Fact Free Politics

The question is: Can we have a healthy policy without facts?

Truth is scarce and difficult, which is why we value it above lies, which are abundant and easy. In the past few weeks, the administration of the US has been promulgating lies at an unprecedented rate. It takes credit for the recent economic performance despite the fact that Wall St. is far more driven by quarterly returns, and that the current round of quarterly returns are for Q4 2016 which is when Obama was president. It takes credit for new jobs, when none of the policies it has attempted to put in place has had time to take effect (it will be at least a year before they do). It has denied that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas when it’s been known for over a century that it is; it has alleged wire-tapping… The list goes on.

Politicians lie all the time. But there is a sense in which this is defensible. We don’t only elect politicians to tell us the way things are – we pay scientists for that – we also elect them to tell us the way things will be: how our society will look a few years from now. And although we all make statements about the future that turn out to be false, or prophesies that turn out to be self-fulfilling, lies concern facts and facts are in the now.

But facts are also about the most likely future state of affairs. The current rate of unemployment in America is about 4.7%. We can say with a high degree of certainty that it won’t be 0% within one month, and that it won’t be 20%. We can project tax revenues and spending. And we can predict – albeit imperfectly and within a wide range of error – mortality rates, birth rates, and the climate.

And here is where Trump is at best lying through his teeth and at worst willfully ignorant of the facts. The future that we elect politicians to give us is constrained by the facts. There is no future in my lifespan where I can travel interstellar distances: it’s the speed of light. There is no future where poverty disappears: it’s part of the human condition. There is no future in which there are no terrorists and no acts of random violence: the best we can do is minimize these acts and minimize their impact.

Or let’s take the favorite whipping boy of all: the climate. Trump, Perry and the ghastly Scott Priutt can deny the reality of climate change all they like, but they cannot change the fact that, by powering our lives with yesterday’s sunshine in the form of hydrocarbons instead of harnessing today’s actual sunshine, we’re boiling the only home we have. They cannot change the fact that coal is no longer mined not because of environmental legislation, but because the cheap stuff already been dug up and what’s left is not economically viable. They cannot change the fact that renewable sources are rapidly closing in on cost parity with hydrocarbons.

Perhaps the more interesting question is why these fantasies gain such widespread currency. The internet is not the only cause, but it has a lot to answer for. I have a friend who is well-educated, very bright, and utterly determined that hydrocarbons are good. He has formed this belief by obtaining a google PhD in climate science – meaning that he spends a few minutes a week on google to find articles by like-minded others.

What he seems blissfully immune to is that he is directed to these like-minded sites by Search Engine Optimisation. This technology is a euphemism for saying that the author of the content pays the search engine (google, bing, whatever) to make sure that her content comes up on the first page of any relevant search.

SOE is a gift to well-funded liars. ExxonMobile can afford SOE to direct my friend to a whole plethora of sites that promote lies; real climate scientists aren’t allowed to use their money this way. The same is true of tobacco companies, and a whole bunch of other vested interests.

The result is that truth is severely under-represented on the web. This is exacerbated by the fact that very few published scientific papers are available on the web because nearly all papers are published in expensive and arcane journals. (There’s a certain irony here as the huge sums being used to do real science are not being used to make it available, but that the huge sums being spent on lies are snuffing out the real science.)

We get the government we deserve and, if we are so mindlessly uncritical of the lies being served up by vested interests in the clothing of facts, there is a sense in which we deserve the result.

But nor does the over-polite nature of public discourse help. It is obvious out that Trump lied about the wire-tapping. But not a single public figure has used the word. It’s described as an unsubstantiated fact, not a lie. And until we as voters are willing to punish our politicians for lying, and for allowing others to lie, we’ll vote for fantasy futures while our societies turn to actual hells.