The Truther Paradox
By Michael Lynch
Editors’ note: This is the final installment of a three-post series by Michael Lynch. ‘Part I: Between Liars and Truthers’ and ‘Part II: Uncivil Epistemology’ were previously published on the blog.
President Trump sent out a flurry of tweets on March 4, 2017, accusing former President Obama of tapping his phones during the 2016 election campaign. His accusations were quickly denied by Obama and FBI Director James Comey, among others. With no immediate evidence to support the wiretapping allegation other than some sketchy reports in right-wing media, Trump’s embattled spokespersons sought to furnish non-literal versions of what he could have meant when he tweeted, “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.” According to these defensive accounts, Trump didn’t really mean that Obama directly ordered wiretapping, or that the wiretapping occurred in Trump Tower, or (as marked by the inverted commas) that the surveillance took the form of actual wiretapping. Trump himself did not back away from his accusation and called for an investigation. Although it is too early to tell how the episode will play out, it has the makings of another “truther” campaign: a persistent reassertion of a conspiracy theory in the face of repeated denials and a lack of supportive evidence. Trump is, of course, famous for taking a leading role in the “birther” movement, which promoted the ‘theory’ that Obama’s credentials as an American born citizen were fake despite a steady stream of evidence to the contrary.
Continue reading “Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part III)”
By Sheila Jasanoff
Repeatedly over the past few months I’ve heard anguished cries from former students and junior colleagues asking how I might make sense of the strange time we’re in—a time in which so much we’ve valued about the making of robust public knowledge and critical understanding has been tossed overboard as if of no consequence to the conduct of the nation’s politics. How should we, as teachers of future citizens, respond to these calls, and what special obligation do we have as scholars of science and technology, with a professional commitment to understanding the role of facts and truth in society?
The “post-truth,” “alt-fact,” “fake news” era has drawn understandable outrage from thoughtful people. Some, especially in the mainstream media, assume that the line between truth and lies is clear-cut, and can be ascertained through careful fact-checking, as in a recent New York Times editorial on the real costs of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policy. Others, more historically minded and attuned to technological change, have called attention to social media and the ease of propagating claims that have not passed through the costly, messy processes of peer review or validation through experiment. Still others have noted the rise of data as a substitute for tested facts, and how politicians’ reliance on mass measures of electoral sentiment may undermine the cultural habits of deliberation on real-world problems. All these are important arguments, with serious implications for public reason, but none have touched on the role of professors in this period of eroding confidence in the very meaning of evidence, facts, and truth. Yet, if ever there was a time to heed the Delphic mandate “know thyself,” surely for us in the academic business now is that time.
Continue reading “What Should Democracies Know?”
By Michael Lynch
Editors’ note: This is the second part of a three-post series by Michael Lynch. ‘Part I: Between Liars and Truthers’ and ‘Part III: The Truther Paradox’ have also been published on the blog.
Some of the “epistemological” disputes that arose in the early days of the Trump administration had to do with specialized factual claims made by scientists, investigative reporters, and intelligence agents. However, some of the most notable disputes about “facts” and “alternative facts” concerned more mundane matters, such as the crowd size at the inauguration. The advantage of mundane facts in political discourse is that they appear to be democratically available: there is no apparent need to trust the “so-called experts.” For similar reasons, reverting to such plain examples also is common in academic disputes. Those of us familiar with the debates about realism and relativism in the “science wars” of the 1990s may recall that simple mundane examples often stood proxy for arguments about more technical matters. Continue reading “Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part II)”
By Pablo J. Boczkowski & Eugenia Mitchelstein
On January 25, just five days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon said “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while (…) The media here is the opposition party.” Three days later, President Trump tweeted “The failing @nytimes has been wrong about me from the very beginning. Said I would lose the primaries, then the general election. FAKE NEWS!”
These two episodes are consistent with the campaign communication strategy at the top of the Republican ticket and signal that neither President Donald Trump nor his staffers and loyalists plan to change course, at least during the early stages of his presidency. They thus raise the question: how might a confrontational stance between the government and the mainstream media affect the public’s perspective on their trust in politicians and the news? This post examines the practices, interpretations, and experiences of audiences to ascertain what could happen in a given certain set of circumstances—rather than laying out what should happen according to different ideals of public behavior. In this sense, our focus is different from, and complementary to, a normative approach.
Since there is no precedent of this level of confrontation in recent U.S. history, we will answer this question by drawing on our research in Argentina over the past decade to imagine possible scenarios based on some key findings. Although Argentina and the United States are different countries with diverging institutional histories, there are arguably some emerging similarities between the administrations of Presidents Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and his spouse Cristina Fernández (2007-2015) in Argentina and the initial stages of Donald Trump’s presidency. In fact, Guillermo Moreno, Secretary of Commerce to both Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández, and one of the most powerful figures in both administrations, said in an interview that Donald Trump “is a Peronist (…) and is doing everything we did.” Continue reading “When the Media Become the Opposition”