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Of belief and power

Ted Nield as MCresized.jpgBelief – of the blind rather than the reasoned sort – enjoys an unwarrantedly high status in our supposedly modern culture.  We are encouraged constantly, especially by wish-fulfilment dramas emanating from the dream factory, to subscribe to the notion that for a thing to become real, it is necessary only to believe strongly enough in it; and that failures of reality can always be ascribed to a failure of belief.  If you build it, they will come, and all that.  Yet, reality does not care what we believe.  Despite what J M Barrie would have children think, believing - even fervently believing - in fairies doesn’t make them real.

So, welcome to the new age of evidence-free belief.  Welcome to conviction politics, where zealots no longer feel bound to acknowledge experts – those hated liberal élitists presumably defined as anyone who has voluntarily read a book.  Welcome to the age in which one can even gain positive electoral advantage by admitting as much.  Welcome to the age of Kellyanne Conway and her ‘alternative facts’.

At least the Trumpocene has one advantage over the Anthropocene: nobody will be in any doubt when it started.  The White House website was gutted of references to many things including climate change almost immediately after the inauguration.  For the US Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture, it started on 24 January, when they were banned from talking to the press and posting social media updates.  As the climate of fear grows, my colleagues in US magazines are reporting privately that even National Science Foundation staff are unsure to whom they can and cannot speak.

There is a quotation, much repeated, that goes: “In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.  (There are variations.)  Since 1982, it has been commonly attributed to George Orwell, though this is (according to experts) another ‘alternative fact’.  Nobody has ever been able to trace it in the great man’s oeuvre.  But leaving aside matters of attribution, the thought stands. 

As more gagging orders are issued, and they will be, affecting more and more Federal agencies, scientists everywhere will have a stark choice to make.  Truth-telling has always been revolutionary, because in the end truth will always trump belief.  Because, as Richard Feynman famously said in his Challenger Disaster report: ‘Nature isn’t fooled’. 

Viva la revolucion!

DR TED NIELD NUJ FGS, EDITOR, @TedNield @geoscientistmag