In popular discussion, uncertainty serves as a wedge—a point of weakness with which you can destroy an idea you don’t like. So it isn’t that surprising that the selfish and self-serving use scientific uncertainty as a wedge as well; it doesn’t work in the scientific literature, but it does work in the minds of the public. We hear “uncertainty around climate change” and, for many of us, it means “we don’t know.”
The simplicity is appealing—after all, we know something or we don’t. Can you really half-know? Well… yes. Even that simple question shows us the difference between our gut feeling about knowing, and how it actually works. There is a great range of nuance in the idea of uncertainty, and when scientists say that something has uncertainty, they mean something much more specific than what most people think of as uncertain.
The language of science requires us to embrace uncertainty in order to understand it. Science is all about shrinking uncertainty, not to zero, but to the smallest reasonable range that evidence and method can support. The whole endeavor of science is to presume we don’t know, and then eliminate things we can be sure are wrong. Not to be certain about what is true, but to arrive at an approximation we can work with.
That means in order for us to have a discussion about so nuanced and evidence-heavy a topic as climate change, we need to go out of our way to understand uncertainty. The good news? We already do—we just need to think about it in different terms.
It’s not that I didn’t know Alternate America existed. I knew it did. I knew people believed a whole host of things that, to me, didn’t reconcile with the evidence. Yet, I make of point of being willing to change my mind when presented with solid evidence for a different position, so I assumed, wrongly, that most people would reasonably do the same. Outside of a few hot-button issues where emotions override facts, I figured truth was inherently stronger than fiction, however convenient.
Now that idea seems naïve. Of course the truth is not stronger. Of course the evidence is not convincing to those who don’t want to be convinced. Why did I think it was? The clash between America and Alternate America has been seething beneath the surface, erupting in localized ways, for decades. And yes, Alternate America has been losing a lot of battles, but in response they’ve also been tightening their boundaries and reinforcing their narratives.
That was a smart choice for people who care more about protecting their beliefs than they care about correcting them. Ideology is stronger than truth. I thought it was stronger by a little bit; but it seems to be stronger by a great deal. Mix a potent ideology with a well-chosen narrative, and people will happily ignore their lying eyes.
I’ve been trying to understand how people could possibly believe that host of things that doesn’t match the evidence. But that was the wrong question; the question I should have been asking was “what are the narratives?”
I do not support Donald Trump. But what if I did? He legitimately won the election under our democratic system; only a quarter of the country voted for him, but that is the system we have. His rhetoric is divisive and untethered from evidence, but that is the rhetoric we decided was acceptable. The choices he makes, whether we like it or not, will shape our country and possibly the world for many years to come.
One thing I am sure of is that being politically divided and unwilling to change our views is a self-reinforcing feedback loop. It’s easy to use division to justify more. But I don’t want to do that. I want to have solidly-evidenced political positions.
I don’t plan to say “oh, give him a chance,” because our country already decided to give him that on November 8th, and because I do not personally expect him to become any more respectful or honest as president than he was in the year preceding the election. Nor do I intend to shut up about what I disagree with, because critiquing the government is patriotic and quashing dissent is undemocratic.
So he’d have my critique even if he already had my support. But what would he have to do to get my support? Under what conditions would I say “Well, I didn’t expect it, but he’s doing a good job”? If my opposition to Trump is partisan, there will be no such conditions. But if my opposition to Trump is based on his policies and actions, I should be able to say under what conditions I would change my mind.
And here we are, marking the passing of one era into another. I want to be optimistic, but I can’t. I can see how some people are, because for them, this was the last chance. They’ve been watching their jobs and communities withering away, and they blame regulation and government and outsiders. For them, this seems like a hopeful moment, when maybe something will change and the days will return when all you needed to get a good job was a high school degree and determination.
Those days will not return. It wasn’t government that took them, nor regulation, nor outsiders: the world has just changed, and it changed as a direct consequence of those days. America, as much as any nation, has insisted on a global role, and yet being an economic “leader” in the world doesn’t mean good jobs anymore—it means cheap jobs, and money concentrated in the hands of the powerful, and the rest of us are just grist.
Trump can’t fix this world any more than Obama could. Obama said “yes we can,” but his best wasn’t good enough. Trump says a bunch of vague things about how he will, and people believe him. They believe him because they want to. As a consequence of that deep and understandable yearning, an entire section of the country is embracing a great fiction. Here is the fiction:
It is conventional to give people the benefit of the doubt—to err, when possible, on the side of uncertainty and not to presume the unlikely is untrue. But it is one thing to give the benefit of the doubt in uncertain circumstances, and it is quite another to give an outsized benefit with very little doubt indeed. That, in essence, is origin of false balance.
Worse, of late the media has taken to determining what subjects are in doubt not by what evidence is available, but instead by how forcefully people argue for one side or another. A forceful but untrue statement often triggers a confused and muddled response from journalists, who, by dint of their profession, know both that the statement is painfully untrue and that to contradict it outright is painfully taboo.
Journalistic conventions, intended to ensure fair treatment regardless of personal inclination, fail abysmally when public figures refuse to play by the rules.
“People are pouring across our borders.” “Immigrants are taking our jobs.” “Unemployment is the worst it’s ever been.” “Refugees are coming in and we have no idea who they are.” “The second amendment is absolutely under siege.” “Islamists want to conquer this country and impose sharia law.”
If there is a single narrative at stake for America, this is it—“they’re coming for you.”
And if you’re thinking “that’s the other guys,” flip the script—don’t just look at the words of one particularly unfiltered and untruthful demagogue, look at the narrative overall.
“Money is pouring into politics and controlling our elections.” “Corporations are destroying our jobs and our health.” “Chemicals are ending up in our food and we have no idea what they do.” “Christians want to take over the government and impose their restrictive beliefs.”
Whether you frame it as a story of fear or a story of heroic resistance, the core is the same: we’re under attack by dangerous, insidious people who have come to take what we have, and if we don’t fight back, we’ll watch our way of life disappear. So stand up and fight, or be prepared to lose your freedom.
Except… every single one of those statements is a lie. Every. Single. One. Some of them are motivated lies, and some of them are ignorant lies, and some of them are exaggerated lies, but they are all lies.
Politics has always mobilized the most intuitive kind of lies—the kind that we don’t bother to look at very deeply because they confirm our existing prejudices. Politicians are masters of the lie that feels true, even when all the facts run counter. And we buy those lies, and repeat them, and believe them, not because they have any isolated value, but because they bolster our view of the world.
Yet even knowing that, this election seems to me to be built on uniquely straightforward misinformation.
So I have been paying more attention to this election than some in the past, but not because I am disillusioned or disgusted with the choices, or frustrated by my vote not counting the way I’d like. Instead, it is because I think this election is historic, I very much want to see how we deal with it as a society.
There are a bunch of people out there right now who want to tell you “support the police” and “blue lives matter.” Many of these people also say slightly more nuanced things like “there is more crime in black neighborhoods so police are needed there” or “there are a few bad apples, but the police need the freedom to act” or “black people would be safe in encounters with the police if they just do what the police tell them.”
But all of those phrases have a missing word, right there at the end where it matters the most.
Conformity is one of those tricky things: we like to give it the side-eye, but we also like to practice it, often without even knowing we’re doing it. We enjoy the feeling of being “right” with everyone else. The trouble is, it’s really hard to think differently than the rest of a group—so the feeling of being “right” isn’t really a feeling of being right at all. It’s just a feeling of being the same.
There is a series of psychological experiments that speak to the question of conformity. Collectively, these are known as the Asch Paradigm, and the most oft-repeated result of these studies is that, given enough peer pressure, a large number of people will give obviously wrong answers to questions. For example, when asked a simple question like “which of these three lines is the same length as this fourth line?” people were much more likely to pick one that was obviously longer or shorter if a group of other people confidently chose the wrong line first. In other words, seeing other people give the wrong answer with confidence made them change their own answer—and even doubt their own judgment.
You can tell this as a story about how we succumb to the pressure of the group and espouse ideas that are wrong. But I think it is more interesting as a story about how we impose conformity on others—about how confident we are in our views, especially in groups, and how viciously we ostracize people who propose something different.
The precautionary principle is critical and useful tool for addressing risk. Put simply, it encourages us to resolve uncertainty judiciously and carefully, with an awareness of possible risks. It gives us a check on unbridled enthusiasm, and a check that is altogether important. In fact, many of the regulations we have in place in society are built around precaution rather than simply assuming something is worthwhile.
So the precautionary principle has value in many uncertain circumstances, but we shouldn’t assume that it has value in any uncertain circumstance because, to be perfectly frank, all circumstances are uncertain. The question is of degree. And improperly applied, the precautionary principal can be unbridled and dangerous—the exact attitude it is intended to keep in check.