What Trumps Truth?

May 23, 2016

Tomorrow (Tuesday) evening at 8pm EDT, Lindsay Beyerstein will reprise an updated version of her popular CFI talk On Bullshit live as a web event. Registrants can also hear the event following its broadcast, but the live version will enable give-and-take with Ms. Beyerstein in real time. You can register here.  Some readers have written to question whether this means CFI is taking political sides. We don’t. However, we do investigate phenomena related to public discourse, skepticism, and public policy, and this campaign season has afforded us some interesting opportunities to look into all of these.  I asked Lindsay to describe the motivation for her talk, and here is what she provided -

“The Center for Inquiry is dedicated to promoting critical thinking and skeptical values. Donald Trump’s primary win has called some of our most basic assumptions about politics into question. Whether or not you support Trump for president, the fact remains that his relationship to the truth is anomalous, even by the standards of politicians. What are we to make of a presumptive Republican nominee who asserts that President Obama was born in Kenya, that vaccines cause autism, and that Ted Cruz’s father had a hand in the Kennedy assassination? How are we to understand Trump’s pledge to build a border wall that even some of his Congressional endorsers admit is unbuildable? Conflicting perceptions of Trump hint at deeper divisions in our society. Countless op/eds and man-on-the-street interviews praise Trump’s willingness to speak without thinking. Where his critics see a reckless disregard for the truth, his supporters see evidence of sincerity. “We keep hearing from the Trump-naysayers that’s Trump’s mouth is a problem. But where you see a loudmouth, I see candor,” wrote Trump supporter A.J. Delgado. Harry Frankfurt’s classic essay gives us a framework for understanding a candidate who seems to break all the rules. Thirty years ago, Frankfurt warned us that bullshit was ultimately more pernicious than lying because bullshitting fosters contempt for the truth. Trump’s candidacy illustrates the consequences of unchecked bullshit. We’ve reached a point where neither the candidate nor a plurality of the electorate care whether his rhetoric coheres with reality. That is a deeply worrying trend for our democracy. If we abandon our commitment to argument and evidence, we are left with tribalism and brute force.”

We have had readers in the past complain about our lack of continued skepticism about, say, anthropogenic climate change and the examples that Ms. Beyerstein raises above are analogous. Where public statements run counter to well-established history or scientific consensus, they become fair game for criticism from a skeptical viewpoint. There have certainly been other candidates in the past whose well-vetted connections to the truth have been tenuous at best, on either side of the political spectrum. To my knowledge none with as severe challenges to truth telling has become a major party’s nominee. The webinar, as with the in-person talk of the same name given at CFI to a very appreciative audience, is well-researched, highly engaging, closely-tied with the range of topics we regularly engage with at CFI, and completely sourced. The live web event will also provide attendees an excellent opportunity to engage with the topic and the speaker live as it occurs.

              I have written here in the past about how humanists can range across the political spectrum, and given examples of those who are conservative and others who are liberals. Versions of my arguments to that effect have also appeared in Free Inquiry. I stand by that argument and those claims. But in Trumpism we have a very new phenomenon. A showman willing to say pretty much anything, contradicting himself frequently, and contradicting well-established historical facts with ease, who has gained a very large following and who stands a real chance of winning the presidency. I expect we will have more to say about the Trump phenomenon as the election draws near. Then, as now, our interests are educational, and related to our ongoing mission to promote scientific naturalism, skepticism, and humanism, not to advocate for any particular candidate or party.