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Alternative facts. Fake news. Media bubbles. It’s been a tough year for truth. And one man has led the charge against it.
Anyone who thought Donald Trump’s commitment world-class lying would ease once he entered office will have been deeply disappointed. But at least he’s consistent, and his recent speech announcing that the US would pull out of the Paris climate change agreement was typically mendacious.
As ever with Trump, there was much to be incredulous about. Here’s one dubious statement:
“Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree – think of that; this much – Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100. Tiny, tiny amount.” 1
Now, this is obviously bullshit. But not because of what he actually claimed. The reason it’s obviously bullshit is because Trump said it. While most, if not all, politicians are at ease with dishonesty – including his opponent in the last election, Hillary Clinton – Trump is different. When a normal person is serious about lying successfully, they calibrate their lies in relation to what they believe the truth to be. They think about what sounds plausible, what the target audience is likely to believe and already knows, and how easily the truth can be verified. Politicians are usually pretty good at this.
However, Trump’s style of lying typically swings free of any of these factors. Rather, it is spontaneous, brazen and without any veneer of plausibility. Hillary Clinton may well lie at a similarly impressive rate2, but at least she’s smart about it.
So, when Trump said that a full implementation of the Paris Agreement by all nations would only produce a two-tenths-of-a-degree Celsius temperature reduction by 2100, we can disregard the statement as probable bullshit because Trump said it, even though his talking points cite a study3 carried out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the potential impact of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Sure enough, following Trump’s speech, MIT issued a statement4 on behalf of the team who conducted the research to clarify things.
First, the ‘two-tenths of a degree’ figure represents the impact of the Paris Agreement compared with the Copenhagen Agreement on which it builds. If you compare the potential impact of the Paris Agreement to no agreement at all, you get a figure closer to one degree Celsius.
Second, the Paris Agreement only runs until 2030, and that one degree Celsius estimate assumes that no more climate commitments will be made after that. Presuming that countries get more ambitious in their commitments over time, it’s not unreasonable to hope that we could limit temperature increases by more than one degree.
So, Trump misused a scientific study to craft a piece of uncharacteristically sophisticated bullshit which was, nevertheless, unlikely to fool anyone who didn’t want to be fooled. If something glints in a bucket of coal, it’s probably safe to assume that it’s not a diamond. But, imagine if that speech had been delivered by Hillary Clinton. Not only would she not have interrupted herself with weird, unscripted asides; but that statement would also have sounded perfectly believable. So, how do we spot this kind of bullshit when it’s spoken by a normal person?
Just as the work of scientists can be misused to add a veil of credibility to the bullshit hidden within, so a scientific toolkit is the best way to lift the veil. And it’s not about scientific knowledge – understanding photosynthesis or thermodynamics won’t help you here (unless, the bullshit happens to be about photosynthesis or thermodynamics). It’s about thinking like a scientist, and using similar processes to help you figure out whether a claim is true. In science, when a claim is made, it’s put under the most intense possible scrutiny, and is only treated as fact if and when it survives that scrutiny. And even then, it’s always subject to change as new evidence becomes available.
“To be scientifically literate is to empower yourself to know when someone else is full of shit.” Neil deGrasse Tyson
So, whenever we hear a claim and we don’t know whether or not it’s true, the next move should be to put it under scrutiny using a similar process of critical thinking. And doing that has never been easier, since we now carry the entirety of human knowledge in our pockets. That’s right – smartphones aren’t just little black mirrors that light up with outrage, inane gossip and cat videos. We can also use them to check any claim against what we know to be true. That we can do this is truly extraordinary, not to mention powerful – if we would only make the most of it.
That said, we also need to remember that even when claims seem to check out, we can still get things wrong. We might misinterpret the information, misjudge the trustworthiness of the source, or assimilate information that is later superseded by better information. So we also need to take our verifications with a grain of salt, using them to build our knowledge while being open to new, better evidence in the future.
We should also ask sensible questions whenever we hear someone make a claim: How do they know that? Are they stating opinion as fact? Are they manipulating the statistics, or presenting them fairly? Are they putting political correctness ahead of the truth? Could they have an agenda? Have they been known to admit when they’re wrong, or do they double down? Only when we can repeatedly scrutinise a person in this way without a dent to their credibility should they be regarded as a trustworthy source of information.
Doing all this has another, rather large benefit. It greatly reduces the chances of being shown to be wrong in public, a situation that is unlikely to arise when we make a habit of taking the time to check the claims we hear before repeating them as fact. People who never check and always repeat quickly gain a reputation as being full of shit, even absent deliberate speciousness. But when we’re careful about what we believe and deliberate about what we say, we become more trustworthy. More knowledgeable. And, of course, much less impressionable.
If you enjoyed this essay, you can support me by sharing it with your friends. Building an audience is tough, so this really does help. Thanks in advance. JM
- http://chicago.suntimes.com/politics/transcript-trump-paris-climate-accord-exit-speech/ ↩
- http://www.politifact.com/personalities/hillary-clinton/statements/byruling/false/ ↩
- http://news.mit.edu/2016/how-much-difference-will-paris-agreement-make-0422 ↩
- http://news.mit.edu/2017/mit-issues-statement-research-paris-agreement-0602/ ↩