When Did Facts Become Optional?

May 28, 2020

There is a cult of ignorance in the US…. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
– Isaac Asimov

Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post:

In a reflexive impulse to defy all experts and to glorify know-nothingism, President Trump and his cult followers made mask-wearing verboten for many who identify themselves as “conservative.” Like the Gadsden flag for the Tea Party, the unmasked face in the pandemic is now an identity statement for many in the MAGA crowd. It tells the world the person is anti-liberal, anti-media, anti-elite, anti-expert. When in public, Trump does his very best to not be seen in a mask, even if that means defying safety rules and state law.

Being anti-mask is entirely unnecessary politically, not to mention dangerous to one’s health. Super-majorities say they wear a mask and understand that it provides protection for others. Trump and his brand of Republicans now extol a habit that is risky, unpopular and emblematic of why so many Americans (e.g., the elderly, suburban women) have abandoned him.

Grant Woods, the former chief of staff to the late Sen. John McCain (R), told CNN’s Ron Brownstein: “If the Republican Party wants to continue to push in the direction of being anti-education, and they want to be the party of … the bigoted, then they are going to go down the drain in the Southwest, because that’s not what the Southwest is.” Nothing says anti-education like making refusal to wear a mask a defining symbol of your movement.

The irony of the mask defiance is that the mask is actually a symbol of personal responsibility, previously claimed as a Republican value. The Democrats have snatched that away faster than you can say PPE. At his daily news conference, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) proclaimed that wearing a mask is “cool” and unveiled the winners of a state contest to create a public service announcement urging mask use. “Government this, government that,” he said mocking the notion that the pandemic is fought by government. “Forget government. This whole trajectory is decided by people. It’s personal behavior.” The value of personal responsibility —government must leave us alone so people will do the right thing! — has now become a (capital “D”) Democratic value.

In essence, Republicans tell anyone who believes in basic science that they are chumps and stooges of the elites. That is not a great message to attract suburban mothers, high-tech millennials or older Americans who are especially vulnerable to contracting the virus. In one sense, mask repudiation is no different than Republicans flaunting their climate-change denial. But here, the defiance of consideration for others and rejection of science is visible without them uttering a word; the harm they would inflict on others is immediate and, in some cases, fatal.

A new USA Today/Ipsos poll shows that “1 in 5 teachers say they are unlikely to go back to school if their classrooms reopen in the fall, a potential massive wave of resignations.” The majority of teachers are women. They have not lost their love of teaching; they are understandably afraid. And they are not alone. “A separate poll of parents with at least one child in grades K-12 finds that 6 in 10 say they would be likely to pursue at-home learning options instead of sending back their children this fall.”

6 Responses to “When Did Facts Become Optional?”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    Excellent interview with Tom Nichols, a bit long but it gets better as it progresses, especially after the 9:00 mark. I have touted The Death of Expertise before as a must read, and haven’t changed my mind—-Nichols nails it.

    • jimbills Says:

      Agree about the time to watch there – @9:00 to 12:00. It rambles in parts otherwise.

      Nichols describes motivated reasoning without actually saying the term. The problem with it, though, is that motivated reasoning is not a bug in humanity – it’s a feature. We’ve always had it, so there’s no ‘when’ involved here. Social media makes it worse, but it would exist in any case.

      To question the expert myself, mildly narcissistic admittedly, Nichols then seems to discount motivated reasoning when predicting future trends such an anti-vaxx. For instance, the majority will want that vaccine, but then the majority has always supported vaccination. But Covid-19 won’t make the anti-vaxxers themselves go away. If anything, I think they’ll be louder when the time comes. Motivated reasoning won’t magically disappear.

      The poll mentioned in an earlier post should be deeply concerning:

      48% of Democrats either think or unsure that Bill Gates will use a vaccine to track people. 75% of Republicans think that.

      While individuals can approach rationality on certain subjects, we’re not actually rational as a species:

      ‘“The desire to impose rationality, to make people or society more rational,” he writes, “mutates … into spectacular outbursts of irrationality.”’

      That’s a clearer descriptor of what would happen if, for instance, vaccination was mandated. Mandatory vaccination is the most rational course, but we’d have an explosion of irrational behaviors if that happened.

  2. doldrom Says:

    Well yes, BUT …

    I was appalled end of Feb/Mar when public health authorities were lecturing about how face masks did not work or were even counter-productive. Despite the obvious question: Why, then, do they exist? I spoke with several people about how they were going to reverse themselves on this after convincing the public of the opposite.

    When I was disinfecting the door knobs at the office end of Feb onlookers were amused and looked on in disbelief, but official policy (mirroring national policy) was to do nothing. Now, when the whole epidemic is waning and it’s clearly a little too late, there are gel stations at every door and for the elevator, even though the office remains closed. My wife, who works at an institution with old people, suggested many times there, stimulated by me, to institute gated admission and compulsory sanitizer, but was rebuffed by management. The entire population was exposed, with a few deaths, and she and I contracted Corona. But now, after the fact, they have done exactly what she suggested in February when this was ramping up in Italy.

    Where I live, public health authorities have still not acknowledged asymptomatic transmission.

    The whole episode has completely destroyed my faith in the competence of the so-called public health/virus experts and authorities.

    • Keith Omelvena Says:

      A certain percentage of the population can be expected to lie through their teeth, regardless of the letters after their name. Personal gain, ideology, not actually knowing all the facts in their chosen field, inflated ego, all contribute to clouding the facts of any situation. Not only that, but what could be considered a “fact”, also changes with time, as more information becomes available.

  3. Ironic that the gun-toting, right-wing, vigilante, MAGA hat wearers can’t conceal their identities with face masks anymore.

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