Despite the nonsensical accusations that they’re “fake news,” some of the leading members of the mainstream print media in the U.S. haven’t helped to distinguish themselves recently.
Beyond the often-irresponsible “narrative” journalism they pursued ahead of the 2016 presidential election, outlets like The New York Times and the Boston Globe have stumbled badly under the guise of trying to represent a wider range of viewpoints on their pages. Rather than inviting opinions from people of color, minority religions, poor rural citizens, immigrants, working scientists and others, though, what did they do?
In The New York Times’ case, it hired a white male conservative climate-change denier and then criticized legitimate critics of that decision for being unwilling to listen to “diverse” opinions.
In the Boston Globe’s case, it published dubiously “counter-intuitive” think pieces asking whether Ivanka Trump is “the new feminist icon” and whether white-power groups can “build lasting alliances.”
What are newspapers thinking when they publish pieces like this? Which audiences are they seeking to engage? These are legitimate questions to ask in the wake of missteps like the ones above. But the bigger, more important question, is, “What is journalism’s purpose?”
What, after all, does a newspaper or media outlet exist for? Isn’t it, logically, to inform the general citizenry of news that affects its welfare? And, if so, shouldn’t that be with the implicit aim of defending and improving, rather than worsening, the general citizenry’s welfare?
How, then, does holding up Ivanka Trump as a “feminist icon” improve the welfare of the general female population in the U.S.? Unless there’s an easy method by which all of us could be retroactively born to a wealthy, unscrupulous and pathologically narcissistic serial liar and misogynist, I don’t see a good argument for such a piece.
And how does adding another climate change-dismissing white male conservative’s voice benefit the millions of ordinary Americans who live in regions likely to be hit hardest by worsening droughts, storms and other climate impacts? The obvious answer is, “Not at all.”
A better standard might be the one offered by the Chicago Evening Post’s Finley Peter Dunne in 1893: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. (Although the original quote, which Dunne put in the mouth of a fictional bartender named Mr. Dooley, put it this way: “Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”)
There’s also this standard, described by George Mason in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights that became the model for the U.S. Bill of Rights: “The freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.”
Finally, there’s Thomas Jefferson’s support for a well-educated citizenry to keep government in check. While what’s possibly his most famous quote about the topic (“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”) is actually spurious, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Jefferson did advocate strongly for general education and knowledge as a defense against tyranny:
“[E]xperience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large…,” Jefferson wrote, adding that educated people should be “able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.”
This, then, is the challenge we should be issuing to today’s media outlets: Don’t bend over backward to mollify, flatter or reassure those who already have the most control of power and purse-strings… or to superficially demonstrate your “independent streak” by writing counter-intuitive articles that embolden beliefs and attitudes harmful to the general public. Do what’s required to “illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large… without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.”
Today’s information technology companies tout the coming era of intelligent digital assistants as a boon for the lives of everyone from overscheduled small-business entrepreneurs to parents of curious small children. Have a question? Just speak up and get the answer instantly. Need a task completed? Ask the AI and it shall be done.
Now, there are some applications where this sort of thing is undoubtedly helpful… a godsend even. Imagine, for instance, being paralyzed from the neck down, yet still being able to look up a colleague’s phone number, order groceries for delivery or post a new tweet, all without the help of anyone but an intelligent digital aide. In some circumstances, these technologies will seem nothing short of miracles.
In other circumstances, though? Not so much. Consider, for example, a TV commercial for Google Home that’s seen lots of airtime recently. In the ad, set in a cozy family living room at evening-time, a father is reading a book about the ocean to his young daughter. As kids do, the little girl keeps interupting the story: “Daddy, how big is a blue whale?” “Ooh, this is where Mom does a big whale noise!” “Do whales sleep?”
The dad is quick with answers, thanks to Google Home. “OK, Google, how big is a blue whale?” he asks, immediately getting an answer from the tabletop device: “Blue whale typically has a weight of 300,000 pounds.” “Huh,” the dad says, and returns to reading.
Contrast that answer to a child’s question with the following passage from physicist Richard P. Feynmann’s posthumously published book, “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” (1999, Perseus Publishing):
“We had the Encyclopedia Britannica at home and even when I was a small boy [my father] used to sit me on his lap and read to me from the Encyclopedia Britannica, and we would read, say, about dinosaurs and maybe it would be talking about the brontosaurus or something, or the tyrannosaurus rex, and it would say something like, ‘This thing is twenty-five feet high and the head is six feet across,’ you see, and so he’d stop all this and say, ‘Let’s see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard he would be high enough to put his head through the window but not quite because the head is a little bit too wide and it would break the window as it came by.'”
“Everything we’d read would be translated as best we could into some reality and so I learned to do that — everything that I read I try to figure out what it really means, what it’s really saying by translating and so… I used to read the Encyclopedia when I was a boy but with translation, you see, so it was very exciting and interesting to think there were animals of such magnitude — I wasn’t frightened that there would be one coming in my window as a consequence of this, I don’t think, but I thought that it was very, very interesting, that they all died out and at that time nobody knew why.”
What Feynmann was describing, as the title of his book puts it, was “the pleasure of finding things out.” In other words, the thrill of discovery, the joy of learning, the excitement of taking an unfamiliar path into new worlds of imagination and the mind. And I would argue that such explorations of discovery can, rather than being animated, be dampened and depressed by the likes of a Google Home or the Amazon Echo.
Quick, easy and automated answers have a downside, you see: they can contribute to making people less able to research and hunt down difficult answers on their own. It’s called “the paradox of automation.”
You’ve probably seen this in action in your own life. Before speed dial and smartphones, you might have known by heart the phone numbers for many of the most important people in your life. Today? You might not even be able to remember your own phone number.
The 2008 film WALL-E offered one vision of what increasingly easy and automated life might lead to: a society populated by people so reliant on technology they can’t move around without hover chairs and live on liquid nutrition because they can’t be bothered to even chew anymore.
By offering an easier, quicker alternative to consulting a printed dictionary, opening up a reference book or, yes, even Googling for answers the “old-fashioned” way, technologies like the Amazon Echo and Google Home can become the intellectual equivalent of WALL-E‘s hover chairs and Food in a Cup. You’re not ever going to get sucked into a fascinating, mind-expanding hour-and-a-half-long detour through Wikipedia and Websites for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Geographic, the IUCN Red List and WWF if you can just ask your desktop assistant how much a blue whale weighs, right?
That’s the problem. That hour-and-a-half-long detour can be an adventure that will lead you in directions you never anticipated with just one question. It can make you aware of the existence of the American Cetacean Society (yes, there is such a thing); introduce you to some of the taxonomic uncertainties about blue whales; allow you to explore photos, videos and sounds of every imaginable kind of marine mammal; and serendipitously come upon strange but fascinating articles like “A Brief History of Exploding Whales.” Google Home and Alexa aren’t designed to take you on such journeys. Nor will they tell stories like Richard Feynmann’s father did about dinosaurs being not just big, but big enough to smash your front window while trying to peek in.
In other words, you might find one thing out. But you’re much less likely to find out many wondrous, eye-opening, surprising and unexpected things on your own.
And where’s the pleasure in that?
Now, suddenly, our much-vaunted tech leaders find themselves confronted with a conundrum that’s been quietly evolving for a long time: the conundrum of whether it’s possible to create an innovative, data-driven, smart and futuristic society without also taking care to ensure a societal foundation of rules and laws that are just, fair, equitable and humane.
For decades, now, the Future-is-Here-Today tech sector has been driven by very smart men (mostly) who sold their customers and investors on a singular vision: that human life of tomorrow could be perfected through hardware and software. All that formula needed were the primary inputs of lots of financial backing and lots of a very specific type of braininess that viewed every human problem as one that could be solved with the right app or algorithm.
Lacking in this vision was adequate respect for — much less adequate interest in — the messy realities of government and politics, especially in a democratic society.
In its more benign forms, this vision simply viewed legacy, democracy 1.0 matters as mostly irrelevant: given the smartest and most innovative tech, the thinking went, people would be able to resolve all of society’s pressing problems with smart apps and increasingly affordable, accessible consumer devices. Obesity? Pollution? Lack of economic opportunity? Mercury in the soil or water? There’s an app for that! No need to attend town hall meetings or call your Congressman or -woman to urge legislative action in the right direction.
In its more aggressive, less-benign incarnations, this vision placed tech above governance and politics. Uber’s regular flouting of municipal taxi licensing requirements and business norms is an example of this. So too is “PayPal Mafia Don” (and now-advisor to President Trump) Peter Thiel, with his Libertarian-influenced love for things like “Atlas Shrugged” and “seasteading.” Also slipping into this category is another member of the “PayPal Mafia”: Elon Musk, who has long been visibly determined to eclipse public-sector programs in space, transportation and other areas with his own private-sector ventures such as SpaceX.
Understanding this mindset meant it should have come as little surprise when both Musk and Uber’s Travis Kalanick were named to President-elect Trump’s business advisory council.
It was only after the president-elect became the president that the pretty facade of the future that Silicon Valley has so long painted for us was smashed in by reality. (And it’s worth noting here that the male-dominated tech sector was relatively silent when women took to the streets by millions the week before to protest Trump’s policies.)
Brilliant visions of tech-enabled utopia, it turns out, can be quickly dispersed by grotesque nativism, racism, hate and willfully proud anti-intellectualism. The smart, algorithm-driven future, we suddenly find, can be derailed by an administration that bars from U.S. entry many of the bright immigrants and foreign workers who have been helping to build that future. Turns out good government and smart politics still matter after all… maybe even more so than shiny devices and clever software.
Only now, some Silicon Valley “thinkfluencers” are discovering, is the potential damage from neglecting society in favor of tech becoming painfully obvious. And the damage might only be beginning.
Will AI take over human society?
It’s too late to ask that question. Because, based on a number of recent developments, it appears that artificial intelligence has already hijacked the world.
By this, I don’t mean that computers have attained sentience and conspired to conquer the planet. Rather, I’ve come to believe that algorithms and automatically generated content now overpower any possible efforts by humans alone to set the tone of the conversations we have on a daily basis.
Consider, for example, the recent discovery by Elon University’s Jonathan Albright of more than 78,000 AI-generated videos on YouTube that appear to be “harnessed as a powerful agenda booster for certain political voices.”
These videos, being publishing on some YouTube channels at the rate of one every three to four minutes, feature a series of images, presented slideshow style, taken from various places on the Internet with computerized voiceovers reading content from online news sites and other sources. Their topics? Lots about global politics, ranging from “netanyahu russia jerusalem” to “trump kremlin president” to “erdogan turkey regime police.”
“Everything about these ‘A Tease…’ videos suggests SEO, social politcs amplification, and YouTube AI-playlist placement: In addition to the video titles being keyword-packed and URLs pasted all over the video descriptions, the spoken text that’s already published on news sites should help to boost the overall relevance of these videos and any associated news-related ‘channels’ on YouTube,” Albright writes. “FakeTube is here, and AI-generated videos are probably being made faster than they can be identified.”
And then consider this research from data scientists Alessandro Bessi and Emilio Ferrara: “Social bots distort the 2016 U.S. Presidential election online discussion.” Yes, they said, social media can promote democratic conversations about important issues… but a large proportion — about one-fifth — of the pre-election comments made online appeared to have come not from humans but from bots.
“[I]t is important to stress that, although our analysis unveiled the current state of the political debate and agenda pushed by the bots, it is impossible to determine who operates such bots,” Bessi and Ferrara write in their study’s conclusion. “State- and non-state actors, local and foreign governments, political parties, private organizations, and even single individuals with adequate resources (Kollanyi, 2016), could obtain the operational capabilities and technical tools to deploy armies of social bots and affect the directions of online political conversation. Therefore, future efforts will be required by the machine learning research community do develop more sophisticated detection techniques capable of unmasking the puppet masters.”
Add to developments like these things like the growing threat of weaponized botnets to Internet security or Google’s opaque and questionable autofills to search queries like “Are Jews…” and “Are women…?”, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that various forms of artificial intelligence now have more power over our lives than other real-life humans alone do.
It might not yet be Ray Kurzweil’s much-anticipated Singularity. But it is already singularly alarming in its implications for where we’re heading.
And so we come to this day: Jan. 20, 2017. Inauguration Day. The day on which the U.S. White House becomes – in the eyes of many who voted for a different presidential candidate – Slytherin House, its occupant the Left’s own Voldemort.
During the 30 days leading up to today, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, scouring my bookshelves for inspiration and ideas about how to deal with today and the days, weeks, months and years to come. I also embarked on a little project during that time, tweeting key quotes from works I thought might be relevant for this moment in history. I did it as a countdown: 30 days, 30 works, 30 sets of quotes to think about in the run-up to Trump.
I found it to be a valuable experience, for myself if no one else. I revisited a lot of books I haven’t opened in years, from past events that significantly influenced my thinking over time.
Coming of age as I did during the Watergate era, I couldn’t escape signs that the Nixon presidency could have critical lessons for us during the presidency just begun today. The brilliant and much-missed Molly Ivins – whose 2004 book, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” was the subject of my Day 8 tweets – had choice words about the 37th president.
“Nixon was a sorry, sick human being, with a gift for exploiting lower-middle-class resentment, envy, and bigotry for his own political purposes,” Ivins wrote. “This country remains a nastier place today because of Nixon.”
Ivins’ concerns about the state of U.S. politics in the post-9/11 era also resonated:
“I may be an optimist, but I am also as frightened as I have been for this country since the Saturday Night Massacre under Richard Nixon, when I really thought he might call out the troops. In a different way, almost with our permission, I think we’re that close to losing all of it – the Constitution, freedom, rule of law, even the dream of social and economic justice.”
And that was in 2004!
Nixon, Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein, and “All the President’s Men” were a big reason I went into journalism, rather than science, my first love. But science has always heavily informed my perspective on writing and reporting, and the works of several science legends also came up during my Twitter project.
On Day 9, for example, with 21 days to Trump, I tweeted 34 excerpts from Carl Sagan’s 1996 book, “The Demon-Haunted World.” The entire volume is essentially Sagan’s cri de coeur for better education in science and critical thinking. The following comment seemed especially prescient in light of today:
“Those who seek power at any price detect a societal weakness, a fear that they can ride into office… Whatever the problem, the quick fix is to shave a little freedom off the Bill of Rights… The pretexts change from year to year, but the result remains the same: concentrating more power in fewer hands and suppressing diversity of opinion – even though experience plainly shows the dangers of such a course of action.”
The quote from Sagan’s book that stuck with me the most, though, was – Godwin’s Law notwithstanding – his recounting of Leon Trotsky’s description of the prevailing mindset in Germany in 1933:
“Not only in peasant homes, but also in city skyscrapers, there lives along side the twentieth century the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic powers of signs and exorcisms… Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery!”
Other passages that haunted me, even though I didn’t feature them in my Jan. 11 Twitter thread, came from Hedrick Smith’s 1976 book, “The Russians,” in which he described how the Soviet system – through a combination of censorship, repression, economic punishments and mis/disinformation – worked to break many dissidents. One of the saddest quotes came from a friend of a man named Leonid Petrovsky, who dared to speak against neo-Stalinism and quickly found himself unable to find work of any kind at all: “Now he is in no mood to make any protests,” the friend told Smith. “He is a good man, honest, but quiet. He is afraid.”
Beyond such chilling words, I also found inspiring ones. On Day 26, my Twitter subject was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech – delivered during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While I’ve read and heard excerpts from King’s speech many times in my life, sitting there and reading it from start to finish on the evening of Jan. 15 brought me to tears. Building masterfully to a crescendo that gives you goosebumps, the language in King’s speech is beautiful, masterful, awe-inspiring. Read it and see for yourself… really, if you haven’t read it in a while, you need to.
So what lessons did I take away from my 30-day dig into history? And how might they help us in navigating the uncertain future? These are key things I learned:
One, the past always offers parallels for the present. This is, in a way, reassuring… because if times were bad in the past and yet we’re still here, there’s hope that — 10 or 20 years down the road — we can say the same thing about today.
Two, the more things change, the more some things stay the same. Demagogues have always lurked in our political landscape, no matter where or when we grew up. Authoritarians, racists and bullies have always been with us… and always will be. But so too have philosophers and artists, scientists and soldiers for social justice. So don’t believe people who say that any one moment marks the “end of liberalism” or the “end of conservatism” or, silliest of all, the “end of history”.
And, finally, knowledge matters. Ignorance is dangerous. But cynicism is even worse. When people throw up their hands, decide there are no such things as facts and everyone – the left, the right, the media, scientists, artists – is lying, that’s when things go from bad to worse.
“There is an unbelievable cynicism among people,” the Soviet physicist, mathematician and computer scientist Valentin Turchin said in “The Russians.” “No one stands for the truth. And if anyone says he is above Party and is trying to speak the truth alone, he is lying. This cynicism greatly helps the authorities keep the intelligentsia in line and exclude the ‘wild dissidents’ from society. People can travel to the West and hear Western radio broadcasts and it makes no difference, so long as there is this pervasive cynicism that it is just the other side speaking. This cynicism provides the stability of the totalitarian state today in place of the fear of the Stalinist years.”
During the interview for my first full-time newspaper reporting job, years before anyone had heard of – or even conceived of – the World Wide Web, I remember the managing editor of the small suburban weekly asking something to the effect of why he should hire me, a recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree in geology, to work as a journalist.
It was a fair question. And my answer, while it might sound facile to someone hearing it for the first time, was one I actually kind of surprised myself with… but realized as soon as I said it that I believed fully (and still do today).
“Science is the search for truth,” I said (or at least suggested in a similar mix of words – it was, after all, a long time ago), “and so is journalism. Both are looking for real answers.”
All these years later, I now find myself pained at seeing how much journalism – now both online and off – is not looking for real answers. I’m pained at how much is “fake news.” Or lazy “he said she said” reporting. Or news tainted by false equivalencies and both-siderism. Or just plain propaganda.
Still, if I’m honest, “fake news” has existed in many varieties for a very long time. Readers just didn’t tend to see it if the fake part clearly didn’t conflict with their own personal realities.
For instance, people of color have long understood that many things they heard and read in the news really weren’t true… stories about how things like “separate but equal,” red-lining, voter disenfranchisement and vast inequalities in policing and courtroom outcomes weren’t really a problem. (Look no further than the recent news about Canada putting Viola Davis on the $10 note, 70 years after she was convicted on tax charges… because she refused to comply with whites-only seating in a theater. She was only pardoned on those charges, by the way, in 2010, 45 years after her death.)
Women, too, have long known to read between the lines in media reports that often haven’t acknowledged their full experiences with things like sexual assault, domestic violence or workplace discrimination.
As for people who didn’t fit in with the norms of mainstream heterosexual society? Well, for many years, they might as well have not existed at all, for all the times their issues and concerns were presented objectively in the mainstream press.
As Elon University communication professor Jonathan Albright wrote recently in The Guardian, “It’s an unfortunate reality that news reporting is often at odds with the interest trifecta of politics, profits, and public opinion.” That’s why, even in this day and age, news that families have been charged up to $16 a minute to talk on the phone with relatives in prison – reaping a hefty profit for phone and prison companies alike – or that women who have miscarriages can be sentenced to prison depending on the state they live in don’t generate far more national headlines and outrage: the “wrong” people are wronged in these and other examples of injustice, and the powers-that-be don’t care enough on a first-tier level.
Which brings us to now, when the rise of Trump has suddenly forced new media navel-gazing about how they failed to recognize the concerns of the “white working class” and the white – as PEOTUS puts it – “poorly educated.” (Notice too that all the media’s sudden scrutiny has settled on the “narrative” of that population – the white working class – and that alone as being the population that they’ve failed to acknowledge.)
Well, duh. It’s only now that a critical mass of non-POC, non-LGBTQ and non-college-educated voters have discovered what these other groups have long known: most “mainstream” news coverage has long focused on only the interests of a chosen few. For far too long, too many of those free-trade deals, regulation-streamlining bills, education “choice and “reform” measures, tax “reforms” and more weren’t for most of those voters outside the chosen few, and they’ve long known it.
And you know what? The outcome of this last election isn’t likely to change that.
Recently, I’ve seen far too many attempts to distinguish “good” news sources from “fake” and biased ones through the use of blacklists, usually long lists of news sources identified as suspect with no explanation or evidence provided, and often in a suspiciously even mix of left-wing and right-wing sites (i.e., “both-siderism” clearly at work).
This is altogether the wrong way to help people determine which news reports are most reliable. For one, as seen with Twitter trolls, identifying one by name might lead to that account being suspended, but the same person can quickly and easily set up another new account with a completely different name and start dishing out the same bile again with little interruption. Distinguishing good from bad with static lists is, to mix metaphors, a Sisyphean task of whack-a-mole.
Another problem: “good” news sources can — and have — disseminated “bad” and “fake” news: See, for example, the rush to drum up the case for the 2003 U.S./coalition invasion of Iraq. Many so-called mainstream and respectable news outlets — most of them, actually — swallowed the Bush administration’s arguments hook, line and sinker… and repeated them with few questions. Their reporters and editors kept their jobs. On the other hand, TV host Phil Donahue, who expressed his opposition to and doubts about the case for war, was fired from MSNBC. Jingoistic and unskeptical reporting back then are to blame for the many who still today believe Iraq really had weapons of mass destruction before the invasion… It didn’t.
No, what’s needed instead of lists is a method for helping readers (and media members themselves) better judge the quality of the information they find on any site. In other words, we need an evidence-supported means of establishing provenance for each purported fact reported in an article, wherever it is. Call it the scientific method for journalism.
What would that look like? That’s something I intend to explore on these pages in days and weeks to come. Stay tuned.
Funny thing about “fake news” and propaganda: no matter who spreads the misinformation or how widely it’s believed, the “reality-based world” and rules of nature still ultimately prevail.
No matter how many people wanted to blame medieval Europe’s Black Death on Jews, Romani or lepers, scientists today understand that the pandemic was caused by bites by infected fleas carried on rats.
No matter how many government leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere chose to believe that reports about concentrations camps and gas chambers were just war propaganda, millions died just the same.
No matter how much the Westboro Baptist Church says AIDS is a divine punishment for homosexuality, the disease also afflicts straight people — not to mention children — without discrimination.
And no matter how desperately climate-change deniers and those who profit from fossil fuels want to muzzle research linking higher carbon dioxide levels to rising average global temperatures, ocean acidification and a raft of other harmful consequences, CO2 will keep accelerating the greenhouse effect the more of it we pump into the atmosphere. Because science.
The problem is, as with so many other examples from history where reality-averse, ignorant or Machiavellian humans tried to persuade their followers that the sky was not up and the ground wasn’t down, hostility to facts can leave a lot of damage — and a lot of bodies — in its wake.
This is the reality-based world: The greater the concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, the more of these molecules there are to absorb and re-emit infrared solar radiation. The more carbon dioxide taken up by the oceans, the more seawater’s pH levels decrease, which means the more corals, shellfish and other calcium-carbonate-producing lifeforms are susceptible to dissolving.
The 11th-century Scandinavian King Canute, the old story goes, understood the powers of nature and reality when he demonstrated to his courtiers that even he — a powerful ruler at the time — couldn’t order the ocean tide to stop getting his feet wet. In historian Henry of Huntingdon’s telling of the tale a century later, Canute was then reported to have said, “‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”
Yet here we are, a millennium later, hearing new kings — would-be, imagined and otherwise — asserting the exact opposite: that they are not bound in any way by the laws of heaven, earth and sea… or reality in general.
How do scientists, fact-checkers and others with deep expertise deal with this, the election of a profoundly incurious president with little respect for the truth and aggressive hostility to views that differ from his? What, now, do the real experts do to try and preserve society’s grasp on reality?
Finding answers that work is critical now more than ever. Because our world is an inordinately complicated puzzle of countless pieces: seven billion-plus humans, anywhere from 20 to 75 billion Internet-connected devices and sensors (everything from your computer and smartphone to your smart TV and the security surveillance cameras in your stores, workplaces and other locations) and an uncountable number of other living plants and creatures that share this planet with us. And the world is growing only more complicated with every passing day.
It’s not just the threats to polar bears and indigenous villages in the Arctic, as if those are the only impacts climate change could have. (Hint: Think impacts on hunting and fishing,“sunny-day flooding”, drought and wildfires, crop failures and more regional conflicts such as the years-long bloodbath we’ve been seeing in Syria).
It’s also massive hacks that can take down major websites like Amazon, Reddit and Netflix and are now possible through unregulated vulnerabilities in the fast-expanding Internet of Things.
It’s artificial intelligence and machine learning that are advancing so quickly even the experts have a hard time keeping up, much less the public officials who are tasked with updating regulations on information technologies.
It’s the growing risk of antibiotic resistance, which one study predicts could cause 10 million deaths every year by mid-century… more than cancer causes. Meanwhile, other diseases that could spread widely in the right (or wrong) conditions — ebola, zika, chikungunya, etc. — remain extremely difficult to treat, and leave lasting and devastating impacts on survivors and/or their babies.
Candidate Donald Trump asserted, all evidence to the contrary, that he knows “more about ISIS than the generals do”. Pre-Brexit, Britain’s justice secretary Michael Gove pooh-poohed the vast number of economists warning about the potential fallout of an EU exit, by declaring that citizens “have had enough of experts”.
But it’s certain that, were Trump or Gove or anyone else who believes such things to become seriously ill, each of them would consult an expert — a trained medical specialist — to seek relief and cures (though, admittedly, Trump has made some unusual choices in this realm). We know they depend upon trained technicians to maintain and update their websites and social media presence. They do not tap random strangers on the shoulder on the tarmac to pilot their airplanes to their next destination. In so many things, like the rest of us do, they depend upon the knowledge and expertise of experts.
But not now? To help guide the most momentous decisions possible that will affect millions and billions of other human lives? For these decisions, Trump has already made it clear he prefers a rogue’s gallery of “leaders” who have failed at the basic tasks of leadership. Throughout his campaign and long before, he also made it clear that he has little understanding of the realities of climate change, the value of vaccinations, the true challenges of cybersecurity (despite the fact he apparently benefited greatly from aggressive Russian cyber-shenanigans), etc.
The system is broken. This is indisputably true. But no one thing or person broke it.
Yes, the Republican party has been sowing the seeds for this day for a very long time. Nixon’s Southern Strategy helped. So did the Powell Memo. And Reagan’s 1980 “states’ rights” campaign kickoff speech outside the Mississippi town of Philadelphia, where three young civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Dog whistles and outright appeals to racist thinking set the stage for this moment.
But so did a string of damaging-to-democracy Supreme Court rulings, from the 2010 verdict on Citizens United v. FEC to Justice John Roberts’ decision to join the 2013 5-4 ruling on Shelby County v. Holder, which set loose a line of tumbling-domino laws across numerous U.S. states that aggressively reduced the ability of some citizens (of color, typically) to vote. (Esquire’s ever-brilliant Charles P. Pierce traces the origins even further back, to the 6-3 2007 decision on Crawford v. Marion County Election Board et.al that enabled Indiana to begin clamping down on the franchise.)
There was also the decision in 1987 — by a Reagan-appointee-dominated Federal Communications Commission — to abolish the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to adequately cover issues of interest to the public. And, of course, the 1988 withdrawal of the non-partisan League of Women Voters as sponsors of the presidential debate, following collusion between both candidates (George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis) to take control over the choice of debate questioners, press access, audience composition and more.
The rise of, first, cable TV and then the Internet played a part as well. Both helped simultaneously to suck dry newspapers of the ad revenues that had sustained print journalism for decades, and to also continually speed up and cheapen the quest for “news,” turning it from a recognized public good into a commodity that could be sliced, diced and sold to the highest bidder. These developments led eventually, inexorably, to the rise of things like large numbers of Macedonian spammers creating Trump-friendly “news” sites to rake in click-generated bucks through Facebook ads. Of course, Rupert Murdoch and Fox News also have much to answer for. The late and much-missed Mike Royko saw that one coming many many years ago.
And then there were the current election cycle’s Neville Chamberlains — so, so many of them — eager to appease a click-generating, eyeball-grabbing candidate for any number of reasons, just to ensure the clicks and the eyeballs kept coming, or to secure themselves a place at the trough of power down the road. It’s clear why the Chris Christies, Rudolph Giulianis, Newt Gingriches and others like them did it. But how might it pay off (or not) for the likes of Paul Ryan, John McCain, John Thune, Deb Fischer and so many more who unendorsed and then cravenly endorsed again?
There were craven, ratings-obsessed entertainers too, like the playfully hair-ruffling Jimmy Fallon.
For some in the media, meanwhile, it was the labor-affirming desire to keep the 2016 contest a “horserace,” no matter how unequal the two candidates’ qualifications actually were. For others, it was journalism’s perverse faith in what Jay Rosen has called the “view from nowhere,” which held that reporters need to stay impartial by not taking sides, even if one source claims the Sun revolves around the Earth (demonstrably false) while the other states the scientifically established fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun (see: pretty much every mainstream news article on the science of climate change). There was also the press’ desire for “refuge,” along with the all-too-frequently observed sin of false equivalence, which said if Candidate A’s supporters yelled “Boo, hiss!” at Candidate B, that was just as bad as Candidate B’s supporters yelling the Nazi slur “Lügenpresse” at reporters. Sadly, I count the usually excellent Matt Taibbi among the recently guilty here.
The mainstream media’s late-to-the-party dedication to fact-checking was welcome, but — by then — pathetically tardy and inadequate for the task at hand. By the time the New York Times’ Dean Baquet, among others, realized they really needed to point out to readers when something was “just false,” the U.K.’s pro-Brexit team had already helped win the day in Britain with the help of declarations from the likes of Michael Gove that the “people in this country have had enough of experts.”
A large number of people in the U.S. have now apparently agreed with this, throwing into jeopardy everything from meaningful action on the well-established science of climate change, a concept barely mentioned in mainstream election coverage, to fact-based strategies for securing cyber space and the ever-expanding Internet of Things.
So, yes, examining the 2016 election results in the light of day clearly identifies plenty of people and practices to blame beyond those in the Trump camp alone. The question now is, where do we go from here? To once again begin assigning a fair value to facts, truth, equity and, for goodness’ sake, fairness, we need to dig deeper and think bigger. Building an atmosphere where the majority of us can, once again, agree at least that there are basic facts and fundamental descriptions of reality upon which we all agree, will take nothing short of a large-scale truth-and-reconciliation campaign across the country. No side in this debacle of an election can afford to give up on this goal. From equal rights and human rights to digital security and a livable climate, the stakes are too high to surrender now.