With COVID-19 cases rising even in Maine (Millinocket notwithstanding), the West Coast on fire, a racial justice reckoning and now a COVID-infected president, it’s remarkable that Americans’ not-so-civil war over science and truth rages on. Although the Mason-Dixon line between science believers and deniers is sharp, not all deniers ignore science: Some hijack science, cherry-picking facts and/or interpreting them erroneously. This makes it harder to know what to believe.

To combat these distorted versions of truth and their dangerous consequences on all fronts – political and personal – we must strive to understand how science actually works. The Black-Lives-Matter and Science-Is-Real signs in Maine yards are encouraging signs in all senses.

In educating ourselves, we stand to educate others. As a professional educator, I find the many Americans who seem impervious to facts and logic disheartening. Yet I press on, especially in chatting with people on both sides who remain fuzzy about the illogic of “alternative facts” or “truths,” and how scientific findings apply to individuals. Here’s my shot at clarification:

• Alternative facts or truths: The philosophy that different groups of people may justifiably hold different “truths” about a single phenomenon is called epistemic relativism. The problem with this to-each-their-own relativistic truth is that if two “truths” contradict each other, both can’t be correct – yet each group’s members suppose that their group’s belief is objectively true. To the extent that group members appeal to science, they put science on their side, even when it’s not. Hence the stalemate.

• Scientific findings: Science makes no guarantees – scientific knowledge is always probabilistic.  So adhering to scientific evidence – for example, about wearing masks and social distancing – may not keep any particular individual safe. Still, deferring to science tilts the odds in our favor, giving us substantial control.  We should therefore accept as scientifically true the assertions that don’t depend on – aren’t relative to – anyone’s biases, but rather depend on independent evidence. This is what makes scientific knowledge objective.

When health experts advocate for science and data, they implore us to act wisely. But we must be wary of people who say they are science-driven, while deliberately misrepresenting the meaning of selected data bits. This isn’t deferring to science; it’s a perversion of science in science’s name, for which Donald Trump is Exhibit A.

Given Trump’s disdain for climate science and epidemiology, he appears anti-scientific. While hospitalized, he boasted about his COVID education in the “real school … not the let’s-read-the-books school.” And then: “Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Translation: “I’m now your COVID expert; ignore those pesky scientists.”

I frankly think Trump is a-scientific. If a scientific finding suits his desires, he’ll tout it; if not, he’ll ignore it or explain it away. His attitude toward any particular finding depends on, or is relative to, his own personal and/or political interests (a relativism so extreme I’ll call “narcissistic relativism”). About science beyond politically relevant findings, he shows no interest.

For instance, last month Trump touted the finding that the daily rate of new COVID cases had fallen substantially from July, to support his claim that “we’re rounding the corner” on COVID. He seemingly took that finding seriously, but his self-serving interpretation of it didn’t take seriously scientists’ interpretations, which were based on a broader array of facts. Coronavirus adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said he disagreed with Trump, as the daily rate of new infections, at roughly 40,000, is hardly low enough to constitute corner-turning.

Philosopher Richard Rorty said that “to know your desires … is to know the criterion of truth.” That means desires play a role in deciding what is true and what is not.  But if what we accept as true is nothing more than what we desire, while ignoring objective evidence, then we’re swimming in a sea of relativism so vast that we may all drown – in a virus, or climate change, or racial injustice, or whatever we prefer not to see.

If truth must be relative to a desire, let it be a desire for objective knowledge about the world. Understanding science and truth properly can help fulfill that desire. Reaching for this understanding is a virtue that can help us defeat the indefensible politics of denial and distortion.


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