Eighteen Days: On Truth

Eighteen Days: On Truth

Reading Climate Central’s detailed account of Trump’s cabinet nominees’ views on climate change has left me wondering about truth, propaganda, and the extent to which the internet makes us both more and less vulnerable to manipulation. Bannon, Sessions, Priebus, and many others Trumplings' willful disregard of the scientific consensus regarding the causes and expected impacts of climate change is greedy, grasping, seriously myopic, and based on their absolute certainty the voting public are a bunch of idiots. Not only do Trump, his soon-to-be cabinet, and his EPA transition team (so far, Myron Ebell and Amy Oliver Cooke) deny that global temperature increases are due to human-caused emission of greenhouse gas, they actually claim that temperatures haven’t been rising.

And so, one of the infinite number of things that has me worried is data reliability. I don’t know about you but much of the data that I use regarding emissions, temperatures, atmospheric concentrations, energy and transportation sector operations, and environmental impacts come from U.S. government sources. What impact will a federal government run and staffed by climate deniers have on the production and reporting of these data? Some of it, we are told, simply won’t exist anymore after NASA Earth-focused mission is cast aside in favor of full-time space exploration.

Facts seem increasingly elusive even outside of the much anticipated and feared “Trump Brand” White House. I’ve learned to check the origin website of every story that comes to me through social media and dig deeper when I don’t know the news source. (It also helps to get in the habit of looking at the publication date.) But I’m pretty sure that’s not a very common practice among e-news consumers and I find it unlikely that it will be widely adopted any time soon. Instead I think what we increasingly experience is a worldly cynicism about all statements asserted as facts. We see information presented to us a fluid narrative and have no particular hope of discovering the truth beneath the spin.

I think this issue—a loss of access to and confidence in fact-based journalism and data—is one of the greatest challenges of our age. Propaganda is not a new phenomenon by any means. The term itself rose out of the “propagation” of Christianity to non-Christian countries in the 17th century, but the practice of grooming and outright inventing truth has been around as long as governance.

The internet, however, has changed the nature of communication so fundamentally as to be unrecognizable. A very large segment of the global population has access to an almost infinite pool of information of indeterminate accuracy along with the unlimited ability to communicate words and images both publicly and privately. The internet is a classic public good subject to the problems of erosion and misuse inherent to all public goods. It’s available to anyone and everyone to use and abuse, to report and to invent, and it all looks the same. It tells us nothing and everything, and must be ingested with a very large dose of skepticism.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that the facts are still out there and can be found with some effort but something more than just our individual standards and resources is needed if we hope to use information for good. One solution may be glimpsed in the vetting process used by academics to improve reliability of new research. The system used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—so often derided by Trump and his buddies—is a shining example of a careful, deliberative process by a large team of people, spread throughout the world, working together to push research forward and to carefully compare and validate results before publication. My hope is that collective, democratic processes of vetting information will emerge. In the meantime, I find myself relying more and more on the historical print-media sources (in e-form) that the internet itself has all but killed.

Eighteen days left until the electoral college votes. What are you reading and believing?

Agree with me? Disagree with me? Please post a comment below.

@publicgoods

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