The saddest part is that there isn’t much we can do about it at this point

1. I am finding myself in the middle of the first complete presidential campaign, with no incumbent in the running, since I came to the US. Of course, a lot of it feels unfamiliar. First and foremost the mind-boggling realisation that the contest would be taking more than 1.5 years to play out rather than a more efficient and sanity-preserving 2-4 months. There’s the ubiquitous rule of money, and of quite advanced techniques of manipulation; the veritable hate-fests, when the supporters of primary candidates turn on each other. Well, the last bit may not be so different from Europe, but everything takes place quite out in the open here, so it feels harsher than in the previous three countries where I’ve lived and, to the extent I was allowed to, voted.

Here, of course, I am a non-citizen with no rights. Maybe this lack of agency makes it harder to cope. But I can write.

And then we had the extraordinary weakness of the Republican slate, which was in tune with the pretty remarkable approach the party’s elected representatives at the federal level have been taking: to practice near-complete obstruction of the political process and then point to the result as proof that government doesn’t work. (It seems like cheating to me…) My niggling suspicion is that even a disaffected, conservative electorate that is sceptical of government does, indeed, want something to get done.

So, an opening appeared, and in this opening moved Donald Trump. A rich man who inherited millions, a reality TV star and entrepreneur with mixed successes and a trail of lawsuits and disgruntled business partners, turned political dilettante. A “strong man” type, too, and an authoritarian nationalist with no consideration for principle. A guy who pestered president Obama for weeks over his birth certificate but won’t release his own tax forms.

And, of course, a man whose interests are completely opposed to those who now follow him: a representative of the very class whose good fortunes have been achieved on the backs of those who experience the stagnation of their families’ life chances. The only thing he’s going to do for their well-being is to remove psychological barriers, give them permission to cast themselves as victims of a rigged system and of the more recent groups of immigrants in a country founded on immigration. Oh, and white supremacists are celebrating.

2. This kind of opening is nothing new of course. We’ve seen a few of these in Europe. Berlusconi. Le Pen. Successive xenophobic law-and-order parties in Germany, which are hoovering up the latent neo-Nazis to varying degrees. The Brexit vote in the UK.

It isn’t hard to recognise the signs of a modern fascist gaining traction. The ingredients are: a real, diffuse, reasonably widespread feeling of disaffection and powerlessness on the part a good swath of the electorate; and on the side of the candidate, a cynical willingness to lie baldly, to double down on criticism instead of responding to it, to stoke — even invent — fears, to push the buttons of law-and-order sentiments, to paint your opponent as the enemy, to find and relentlessly exploit scapegoats.

3. Every democratic system has at its core an area of consensus. It’s not set in stone and can, bit by bit, be changed, but the debate about the contours of the consensus is itself part of democratic culture: can we still be who we are without, say, freedom of speech? without the due process of law? can we be who want to be if we have a death penalty? mass surveillance? This is healthy stuff, and it’s the healthier the more citizens are participating in the debate.

And it’s a debate that can get pretty bruising. So there must be opportunities to heal. Shared cultural experiences. Rites of passage. In the US, displays of patriotism. In Europe, displays of allegiance to a national sports team (or, by golly, a singing competition). As bulwarks of democracies go, these look woefully weak. But they are what we have.

And candidates who throw this consensus overboard tear deep down into the fabric that holds together a democracy.

Trump was scary  when he first showed up, but he really moved up when it became clear he could win. If citizens vote the way polls look right now, a majority of white voters will vote for him. As will either a majority or a large plurality, close to 50%, of male voters. It’s pretty hard to believe.

4. The saddest part is that there isn’t much we can do about it at this point.

Faced with this situation, the level threat to our social contract, my friends’ and my reactions have taken on a quasi-feverish urgency. We have a need to analyse and understand, so we read and share and comment. We also have a need to bond, and reassure each other that, no, we aren’t crazy and something extraordinary is going on. So we point out lies and shake our heads over transgressions of what we thought were part of the core consensus.

These things must be said of course. If we don’t, the vacuum will be filled, and  hate and discrimination will become more acceptable. At a minimum, our texts will be read by the teenagers who can’t vote yet and those few who are currently in search of ethical and intellectual guidelines for how to evaluate what politicians do. And maybe we can give our Trump-supporting relatives a small pause.

But as far as stopping the train in motion is concerned, these things don’t really make much of a dent. Many good people with principles will not vote for him anyway. If they are leaning towards conservatism, they may abstain, or vote for the Libertarian candidate, maybe. Some Republicans will hold their nose and vote for Clinton, like the French Socialists, Centrists and many Communists did in 2002, when Le Pen made it into the presidential run-off round against Chirac. (Chirac ended up getting elected with 82% of the vote. Back then, we thought 18%  for the fascist was a disgrace.)

All of these are merely stop-gap measures, though. I know of only one way the build-up of persistent right-wing populist movements has ever been toppled: by going into a catastrophe and coming out at the other end. The UK is facing the Brexit vote fallout right now. And even that path doesn’t guarantee the problem won’t reappear forthwith.

5. What really needs to happen isn’t something Clinton will achieve. Nor would Sanders have been able to, though I’m glad he ran a sufficiently effective campaign to have some of his ideas enter the mainstream. It’s also not something that can be done before the election.

As I see it, there are two things that need to happen. One is an economic turnabout. The fruit of economic growth, or even simply of economic activity, of productivity, automation etc. have increasingly been moved away from salaries into profits. Away from the the people as a whole, into the pockets of a very small number of very rich people. Who can stop this? I don’t know. (Here is some food for thought, in the meantime.).

The other one is to reanimate the  political culture, and that means to talk with the fascists. Not Trump and his operatives, but those who are voting for him, or at least some of them. Where there’s common ground, and real problems to solve, it can be done. But that won’t cover all of it: some of our neighbours are saying ugly and harmful things right now. The ideas that have now become acceptable again are, truly, objectionable. I know why I think xenophobia is wrong. I know that my co-workers who are Muslim or black or members of other minorities-under-suspicion don’t deserve any less than anyone else.

Changing people’s attitudes isn’t easy, but possible. There are precedents. When I was a child, there was a moment when I realised that for my grandmother’s generation, France was “the hereditary enemy”. What a silly idea, a hereditary enemy, I thought. I was maybe 10. France, for me, was where kids from richer families than mine got to go on vacation. A country with sun and elegant clothes and good food. And hey, my home town was twinned with one from there, so there were opportunities for exchange trips and summer vacation encounters.

This change of minds was, of course, the fruit of the cataclysm of WWII, plus some very deliberate policy choices. Someone paid for and managed all those twinned towns, and language classes and exhibitions. It was worth it, a hundred times over. (Hereditary enemy! Just imagine…)

Similarly, in less than a generation, gays and lesbians, through coming out and being visible, have in a very short time made remarkable progress in the degree to which our lives are deemed acceptable by the straight mainstream. Some of my neighbours may still not be sure whether they “approve of homosexuality” in the abstract — probably… not? — but they know me, they know my partner and me, and we’re part of the community. It’s good enough. We got heaps of congratulations when we got married. (I admit, I was surprised by some.)

How to pull people back from xenophobia, from brash rejection of anything that isn’t “real America”, from a string-them-up attitude: I don’t know. It’s maybe not possible until the poisonous yelling has cooled down somewhat. But what I do know is that we have to be firm in our values, in sticking to the democratic core consensus, justice, anti-racism, equality and so on. I saw a word cloud of the Twitter feed directed at Mr. Trump’s wife, and it was mostly made up of slurs that are derogatory synonyms of “prostitute”. Misogyny is wrong, whoever the target. It’s in the fascists’ interest to operate a race to the bottom, and I’m not going to comply.

Satire, cartoons, pointed formulations have their function, but it is mostly to keep ourselves sane. They also can have a price.

6. And in the long run? Could we rebuild those democratic cultures? Could we commit to the idea that education — at all levels — is something we as a society want to pay for, and not only because it improves an individual student’s chances of getting a better job (though it does that too), but for the tools for thinking the student is getting access to? And that we fund the arts and sciences (and legal and social services and…), and not only because it’s something that generates job growth (though it does that too), but because it’s something a society, a culture does?

I’d like to see a time when someone who finishes required schooling can be expected to have thought about how the components of their government work and complement each other; has written essays or given presentations about what sentences are appropriate for what crime; knows how to check the truth of a claim, and can distinguish an ideological from a factual statement; understands how rhetorics works for persuasion and marketing. Not to favour any particular opinion: as far as I’m concerned they can come down on the side of the death penalty (which I abhor) and get an A+, but they must have grappled with a variety of mutually contradicting arguments and appreciated the difficulty of coming down for any one particular side.

7. So if Americans ask the question “how could so many X support Y?”, they should now know. And X and Y don’t have to be “Germans” and “Hitler”, though of course it does apply precisely. It happens in many places, and it’s not an easy thing to overcome. I hope we all make it through this.

The credibility of science news: how to find out if a newspaper article is trustworthy

Last week a piece of science news popped up: The jet stream had apparently crossed the equator and thus created a “climate emergency” that announced a catastrophic collapse of the food supply. It sounded preposterous, but as what little climate expertise I have is limited to the northern latitudes (I’m not an atmospheric scientist), I didn’t think I could do more than make skeptical noises against the many quotes and re-tweets the articles received on social media. The claims were invalidated a day later in, eg. “Claim that jet stream crossing equator is ‘climate emergency’ is utter nonsense” in the Washington Post or “No, the Earth’s jet streams are not spinning out of control” in Ars Technica.

Meanwhile the original piece made its way, substantially unaltered, from relatively niche media into mainstream outlets such as the Independent. Nonetheless, it is possible to spot junk science a little earlier on, if we give some thought to how to assess how much trust we should place into a piece of science reporting. Here are, roughly, the steps that I follow.

Step 1: Who is reporting, and more importantly, what are their sources? Yes, I usually look at the context before I look at the content. Unfortunately, you will find junk science reported in the most reputable papers, and reliable facts in niche magazines, even in magazines with a political slant. Still, overall there is a small credibility bonus on news that is reported by a variety of outlets, including big mainstream ones.

The real reason I look at the source first, though, is to figure out two things: a) is it from a peer-reviewed journal, and if the not, what else? b) did the journalist rely on a single source or get multiple statements to elucidate the topic?

The first point is less meaningful than many think. Unreliable results are published in peer-reviewed journals every day (and that’s not even necessarily a bad thing), while a huge amount of great science news comes from non-peer-reviewed sources: a volcano is erupting; a new particle accelerator just started service; a rare bird was spotted; a spacecraft is flying by a comet; the previous month broke weather records. It doesn’t even have to be a professional source to be credible, but one thing to keep in mind is whether the source and the content are compatible: amateur astronomy or zoology is a thing, but amateur particle physics really isn’t; and a lab result that would question everything we know about the chemistry of life should come from a peer-reviewed source, and not be published via press release.

The second test, however, is a pretty clear-cut one. Good news has corroborating voices from other members of the discipline. In the “jet stream crossing the equator” case, the original reports relied on blog posts and videos from an instructor at the University of Ottawa who has yet to get his PhD in climatology, and from an author of, it seems, climate catastrophe fiction. Far be it from me to belittle the expertise of PhD candidates — being one myself — but no corroborating voices were cited in the piece, even though the discipline is chock-full with established scientists who are only too ready to be interviewed.

Step 2: Does it pass the smell test? That is, does it, just overall, feel plausible? Another news item I saw last week reported on a skeleton found on the shores of Loch Ness. In the accompanying picture, the pile of bones didn’t look like any wild animal carcass I’ve ever seen, but like something form a butcher’s shop. The rib cage was about cow-sized, probably two or three individual animals’ worth. So… probably not Nessie, right?

This test, however, must be wielded with care. We all have a tendency to nod along with news that reinforce what we already believe — either from what we were taught about the world, or from our general philosophy — and to be skeptical about what contradicts it. This is called confirmation bias, and it’s strong and insidious. So we first need to take a hard look at the contours and limits of our expertise.

One reason the “jet stream” news went mildly viral is, I think, that it lay barely outside the knowledge of reasonably educated people and was playing into their confirmation bias caused by perfectly reasonable worry about the impact of human-caused climate change. At the same time, my own — relative — expertise did trigger my bullshit detector. What the images (from Cameron Beccario’s excellent visualization of global meteorology) showed was a stream of air that crossed the equator north-south. It seemed implausible to me that you cannot ever have northerly wind when you stand on the equator. Furthermore, while the impact of climate change on the jet stream has been in the news lately, those reports were about the polar jet, not the much weaker mid-latitude jets.

Step 3: What is the tone of the report? Two types of science reports make my senses tingle: horror stories and feel-good news. Reliable science reporting isn’t out to speak first and foremost to our emotions, but to help us understand something about the physical world. Of course, once we have understood it, we’re perfectly at liberty to attach an emotional value to it. Some things are genuinely frightening (or hopeful). But an article about, say, landslide hazard in some area of the world needs to talk facts and rules and laws and models and model uncertainty. Even if the outcome is “shit, someone needs to get these people out of there ASAP”. Climate change and food supply are a huge, and scary, problems, but fear is at best a motivator to work harder at a solution, not a helpful contribution.

A different red flag goes up if the article’s tone is mocking or dripping with scientific superiority. For news from some disciplines, like agricultural bio, it has become rare to find news that aren’t trying to influence your attitude to further a political goal. More generally, the attitude is annoying and unhelpful. Yes, I, too, share the opinion that anti-vaccination attitudes are harmful, but a text that excoriates them, will not — not any longer — teach anyone anything new.

Step 4: Do I have people with more expertise in my social network? So let’s say you’ve gone through steps 1 to 3 and are still not sure what to think. Maybe you know someone else who does! I’m frequently astonished about the breadth and depth of expertise among my Facebook friends and Twitter network. Instead of re-posting the article with the caption “OMG the food supply is going to hell”, why not try “Hmm, this would be pretty bad if it’s true. Does anyone have some insight?”

Step 5: Maybe just… wait a little while?  It’s a humbling thought, but if the jet streams are going to crap, chances are neither you nor I will be the ones whose social media post is going to save the world. If the report is true, it would with near certainty be picked it up. NOAA or the UK Met Office or the German weather service (DWD). The major science writers would dig into it. Within a few days, we’ll all have a much more complete account of what’s going on. And then we can panic. (And if they don’t, it’s still ample time to find out why not.)

So the bottom line is: If the report is from a single unconfirmed source, and sensational (be it positive or negative!), it’s time to send it out for a second opinion.