“Alternative” Realities: Making Evidence & Facts Great Again

Making Evidence & Facts Great Again

Bizarre as he is, Donald Trump does embody the GOP’s longstanding effort to substitute fantasy for evidence, and to act on the basis of the former.  

Forbes Magazine recently reported that Republican lawmakers have buried a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, because the findings debunked their preferred  (fanciful) economic worldview.

The research study found absolutely no correlation between the the level of top tax rates and economic growth. The belief that taxing the rich slows economic growth is a key tenet of conservative economic theory, so rather than considering evidence contrary to that theory, Senate Republicans suppressed the report.

This has become the standard reaction of Republican lawmakers when inconvenient reality–facts, evidence, what your lying eyes tell you–conflicts with their preferred beliefs and/or the interests of their donors.

The question is: how long can a war on reality be maintained?

It isn’t just economics. An interesting article in a recent issue of the New York Times compared the anti-science assault of the new Trump Administration with a similar effort mounted by Stephen Harper, a previous Prime Minister of Canada.

I was surprised by the article, since Canadians seem so sane and reasonable in comparison to the United States. (I look rather longingly at Justin Trudeau…). Evidently, however, waging war on facts, evidence and empirical investigation are not solely an American phenomenon.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Less than a month into the Trump presidency, and the forecast for science seems ominous.

Scientists at federal agencies have been hit with gag orders preventing them from communicating their findings, or in some cases, attending scientific conferences. Social media accounts and websites have been censored, and at least one agency was asked to identify personnel who worked on climate policies. Now there are proposals for slashing research budgets and gutting funding that could affect the training of the next generation of scientists. To top it all off, President Trump’s cabinet nominees and senior advisers include many who are climate deniers or doubters.

Canadians experienced a similar assault on science a decade ago under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The author of the article, a Canadian scientist, shared the experience of that country’s scientific community in the hopes that it might prove helpful here. The parallels were striking:

Starting in 2007, shortly after Mr. Harper became prime minister, new rules were issued that prevented federal scientists from speaking freely with the media about their research without clearing it with public relations specialists or having an administrative “minder” accompany the scientists on interviews or to scientific conferences. More often, the government would simply deny permission for a scientist to speak with reporters if that person’s findings ran counter to Mr. Harper’s political agenda. Inquiries from journalists became mired in an obstinate bureaucracy, and media coverage of government climate research dropped 80 percent after the rules were imposed.

This censorship also had a chilling effect on scientific inquiry. A survey of federal Canadian scientists revealed that 90 percent felt they could not speak freely to the media about their work. If they were to speak up about science that affected public health or the environment, 86 percent felt that they would suffer retaliation. Nearly half of the scientists knew of specific cases of political interference hampering efforts to protect the public.

The article detailed the destruction of research libraries, and other “cost saving” measures. Research on pollution and environmental contaminants was de-funded;  monitoring stations were closed. Environmental protection laws were repealed.

Fearing the continued erosion of even the most basic protections for food inspection, water quality and human health, Canadian scientists filled Ottawa’s streets in the Death of Evidence march. That theatrical mock funeral procession became something of a cultural touchstone. It was a turning point that galvanized public opinion against Prime Minister Harper’s anti-science agenda. By the next election, Justin Trudeau’s center-left government swept in on a platform that put scientists’ right to speak and the promise of evidence-based decisions alongside job creation and economic growth.

In a very real sense, America’s political divisions are not between rational Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals. Our divisions are between people willing to examine evidence, value and trust expertise, and grapple with the complexities of modern life, and people who are unwilling or unable to do so–people frantic to avoid both ambiguity and evidence inconsistent with their religious or political fundamentalism.

A number of pundits have opined that the demonstrations and marches being held around the country will have little effect on political decision-making. The Canadian “Death of Evidence” march–and more recently, the “pussy hats” of the Women’s March–suggest otherwise.

Reason is an adaptive characteristic. It will prevail. Unfortunately, a lot of harm can be done in the interim.

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on February 24, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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