Are facts dead? Say it isn’t so

“We’ve got to be nicer to each other. A little more humility; a little more good faith . . .”

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These were a few solutions to the condition of the country today offered recently by Author Tom Nichols, during a Commonwealth Club talk titled “Are Facts Dead?” Facts may not be hopelessly dead, but Nichols fears for their survival. (He’s talking about Facts here. Established knowledge. “Alternative facts” seem unendangered.) Nichols maintains that the proliferation of fact-slayers has a lot to do with the rise of narcissism and its corresponding I-know-more-than-you-do assumption.

Nichols, Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and a CBS TV political analyst, is most recently the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Just to reinforce the fact that he falls into the category of expert himself, he is also a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion.

“The attack on expertise is part of the narcissistic trend,” he says; “but it’s also because people feel things are out of control. It becomes empowering to say ‘I don’t believe you’ – ‘I don’t believe the experts.’” Nichols readily admits that experts can be wrong. People like to point out ‘expert failure,’ to say, “Well, Thalidomide. Challenger.” You will never find an issue on which everyone was 100% right, he concedes, or a person who’s never made a mistake. But the denigration of experts and widespread refusal to accept known facts is a growing threat.

Tom Nichols & Melissa Caen 5.24.17

Tom Nichols with Melissa Caen

Moderator Melissa Caen, a political and legal analyst, TV personality and no slouch with facts and expertise herself, asked about Nichols’ students, and whether the problem of expert-doubting often starts with (adult) students.

“I tell my students,” Nichols says, “’You’re here to form opinions, not to have your opinions confirmed.’ The best weapon they can have, the most important skill to develop, is critical thinking. Rigid, ideological thinkers are easy to manipulate; critical thinkers are hard to manipulate.” Nichols can wax indignant about teachers who say they learn more from their students than their students learn from them. “I tell them NO! If they’re not learning far more from you then you’re not doing your job.”

The quick acceptance of any absurdity because it’s been pronounced on a TV show or an internet site, along with the doubting of experts is in no way confined to students, though. Non-facts, “alternative facts” and outright lies are being repeated over and over again by public figures today – encouraging people of all ages to accept them as truth. And this, Nichols believes, presents a very real threat to our democracy.

The only people who can keep things on track, Nichols argues, “are the voters. Ordinary citizens.” And it will help if they let experts do their job of getting at the facts. A little critical thinking on all sides might still keep civilization afloat.being nice

Meanwhile, maybe we should also try to be nicer to each other.

Art & the Protection of Democracy

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Schumaker with the writer

Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher, two San Francisco-based, nationally recognized artists whom this writer is proud to call friends, have been fighting depression – to put it mildly – since last November. It is of course political – everything’s political these days – but for Schumaker and Flesher (who are in fact married to each other,) it’s about much more than politics. It’s about  human rights, the future of the planet their 9-year-old grandson will inherit, and protection of our democracy.

I met Schumaker shortly before the closing of his latest show at San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery, for a brief talk about art and activism. (Sorry if you missed the show. You can still see his work at Fischer’s Potrero Street Gallery.) Does creating art help them deal with depression, I wondered?

Ward show 1“No. It’s just hard. But it’s what we do: get up in the morning, every day, and go to work at 8 AM.” Some extraordinary examples of Schumaker’s work were assembled for the latest show – creating them took about a year and a half, not all of which time was clouded in depression. My personal favorite is a piece titled “The cloud of unknowing.” Schumaker conceived the piece as a meditation, referencing the ancient (late 14th century) work of mysticism which suggests that contemplative prayer might lead to an understanding of the nature of God.

To mitigate their depression, however, Schumaker and Flesher are doing a little more than painting. They have created an assortment of postcards, some with messages on the front and some just featuring their original artwork. After printing out a stack of cards, they also printed out the names and addresses of every member of Congress, both Senate and House. (You can do the same, by following the links.) They keep these, along with a supply of 34-cent stamps, on their breakfast table, where every morning they enjoy coffee and The New York Times. When they find someone in Congress has done something positive, they send a thank-you postcard. Others get a card expressing disapproval.

Ward show 2Postcards take a little more time than a phone call or email, but are a powerful way to make one’s voice heard. Especially if one is worried about human rights, the future of the planet one’s grandchildren will inherit, and the protection of our democracy.

Plus: this is how democracy is protected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facts, Truth & Being Nice to One Another

Truth sign“Critical thinking,” says author Tom Nichols, “is that thing that says ‘Start asking questions. Don’t be afraid of where they go.’ It is okay to change your mind.”

Nichols, who has changed his mind more than once but has never not been a critical thinker, was in San Francisco recently promoting his latest book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. He is more than a little concerned that the acceptance of untruths and outright lies, and the increasing willingness to ignore experts on all subjects, is going to get our democracy into deep trouble.

“There’s been a change,” he says, “from ‘I doubt you; explain.’ to ‘I know more than you do.’”

Tom Nichols & Melissa Caen 5.24.17

Tom Nichols & interviewer Melissa Caen

Nichols is unquestionably an expert himself – a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, at the Harvard Extension School, a Sovietologist, and a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion (among a long list of other credentials on his Wikipedia page) – and sees many reasons for the death of expertise. A virtual epidemic of narcissism, for one; technology in many of its uses and abuses for another. But the danger of the “collapse of expertise,” he says, is that it can easily lead to mob rule. And poof, there goes democracy. Nichols is concerned, as he writes in The Death of Expertise, that “Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue.”

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was also in town recently, talking a good bit about facts and truth herself. Unsurprisingly, Pelosi feels there is not much respect for either in the present administration. She opened her remarks with a report on President Trump’s first meeting with congressional leaders. “The first thing the president said was, ‘Do you know I won the popular vote?’ Now first, that wasn’t relevant to what we were there for. And it wasn’t true.”

Nancy Pelosi & Scott Shafer 5.30.17

Pelosi with interviewer Scott Shafer of KQED

Pelosi repeatedly said she felt things could get done, including on many issues that would require  cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. “But we have to start with facts. Data. Truth.”

Nichols says the best way to get the facts – “the real story” – is to read multiple sources. (“I read the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal.”) And to those who would say, “I don’t have time,” Nichols has one answer: “Yes. You. Do.”

If the issues and the problems are complex, Nichols suggests that part of the answer is sublimely  simple: “We have to be nicer,” he says. “We have to believe we want the best for each other.”

That has, in a not-so-distant past still fondly recalled by more than a few Americans, been true.

 

 

 

Signs of Our Marching Times

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The March was intended to be about women’s rights – workplace rights, immigrant and minority rights, the right to make our own reproductive decisions, all those rights that suddenly seem threatened. It turned out to be a celebration of the spirit.

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It was hard to separate rights & purposes from our new president, and hard to ignore the mean-spiritedness that most marchers hope at least to diminish. But it turned out to be a celebration of everything he disdains.

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This writer has traditionally drawn the line at protest marching. In the past I’ve done talks, workshops, phone calls, emails, office visits and the occasional vigil; this year felt like it called for showing up. So along with several friends from the geezer house where I live, I struck out into the rainy San Francisco late afternoon along with a few hundred thousand others. Estimates vary, but we spilled into so many adjoining streets that 50,000 seems a minimal number.

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The signs say it all. Or a lot of it.

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If anyone’s spirits were dampened by the cold rain, you couldn’t tell. What you can tell, from the smiling faces among the umbrellas, is how it felt. Most of all, it was just heartening to be among all of the above, and among the many scattered signs saying “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.”

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Yossi Gurvitz on Flicker

A similar sign was photographed by Yossi Gurvitz in St. Paul’s Square during the Occupy London movement several years ago, a darker view of that phrase. But with enough joyful, celebratory gatherings such as those all around America on January 21, perhaps democracy will survive its current challenges — and look like government by the (sometimes jubilant) people.

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