Let This Be a Wake-Up Call
By Kai Chan
The appreciation of truth, order, and government for the people (not just supporters) hangs in the balance as the US election remains too close to call. No matter what happens, we should all feel an urgency like never before, as we witness a once-great democratic nation crumbling.
What was potentially excusable once, four years ago, as a one-time lapse in judgement, is not excusable now. Back in November 2016, people speculated that maybe Trump wouldn’t be so brash, loose with the truth, and incendiary as President. Others argued that if it got really bad, voters would send him packing in four years.
He was every bit as bad as we could have imagined. And now it’s clear that nearly 50% of Americans prefer the lies and misleading half-truths spewed from a badly written Twitter stream to reputable and reliable journalism. The same almost-50% of Americans love a leader who ‘sounds like us’ (to paraphrase numerous supporters), even if he flagrantly abuses his power for personal and political gain. And they trust a President on climate change, although he is woefully lacking in scientific understanding and at odds with the vast majority of the scientific community, all while climate-enhanced disasters burn and flood their way through US neighbourhoods and homes.
|The alternative-reality crisis exacerbates
the climate, ecological and inequality crises.
None would be so bad, if it weren't for the others.
Four years ago, I wrote to my graduate and undergraduate students to help them process what a post-truth world means for those whose entire purpose is seeking truth. It’s deja vu now.
Except that it’s worse. Progressives threw everything they thought they had at achieving a different result. Even if they barely succeeded, they have also failed. The division is so great now, the distrust so deep, the truth so apparently elusive, that a marginal win is nowhere near good enough.
We need scientists more than ever—including social scientists, of course. They (we) seek the truth for a living. We don’t own the truth, but we have honed the best system available for pursuing it. We can certainly identify lies.
With a million species at risk of extinction, a global climate on the precipice of dangerous tipping points, and pervasive systematic racism and injustice, the truth is essential. And there’s no time to spare.
This crisis of alternative realities is so much worse than the US problems of science integrity of 2004, when a group of us at Stanford wrote in Nature that “If a government abuses science to justify its policies, scientists have a duty to speak out”.
And yet action cannot take the form of scientists simply spouting the truth. As if that will convince anyone new. No, effective science engagement—like effective policy—must recognize that people are not rational agents—that people process ‘facts’ together in ways that consolidate group membership around shared values, even if it’s wrong. Better to be wrong with your friends, than right and alone?
To succeed, we all need to address this reality crisis.
We need to address the systemic inequities that have led so many Americans (especially in the rust belt) to feel angry at being left behind.
And we need to reach out and talk about real issues, even—no, especially—with those who might disagree.
This is hard. And uncomfortable. But necessary.
Those who think this kind of polarization couldn’t happen in Canada or elsewhere are thinking wishfully. Yes, Canada have some distinct advantages over the US. But just last year, in the last Canadian federal election, we had western alienation and memes of #Wexit (a western-province exit from the nation).
As the intersecting global climate, biodiversity, and inequality crises come to a head, it’s hard not to imagine that a functional society depends on addressing this growing fissure now—in every nation.
CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.