Do not look at the extreme partisan rhetoric to discern the worst poison in our political discourse. Look instead to the cool, restrained, seemingly objective, inoffensive terms that pass for truth, yet mask partisan extremes.
Most revelatory of the abandonment of rational discourse are not ridiculous claims (“I won Pennsylvania”; this from Trump before the votes were fully counted); disgusting comments (“[Trump] is sort of like [Nazi media manipulator Josef] Goebbels”; this from Biden about Trump); and the rest of the over-the-top rhetoric: “liar,” “[Mexican] rapists,” “baseless,” “fake,” “shuddup,” ad nauseum. Don’t track that. Rather, track sterile terms like “settled science” (on the left) and “he [Trump] says things he shouldn’t” (on the right).
Dry terms such as these undermine political discourse by legitimating the refusal to attribute any credibility to a political opponent. Sterile terms shade an unthinking mind from view. Calm, ostensibly neutral terms propel the polarization. Here are two examples.
On the political left, the term is “settled science.”
This is the club with which to hammer the political right for being anti-science generally, and climate-change deniers and COVID exacerbators in particular. Now, whether staying in or withdrawing from the Paris climate accord is best for the environment, or whether some risk should be taken to return COVID-stricken society to normal, are policy questions I am not entering into. I focus on the use of the term “settled science” to dress up a position that is untenable.
“Settled science” is an oxymoron. If it’s science, it’s not settled.
If it’s settled, it’s not science. The effectiveness of science is its refusal to accept that which seems settled. The root of Thomas Kuhn’s productive “paradigm shift” is a scientist’s skepticism about received scientific truth.
Does this mean that there are no settled, scientific facts? That, for example, it is not settled that the earth is round? To say that science is not settled is to assert that every empirical fact remains subject to a revision based on new data, experimentally derived. The earth is not flat, but the current understanding of the position, velocity, size, age, impact, temperature and other characteristics of the earth are subject to revised data.
To that one might retort that none of this data will disprove the roundness of the earth. To that I would say: The implications of new data cannot be foreseen. When Einstein said in 1905 that E=mc2, neither Einstein nor anyone else saw in this radically new scientific understanding the possibility of an atomic bomb 40 years later. Data can radically change our understanding, but we cannot predict how.
To regard climate change as “settled science” may reflect certain facts, but not necessarily in the fullness of their implication. Worse, to regard climate change as “settled science” will close off avenues of research whose findings and policy implications can change how humanity can best protect the environment.
The reason I hedge, saying only that the science of climate change “may” reflect certain facts, is because, in the case climate change, facts are almost always derived on the basis of computer models. They are only as good as the data and assumptions used by the people who devise them.
Lest this sound far-fetched, consider the weather prediction that didn’t happen. A computer model erred.
Real science should operate on the best data it has, while not considering that data “settled.” It is a dialectic. We should not dismiss facts as we know them, but neither should we shield them from empirical critique. Based on current data, attempts to counter climate change are imperative, but so is an open mind to new data that may confirm — or alter — approaches to the problem.
“Settled science,” an unscientific term, represents a politicization of science to justify a refusal to debate political opponents about the environment.
The same is true about the science of COVID. It changes by the month, if not the day. Everything from hospital protocols to the effectiveness of contact tracing has changed drastically since the COVID descended last February. To regard the current state of the science on COVID as “settled” is to close off the possibility of new data that can shift — and already has shifted — critical protocols.
So much for the left and “settled science.”
On the political right, we face a denial of the importance of the way President Trump speaks.
To launch a full-throated defense of his policies while conceding that Trump “says things he shouldn’t say” is to pretend that the central impact of a president of the United States is to be measured strictly by his policies.
Policies matter, but so does speech. Speech is policy for a president of the United States. Speech is action. Speech by a president is designed to move the needle, to influence Congress, to win over public opinion (or at least what is deemed to be the significant segment of public opinion).
To dismiss the way Trump talks while pivoting to his policies is to minimize to the vanishing point a major Trumpian tactic. Which often is not to persuade but to condemn; not to assess but to exaggerate; not to speak with reason but to lash out — not to refine public discourse but to degrade it.
Trump is the worst but far from the only figure in politics, on both sides of the aisle, to demonize opponents and degrade public speech in the last 30 years.
It is not a concession to say that Trump “says things he shouldn’t say.” When he speaks crudely or erroneously he disqualifies himself as a role model for young citizens. He generates cynicism about the entire political process.
He renders impossible a rapprochement between polarized political sides. He reinforces the image of a Political Other as beyond the pale.
Debate his policy legacy as you will — I favored his approach to China, Israel and government regulation, but not his approach to Syria, immigration and human rights — but his most blatant policy is the way he speaks. It undermines debate. It is far more than a matter of “things he shouldn’t say” — to the same extent that science is not “settled.”
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