Sunday, November 27, 2016

Evidenced Thinking and Writer Naivete

(Picture from here.)

I haven't been talking about science much lately. Heck, from the activity in my blog here, I haven't been talking much about anything.

To be frank, trying to fill this blog has, of late, been difficult. Not because I don't have anything to say. But it's been hard to talk about things given the current climate. Not just the current disaster of an election but the whole nature of discourse has undergone a shift over the last twelve years or so.

The result is not reassuring.

As my two readers know, I'm passionate about science. Scientific thinking is a subset of evidence based critical thinking and that approach has been pretty much my compass over most of my life.

Such thinking involves looking at evidence and proposing models to match the evidence and discarding them as more information becomes available. It's a very satisfying approach to life but it's not terribly comfortable. After all, it means that assumptions you make about institutions you love are subordinate to information you find out.

I've always known that there is an undercurrent of true craziness in American society. When I was living in Alabama during the sixties I saw some of it first hand. It's not limited to any particular region. We have craziness everywhere. It peeks out under our skirts all the time. I was naive.

About twelve years ago something changed for me. For the first time--to me, at least-- the craziness seemed to become institutionalized. This was the Kerry/Bush election and I'm speaking of the Swiftboating incident. (The wikipedia article on the actual allegations is pretty good. See here.)

Political smear campaigns are nothing new. I had low expectations of the Kerry campaign. I remembered his anti-war activities and rhetoric and thought it fairly unlikely he could ever overcome it. Still, I never thought that the actual facts of his service would be questioned. The Armed Forces are pretty thorough when they investigate for medals. As I said, I was naive.

The problem, for me, resides in the nature of the facts. Lots of people investigated and the result, from pretty reputable sources, was that the allegations were fabrications. (Check the annotations in the wiki article.) But here's the part that bothered me: it didn't matter. Myth and narrative trumped investigated results.

Fast forward through the Obama elections and we have the birther fabrications. The deliberate and obstinate refusal to accept facts. Obama was born in this country. What a surprise.

When the internet first hit the world I was ecstatic. We would all have information at our fingertips. It didn't take long to realize that information was not truth and that many people would propagate lies they liked over facts they didn't. Thus, Snopes, Politifact and were born. These are great tools. But the fun fact about the internet is that it's not all that hard to ferret out what is fact and what isn't. All it takes is critical thinking and evidence. Or lack, thereof.

Carl Sagan popularized the idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. (See here for the phrase's history.) Nowhere is this more necessary than in evaluating political candidates. If they make bizarre claims, then they should be checked out. If the claims don't hold up, that should be evidence against them. If they do, that should be evidence for them.

Starting about two years ago in this election, I found in myself a profound faith in the American electorate. In the Jefferson ideal of democracy. The flagrant untruths of the election (and Trump was by no means the only propagator of these) would not stand. After all, it was so incredibly easy to determine truth from fiction.

As I said, I was naive. The evidence has demolished that particular myth.

Jon Stewart gives me a little encouragement in his reaction when interviewed by Charlie Rose. (See here.) "This fight has never been easy." He was talking about a diverse political environment-- the ideal of American democracy. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he said, "I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." (See here.) We should all be judged by the content of our character.

I suppose I can extend somewhat from their words. Evidence based thinking-- the willingness to allow our most cherished beliefs be scrutinized under the harsh light of evidence--  is not easy, either. Science is hard because we don't want to be wrong. We want our beliefs to be right. We want our thinking to be correct. To submit it to scrutiny means accepting that we might be-- or are-- wrong.

I have friends, people of good intelligence and good will, that do not believe evolution happened, that climate change is real and who voted for Trump. These are indisputably smart and good people. People who I'm proud to know. I cannot callously dismiss them for these beliefs and decisions. If we lose indisputably smart and good people, what are we left with? Indisputably stupid and evil people who happen to agree with us?

Every four years we execute the largest social sampling poll in the country. This time 46.6% went for Trump. 48% went for Clinton. (See here.) There were not 62 million racist idiots voting for Trump any more than there were 64 million saints voting for Clinton. The evidence does not bear this out. (See here.)

The problem is more complex than that and I do not have an answer.

But I will be donating more to the ACLU (among others) than I did before.

Additional sites of Interest:
John Oliver's analysis
Salon's analysis
James Fallows Trump Time Capsule
Atlantic Clinton Analysis
Gin and Tacos: Unpleasant but rational political analysis

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