I wonder what Rachael Carson, biologist, nature writer, truth teller and mother of environmentalism in America, would make of the “post-truth” era of Donald Trump and the Trumpian Republican Party? She’d probably say it’s no different than the corporate propaganda that attacked her so viciously when she first published “Silent Spring” in 1962 and revealed the reality of dire, life-threatening pollution as the “price of doing business” in our country. How seriously can a scientist take a pseudo-philosophy of knowledge like “post-truth” that puts research, double blind experiments, other rigorous methods of hypothesis testing, solid reporting and historiography and all the mathematical might of modern computer modeling on the same level of reality as mob opinion, political and commercial propaganda and age-old logical fallacies that every school kid should know by heart?
In a Trumpian world, the tools of “post-truth thought” match exactly with the tools of fallacy, deceit, swindling and coercion. Logical fallacies have been studied and catalogued since at least the days of Aristotle, nearly 2300 years ago. They were the staple of a classical education that only lost favor in the beginnings of the information age at the close of the Victorian era.
The most famous logical fallacy is basing an argument on a personal attack of an opponent’s character. This is known as an “ad hominem” attack, which Present Trump has mastered in his tweeting, inventing bad names for everyone from Kim Jung Un and Hillary Clinton to Senator Ted Cruz and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It’s the crudest form of intentional fallacy.
Rachael Carson, after “Silent Spring” was serialized in the New Yorker, received so many ad hominem attacks it became almost funny. A biochemist for hire by the chemical industry called Carson a “fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature” — ecology in other words. And former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson dismissed her as probably a “communist” because she had never married. Being called a “communist” even in the 1960s was no laughing matter. That’s post-truth rubbish almost as foul as the president’s ad hominem attack on immigrants from Mexico as rapists and criminals.
Trump’s entire immigration policy is based on the fallacy of the “slippery slope” — “give ‘em an inch, and they’ll take a mile” — a backwards kind of “domino theory” that caused such ruination in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and ’70s. Keep everyone out, the argument goes. Let one in, and you’ve got the whole damn family coming in next, immigration bigots have been heard to mutter. Another fallacy known as the “hasty generalization,” conclusions based on little or biased evidence, is floated in post-truth arguments against the science of climate change. How can the earth be getting hotter if winters are getting colder on the eastern U.S.? That proves the work of thousands of scientists around the world is all biased bunk, the deniers claim.
Rachel Carson, who almost single-handedly at first helped turn complacent Americans into passionate conservationists and anti-pollution warriors, would also have been attacked using the “genetic fallacy,” a close relative to ad hominem that urges us to “consider the source” of an argument, not its logical precision and content. In immigration disputes, the genetic fallacy automatically dismisses the ideas, principles and policy proposals of anyone, any country, any group of refugees who have been dragged in the ad hominem mud. As we know, once accused of almost anything, the taint is virtually permanent, even if it’s show to be blatant baloney.
Either/or fallacies are a dime a dozen, and every side of any argument has the potential to run afoul of them. When Carson revealed that corporate research, manufacturing and products had a dark side associated with pollution and dangers to public health, the cry from the chemical industry was to the effect that the choice was either DDT or destruction of a whole industry and massive unemployment. There were, and are, obviously vastly more than two options.
“Straw man” fallacies are perhaps the greatest weapon in the post-truth world. Misrepresent an opponent’s argument and data, and then attack the misrepresentation as if they actually said it. With Carson, the straw man was the fabrication that she wanted to ban all pesticides and return us to the dark ages where bugs and vermin rule the world. Her arguments had nothing to do with advocating the end of biochemistry, just the indiscriminate and non-specific use of certain chemicals that kill “pests” and everything else they touch.
There are well more than a couple dozen of such logical fallacies identified in the ancient world and that form the structure and fabric of post-truth politics in America today. Rachel Carson, herself, dodged and parried most of them during her career. The author of highly popular scientific “histories” of the world’s oceans, as well as being the first to publicly reveal the dangers of pollution from the chemical industry, Carson spent her life in the struggle to advance the public’s “right to know” what both government and business were doing to our lives and health. She investigated the impact of manufacturing on the environment and the various linkages between radiation, chemical pollution and cancer. Carson died of a heart attack and complications from breast cancer in 1964 at age 56.
Carson never minced words. She wrote, “The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world — the very nature of its life.”
Rachel Carson is a hero to many environmentalist and public health activist because of her pioneering battle with the enormous arsenal of post-truth, fallacious propaganda techniques used by the military-industrial complex to obfuscate the dangers of nuclear weapons development and by corporate interests and extractive industries to dodge well-documented revelations of product pollution and incompetent or criminal hazardous waste disposal. Carson was always interested in the ultimate consequences of modern invention and technology, both intended and unintended. And she thought we had the right to know the truth that an open debate would provide us.
How do we combat the post-truth fallacies of intentional deceit today? What is the standard of veracity one should follow? Carson would have said, I think, that the first level of navigating post-truth “truth” is trying to find the bias and self-interest of the opponent’s point of view. I’ve always thought that NGOs, staffed by people with no financial interest in their science or advocacy, were on the face of it more trustworthy than the hirelings of profit-makers and researchers in the lower orders of the chain of command.
Another method that I think Carson would have enjoyed is something called “explanatory depth.” In an essay in the new book “This Idea is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know,” edited by John Brockman, psychologist Adam Waytz writes of “the Illusion of Explanatory Depth,” meaning that most of us think we know more than we do, which is innocent enough when compared to self-interested enterprises that pretend to know more than they really do. And how do you find out folks are under the illusion of explanatory depth or are maliciously faking it? Just ask them to explain their declarations of knowledge. Do you know how your refrigerator works? Well, yes, of course. Would you explain it to me? Well, you plug it in and…..” Or in a climate change debate, compare the body of data produced by thousands of researchers to the fragile research and opinions of the deniers and one can see and compare the levels of illusion and the depths of conclusion that present themselves. It’s not rocket science, as they say, but it is a pretty easy-to-use bullshit detector, which is not infallible, of course, but close enough to be trusted over steaming piles of you know what.
Post-truth is the same old, same old abuse of knowledge that those in power, or those seeking power but nothing else, have used since the first liar raised his eyebrows, crossed his fingers and told a fib with turned out to be a whopper. Rachel Carson fought against deceit as we’re fighting against it now, and generations to come will fight it. Sometimes, of course, we descend into using fallacies ourselves, without intent it is hoped, but still with self-destructive foolishness. What distinguishes Rachel Carson and other heroes we look to in this dismal time is that not only has she proved to be right, but she did so with a pure motive, a clear conscience and an awareness that was innocent of the intent to deceive.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Charley Harper imagery by dullshick.)