too educated overlords and the Republicans are the only people listening to the disavowed working class. Isn't that a 180 degree flip from just a few decades ago when democrats fought for unions and working wages and healthcare for everyone? I think Americans are a smart bunch of people much like us up here so I just can't believe this Trump victory came about from ignorance or laziness or apathy, and I have to believe there is no kernel of painful truth in what they say about us left-leaners. Looks like its time to get out of my protective bubble and really hear what Trump voters are telling Americans (and all of us).

Wondering, then, how this could come about, I find myself going back to where I felt cracks in my pro-left wing mindset and that was the financial crisis of 2008. There is a distinct mistrust of government and of the establishment in Trump's message and I felt that same mistrust needling me back then. Many Americans suffered at the hands of downright illegal manipulations by big banks. Hard-working Americans lost their homes and then their jobs. And as I see it, there wasn't much of a recovery for the working class afterward (the banks, large corporations and the stock market seemed wonderfully resilient however). Just as that nightmare broke, Obama was elected. I still remember the jubilant reaction to his moving speech. I thought, and maybe others too, that he would clean up the corruption in the financial sector and put some of these CEO's in jail. That he'd compensate the people who lost so much. But it didn't happen. It led to a short-lived 99% movement, especially among millennials, but no one seemed to listen to them and it gradually disappeared away but was never resolved. There was never any corporate fallout, why? Now I wonder if many Americans never forgot either. A president can make slick and rousing speeches claiming to champion the working class and then thoroughly ignore them while protecting the corporations who did the damage instead. How much trust in Obama was lost over that?

I can also see why some people are not Hillary Clinton fans – she is very well connected in Washington and supported by a number of well-funded PAC's (political action committees). She could represent more of the same, in which many would continue to feel disenfranchised and left out. I can understand looking to an outsider businessman to run the country from what should be a more practical economic outlook rather than someone who might simply reward one's political allies and keep the status quo.

But here's what looks to me to be a nasty kicker. From what I can gather, both Republicans (at least the establishment ones) and Democrats have standing behind them a bunch of very wealthy influential lobbies like the Koch brothers, banks, big oil companies, etc. and these seem to be the real string-pullers. They are corporations making sure that behind the scenes in congress things go their way, or their shareholders way. Often that means tearing up unions, eliminating retirement funds, removing healthcare and insurance plans and all those things that protect the working class but cost money to the corporation. I think the Trump win (despite all the odds and without nearly as much PAC backing) means it's time for Democrats and Republicans to start talking to each other across the battlefront. It means we Canadians need to step out of our trenches too. If there is one value that both sides cherish above all it is democracy itself – the right of every citizen to choose. I think it's high time to take a close look at democracy itself and ask if it is being served the way our forefathers envisioned. I think PAC's and anything like them need to go right now but is it too late? Someone's got to vote them out and that's the president and congress (and here it's the PM and the House calling to keep strict campaign donation limits). Trump actually has the best mandate in a long time to make that happen as long as he can convince congressmen to vote with their conscience instead of their pocketbooks (tall order, maybe too tall). As a Canadian I am compelled to take a good hard look at myself and revisit how my democratic process is protected.

None of this makes me a Trump fan, however. As I see him, he's woefully unprepared, he's ignorant because he doesn't read and he's way too thin-skinned. He's a bigot, he's putting Stephen Bannon in a top advisory position and he has never shown to my knowledge any concern for working-class Americans before his campaign. How he's going to stand up for the working class once elected is totally beyond me BUT he is indeed the political outsider that so many Americans, I think, have been craving. And I think he's the only choice that could put into stark relief something that might be very wrong with our modern democratic systems around the world. I do think that we will see Trump clones coming into power in other countries such as those coming up for election in Europe.

I don't think anti-establishment sentiment is the only reason Trump the man has some allure. Consider for a moment that Trump made most of his fortune in a country during which many of the rich got richer, thanks to tax codes that benefit the wealthy, a healthy stock market, affordable energy, a healthy job market and efficient international trade allowing abundant raw materials to move to where you need them. Much of his success was the result of being at the right place at the right time in history. He is very much a product of the American Dream. He is a white North American male baby boomer, and as a result he has enjoyed many advantages that I don't think will be there for our millennials. He is a product of a temporary and unsustainable system. And yet he didn't run on happiness and hope. He ran on fury and fear. His anger has stirred up more rage among voters than I've ever seen – rage about losing one's advantage in life to the elite, to over-regulation, to increasing numbers of minorities, to terrorism, and I could go on.

I see it as rage but I also think I sensed fear right underneath it. Why would seemingly advantaged older white males be fearful of anything? When I asked a few older male relatives questions along the same vein over the years, I noticed that sometimes we started talking about a fear that the world is changing too fast and they can't keep up with it and they can't make sense of it. The world they grew up in does not work by the same rules as it does now. We are facing globalization, a technological explosion, an information explosion, an explosion of cultural exchange, and a rapidly changing physical reality – our climate is changing and our resources are dwindling – all at the same time. That is a completely legitimate fear. The world in general is changing faster now than at any time in history. Some people in the media called this election a vote for change but when I see it in this way, it seems like a vote only for change back to the way things were. And perhaps that's what fueled Trump most in his campaign – a powerful nostalgia for his own personal best days when the world seemed predictable, something that older white male voters, especially, would connect to on a deep level.

If by making America great again, Trump means to take everyone back to the prosperous 1950's I've got to say I think that ship has long sailed. The States, from where I sit, is becoming this diverse, influential, innovative country, as is Canada, and change will continue whether we like it or not and whether we are ready or not. Our children's futures, I suspect, will be very different from what we live right now. I really don't want to see how the United States works with environmental laws, consumer protection laws, government healthcare, immigrant protections, international trade and women's rights rolled back. Instead of a return to the post-war 50's I'm afraid it will be some twisted state bent toward isolationism and paranoia, something too similar to creepy North Korea. In the end, I just don't think that's what Americans, or even Trump himself, really have in mind for the future. If he ran his campaign based on making life better for the working class then I think working class voters should hold his feet right to the fire. It's time someone put their concerns first.

It would be easy to rail against Trump as a woman, as a feminist, as an environmentalist, hell as someone who actually trusts in scientific fact. It would feel much more comfortable to rally around like-minded people and justify my own rage against "the other." But after much thought it seems time to stop fighting, stop freaking out that the world is going to hell inside my little echo chamber, take a breath, and listen to others who have clearly told us all something important. Trump voter, I'll buy you a beer too :-)