Posted on Tue 24 January 2017 in Comment

I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts” — Sean Spicer 22nd January 2017.

… Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that” — Kellyanne Conway 22nd January 2017.

These quotes from Trump’s White House Press Secretary and “Counselor to the President” have attracted a lot of comment and ridicule.

They are, I think, a very sinister indication of what is to come.

This is partly a way of signalling to the media that in future the truth is going to be what the administration says it is, and that it should not be questioned. I believe that in part this is a deliberate statement of intent to intimidate.

It is praiseworthy that the New York Times has directly used the words “false claims” and “lies” in their coverage.

But others have not, and for a long time there have been media conventions whereby so-called balance has distorted the information available to the public from previously trusted sources. As in “… homeopathists believe that their remedies are effective, but some scientists disagree…”, followed by equal air time for the absurd falsehood and the reality. The BBC has often been guilty of this.

It’s also likely that threats of different kinds (from the threat to cut off mundane everyday information about what the government is doing, to more sinister threats) may mean that the New York Times and others may not be able to keep up the defiance.

But it’s interesting also to think about where this attitude to truth has come from. Politicians have always lied. But we now seem to have politicians who have no concept of truth and no shame about the fact. How and when did they get like that? Well, look at the people they mix with. Climate change deniers, “creationists”, “anti-vaxxers”, Exxon PR men… These are mostly people who, if they are minimally educated and informed, can only make the statements that they do if they have no understanding of what evidence is, and don’t really understand “truth” as involving correspondence with any external reality.

Quite a few people have been sharing this quote from Carl Sagan (The Demon-haunted World, 1997).

[…] Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time —- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

Spot on: there’s a problem of education. Not surprising in a country where incredibly, the Scopes Trial of 1925 is still alive.

See also Turkey: Government to remove evolution from high school curriculum.