Take a Deep Breath

Anxiety reigns among the overeducated, the hyper-rational, the super-scrupulous. Academics, think-tankers, and journalists are trying earnestly to understand why so many Americans have lost their respect for intellectual rigor. Hell, there seem to be millions of people gleefully indifferent to facts or truthfulness. What does this mean for those of us who purport to be in the fact and truth business?

It’s not just the election. Donald Trump, even in his most ecstatic paroxysms of narcissism, knows that he does not deserve all the credit for smiting the know-it-alls. But he did recognize before most of us smarty-pants that an enormous slice of the American public has lost faith in the religion preached by the elites: technological progress benefits all, globalization raises all boats, meritocracy is the epitome of fairness, and the world should say Amen for all the benefits that scientists, engineers, physicians, and their partners in progress have delivered.

How can it be that all these people are more willing to believe stories manufactured by twentysomething Russian opportunists than the reporting of the New York Times and the articles in Science and Nature?

As we see the success of bombast and simplification in the debate over a topic such as climate change, it is easy to lose our own faith in rigor and precision. Why not respond in kind? Why quibble about the fine points or reveal our degree of uncertainty? Doesn’t that equivocating just makes us look weak?

The painful reality is that we’re not going to be as influential with government officials for the next few years, but we shouldn’t let that tempt us to take short cuts to win small battles. Instead, we can use this period as a time to get our house in order and reinforce the foundation of reliability and honesty that will serve us well in the long run. People are not stupid, and they will grow tired of promises that aren’t kept and plans that crash because they are built on lies and sloppy thinking. They will wise up to the fact that their credulousness is allowing a few cynical news fabricators to make them look foolish.

But those are the easy victories. There are more insidious challenges to rigor and objectivity that originate closer to home. In his article in this issue, science journalist Keith Kloor reports on the actions of vaccine skeptics, anti-GMO activists, and other educated, articulate, and socially engaged zealots that are so certain of the correctness of their vision that they assume that anyone who contradicts their version of reality, no matter their scientific credentials, must have been bought by some corporate villain. When they escalate their disagreement to ad hominem attacks on responsible science journalists, they make honest reporting a dangerous business.

Daniel Hicks strikes even closer to home in his article on how even university scientists can neglect the evidence when forming their political opinions. In other words, he accuses scientists of behaving like normal human beings. Public policy is a blend of values, ideologies, self-interest, and group affinity as well as factual information. And when scientists engage in public policy debates, they also employ all these perspectives as well as their specialized knowledge and training. The challenge is to be honest and clear ourselves about how we form our opinions. We should learn from the work of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and others that a little humility about our own evidence-based rationality is in order.

During what should be a time of self-reflection, we thought it would be useful to present the perspective of those who think deeply about science’s values and its place in society—the philosophers of science. The short article by Robert Frodeman in this issue will be the first of a series of articles that reflect on deep foundations of the scientific mindset and how this is manifested in today’s political debates.

We need to think more about the perspective of those being left behind in an evolving economy. From where they sit, we might look not like the beneficent creators of knowledge but as the clever rationalizers of self-advancement.

The election of Donald Trump will undoubtedly have serious, though still unpredictable, consequences for energy policy, environmental regulation, health care, foreign affairs, trade policy, the Supreme Court, and a variety of other critical issues. But it’s worth thinking about what we would all be thinking if a few tens of thousands of voters in Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had voted for Hillary Clinton. We would be praising the wisdom of the American voter, celebrating the triumph of the Obama legacy, and recommending our friends for key posts in the administration.

We would overlook the reality that perhaps 45% of voters were so alienated from mainstream sources of information, so distrustful of educated elites, so willing to believe unsubstantiated rumors and fabricated information that they decided to vote for someone who didn’t even pretend to have any knowledge of public affairs or a coherent political philosophy. The extent of the chasm between the intellectual mainstream and a very large segment of the US population would likely have been brushed aside in the flush of victory, just as Trump supporters see no significance in the reality that the majority of Americans voted for his opponent.

But it didn’t turn out that way. It’s a disheartening moment and therefore an invitation to rethink what we do. Stop. Take a deep breath. Think honestly about how expert knowledge invites arrogance, about the self-interest of the meritocratic class, about the conflict that has developed between the old and the new economy, about the limits of our supposedly disinterested rationality. We do have self-interests, and the Trump voters have recognized those interests and come to distrust our pronouncements. The voters know that Trump has interests, but he acknowledges that, even boasts that he’s too smart to pay taxes.

There is no doubt that our universities, our national labs, our health care institutions, and our high-tech businesses have made enormous contributions to the economic strength and overall well-being of the country. But those of us who are part of those worlds have also reaped a significant share of their rewards. We need to acknowledge that and think more about the perspective of those being left behind in an evolving economy. From where they sit, we might look not like the beneficent creators of knowledge but as the clever rationalizers of self-advancement. As we find ourselves on the sidelines of the new administration, we can think hard about how we can do our work more honestly, more selflessly, more usefully. Perhaps a good place to start is to be open to the possibility that we have not always been telling ourselves the truth.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “Take a Deep Breath.” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 2 (Winter 2017).

Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Winter 2017