The History of Knowledge and Contemporary Discourse on Science

The polarizing contemporary debate on science in the United States could be extraordinarily interesting for historians of knowledge, if it were occurring in the past. Still, if we could divert our attention from the news for a moment, we might find it still offers some food for thought.

In the midst of the current conversation, which is experiencing renewed fervor under the new administration, the Twitterverse is exploding with talk of “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” “fact-based journalism,” “fake news,” and “lies.” This rhetoric encompasses not just climate science but also everyday policy-making and “s/he said” – “s/he said” arguments. It is easy to get caught up in this conversation, whose ideological and epistemological battle lines seem so clearly drawn, but one thing gets lost—most of the time, anyway. Continue reading

Richard Evans on Trump

How do the early days of the Trump administration look like the Third Reich? Historian Richard Evans [an important historian of Nazi Germany] weighs in”; interview by Isaac Chotiner, Slate, Feb. 10, 2017.

The question might still seem hyperbolic to many, but sober, historically informed analysis along such lines can be informative for understanding both present and past

What’s Going On?

No really, Laurel Leff wants to know. This isn’t a poltical-rhetorical question but something bigger. What are we to make of the president’s recent nod to Holocaust denial? We need to consider the matter in an open, fearless, and dispassionate way, but how?

For those of us who teach and research the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, the Trump administration’s refusal to mention Jews in a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been both horrifying and confusing.

Read Leff’s whole piece, and if you haven’t read Deborah Lipstadt on why “Holocaust denial” is an appropriate term here, be sure to follow that link in Leff’s piece too.

Assault on Facts and Credibility

All administrations lie, but what we are seeing here is an attack on credibility itself.

The Russian dissident and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov drew upon long familiarity with that process when he tweeted: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

Charles J. Sykes, ”Why Nobody Cares the President Is Lying,“ New York Times, February 4, 2017

Correction to ‘Governmental Data Erasure’

I was motivated to write about governmental data erasure yesterday because of an Internet Archive tweet regarding the preservation of USDA documents, whose deletion seemed clearly related to the Trump administration’s erasure efforts in other areas, but I was wrong. My general point about politics and information still stands, but I should have sourced examples of data erasure and rescue more thoroughly. Moreover, in the apparently clearest-cut case of the EPA, there might be a gap between initial Trump administration impulses and present reality. Even that situation is in flux, as the sum of the following examples from generally reliable news sources suggests:

The uncertainty, even chaos of the past two weeks has negative implications for the attitude of many toward the media, even if the chief beneficiary of this confusion, the Trump White House, is also its author. In such circumstances, it is especially important for all of us to be as conscientious as possible when using and propagating information. I will certainly try to do better.

Governmental Data Erasure

The following piece contains an important error, which I have highlighted in yellow below. I have corrected the record in a follow-up post.

In the USSR, during certain periods, key individuals were erased from photographs and history when they fell out of favor. Trotsky was perhaps the most famous example. Such attempts to falsify images and textbooks for political ends went further, however. Historical reality itself—not just its interpretation and instruction—needed to bend to the regime’s will. Who knew that such crude reality-bending tools would be used in the United States in the 2010s by the party that credits the end of the Cold War to its hero, Ronald Regan?

The new administration’s erasure of data might be one of its most offensive actions thus far. If lives are not immediately threatened by it, the long term will be a different matter. But how to prove such harm when the time comes? Congressional prohibitions on research into the public health effects of gun violence have been effective so far.

At least there are capable individuals and organizations working to safeguard existing data, as in the case of the Internet Archive and recently erased USDA reports on animal welfare. But how did such a class of reports become too hot for certain politicians to handle?

We once punished tobacco companies for suppressing information, but our public servants actively suppress public health data that doesn’t comport with their worldview. Wouldn’t it make more sense to trust the public and to compete in the marketplace of hard data and ideas? And why not serve the public interest by supporting the research that organizations like the USDA, the CDC, the Department of Energy, and the EPA require to fulfill their missions?