Epistemology and Donald Trump

Sciencedebate.org, which is backed by about a bazillion scientific organizations has published the answers of the presidential candidates on twenty questions that revolve around issues that are on the border of science and politics (for example climate change.)  You can find all the answers here, although I don’t think any of them are going to surprise anyone.  Clinton’s answers look like they were put together by a PhD policy wonk committee and Trump’s look pretty much like his tweets.  But that you could already figure out.

In his last answer, Trump says something that at first seems jaw droppingly stupid, but turns out to be quite a conundrum.  Here is the question and answer:

20. Scientific Integrity

Evidence from science is the surest basis for fair and just public policy, but that is predicated on the integrity of that evidence and of the scientific process used to produce it, which must be both transparent and free from political bias and pressure. How will you foster a culture of scientific transparency and accountability in government, while protecting scientists and federal agencies from political interference in their work?

Trump’s Answer:

Science is science and facts are facts.  My administration will ensure that there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias.  The American people deserve this and I will make sure this is the culture of my administration.

“Science is Science and facts are facts” at first seems so self evident (and so opposite of Trump’s problems with actually relating to facts) that it is laughable.  But hiding underneath that is a problem that philosophers have been struggling with for millennia and I am currently trying to get across to my critical thinking students, epistemology.

Epistemology is a big word (which Trump is probably unfamiliar with) which deals with the question of how we know what we know and what is knowledge.  And it turns out that, after all is said and done, “science” is not Science and “facts” are not Facts.

When I was in high school, I was taught the “solar system” model of the atom, which at once a simplification of the current theory and an older theory (Google images for “general science” and see how many solar system atoms you see!).  The electron cloud model has replaced this.

Was the former model (and my knowledge of it) a “fact?”  Is the new model a “fact?”  Some years from now will a science website put of a picture of an electron cloud with the legend, “This is what an electron is not!”?  Philosophers debate endlessly about what all this means, but I can assure you that almost nobody (other than religious philosophers) are willing to argue that there is something call Truth with a capital “T.”

And the same is true with “science.”  For the moment, I won’t quibble about the difference between science as a method and the results (and infrastructure) of that method.  For the moment, I am referring to science as the latter: people in white coats, collecting and publishing data and drawing conclusions.

The scientific method is certainly a wondrous thing, but what we call “science” is certainly not Science! (with a capital S).  The scientific method has many safeguards built in which are supposed to reduce or eliminate various kinds of bias, but because science is done by actual humans, we find many clever ways to allow that bias right back in and even create new biases.

Publication bias is a perfect example of a new bias that the infrastructure that is “science” has created.  Positive (and newsworthy!) results get published and negative results get set aside.  In  a similar way, more research is probably done on profitable drugs than unprofitable.  Money, politics, ego and who knows what else introduce biases that prevent “science” from ever being Science!

From the other end of the spectrum, Neil deGrasse Tyson said that what we need is a country where all decisions are “data driven.”  His idea was roundly booed from all sides, and rightly so.  What even counts as “data?”  Trying to determine what the “real” unemployment rate is turns out to be a very thorny problem.  Yes, some methodologies are much more defensible than others, but none is perfect.  How do we make “data driven” decisions when the data itself is subject to doubt?

Here is a minor example I came across today — the harm to humans from wind farms (Say what? you might ask…).  Here is a report that says wind turbines can be harmful to human health, and here is another which reaches pretty much the opposite conclusion:  “the scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects.”  They both look very “scientific,” So which data should we heed?

This is not to say that complete skepticism is a useful position either.  Philosophers say that “knowledge” is a “justified, true belief.”  Even if we allow that there may be no such thing as “absolute truth” we can effectively substitute “corresponds with reality” for “truth” in the above formulation, which we can say conforms with our current understanding of the world.

 So, then we can say that while the jury may be out on how much harm wind farms cause humans, there is pretty good data that shows it is more dangerous to live next to an oil refinery than to a wind turbine.  Or at least I would hope so.  Using the best available information is the “justified” part of the definition above, even as we concede that such “knowledge” is by definition imperfect.

So, while it is not really true that “science is science and facts are facts” we can move forward on various issues on the basis of scientific consensus.  When a vast amount research, using a variety of methods from different disciplines point in the same direction we are clearly “justified” in calling that knowledge and moving forward with that “knowledge,” even if it might be overturned later.  Business forecasting is notoriously unreliable, but businesses push forward with their plans all the time none the less with the best information at hand.  Society and government should do the same as well. 

A classic example of this is the case for human caused climate change.  Do we have a ton of information, from a wide variety of sources and disciplines that are all pointing in the same direction?  Indeed we do.  Given that the predicted outcomes of these trends are unfavorable in the long term, should we take action?  That is clearly a justified “scientific” belief.   Well, except for the guy who said that “Science is science and facts are facts.”

Trump has famously said that climate change science is a hoax invented and perpetrated by the Chinese.  So, even when he spews what look like innocuous platitudes, Trump is both lying and straddling both sides of the issue.

Trump doesn’t believe that “science is science” but not in the way that philosophers would object.  What he really means is “Science I like is real science and the rest of it is crap that we don’t need to listen to.”  Which, unfortunately is a view that many people hold about science and no amount of philosophizing  on epistemology or transparency on the part of scientists is ever going to change.


  1. quotetheunquote says

    Hi –

    I just looooove those “I’m all right, jack, nothing to see here…” protesters in that photo! I invite them to duck into a room full of, say, 20% oxygen and 80% carbon dioxide, and see how well they do…

  2. says

    Well, if Clinton’s answer looks like it was put together by a committee, it probably was. Which means you don’t know what she actually knows and believes, you know what a committee knows and believes for her. That’s a huge improvement over Trump, of course, because in Trump’s case you actually know what he knows and believes at any given instant. He’s happy to tell you. Because it doesn’t matter at all.

    I’d actually like a president who knew what they knew and believed what they believed and it was roughly in line with scientific consensus. That sure would be nice. Up is up, down is down, that sort of stuff.

    • says

      I think it’s fairly unlikely that any president will ever understand anything other than how to hang on to a political position. That’s just how the system is wired. The best we can hope for is someone who will heed the advice of people who know what they’re doing.

  3. says

    I think Hillary would agree with them, too.
    I want my politicians to express their beliefs in their own words and not try to pretend to be smarter, funnier, more knowledgeable, or better speakers than they are. I’m weird like that. I don’t like marketing, manipulation of public opinion, and public relations in general. Yes, I know, that means I won’t ever like a politician ever again. It’s OK, I’m prepared to hate them all.

  4. DonDueed says

    But Markus, many politicians do admit that “I’m not a scientist, but…”

    They usually do this when they want to ignore the actual science.

  5. hoary pucoon says

    Marcus Ranum @ 2–

    It seems to me Hillary has told us exactly what she believes– which is that a complicated topic like science it’s not enough to come up with some glib sound bite. Instead, you have to listen to the people who have mastered the facts.
    I couldn’t care less whether Hillary Clinton knows off the top of her head what the melting point of lead is or how many electrons there are in a molecule of mercury. What her answers showed is that she takes science and scientists seriously and doesn’t frivolously discount their opinions whenever they disagree with her preferences.
    When you contrast her with an opponent who won’t even listen to the public records office of the state of Hawaii bcause they won’t cater to his fantasies…. Yikes. I’m With Her.

  6. says

    What her answers showed is that she takes science and scientists seriously and doesn’t frivolously discount their opinions whenever they disagree with her preferences.

    Wow, you’re reading a lot into it. It could just as easily be the case that her campaign did all that stuff for her without her actually having any idea it happened at all. That seems to me to be more likely.

    (During the short time I worked for the White House, my experience was that the TV show “VEEP” looks more like a documentary than comedy. A candidate or president or VP hasn’t got the mental bandwidth to handle all the stuff that lands on them; huge amounts of things happen without them knowing)

    I’m going to vote for Clinton since I live in a swing state and because Trump is ridiculous. But Trump’s failings don’t translate to me assuming anything about Clinton at all. I’m cynical but it’s earned cynicism. Your mileage may vary. Etc.

  7. hoary pucoon says

    Marcus Ranum @6–
    I have a vague recollection of a rather fraught editorial in Scientific American sometime after W became the prez, complaining that he hadn’t yet put together a council of scientific advisors. The editors of that magazine were not at all amused at what they considered a breach of presidential duty. They did not consider ol’ W’s own “authentic” knowledge in any way adequate.

    Now you’re complaining that Hillary has used a council of scientific advisors. All of a sudden it’s more important to be “authentic” than to be presidential. Or correct.

    Well, keep undercutting your own chosen candidate and you can expect “authenticity” galore from a president that authentically believes global warming is a Chinese hoax; that you can determine IQ (and place of birth) by skin color; and– according to the New York Times– that the US economy won’t flourish until that picky Food and Drug Administration is stopped from writing all those stupid, unfair, petty, little regulations that make our food actually, you know, safe to eat.

    Dumping on Hillary because she was more interested in giving correct answers than proving how smart she is does not, it seems to me, do anything to help the situation.

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