It warn’t so. I tried it. — Huckleberry Finn
Empiricism has a long and respected history in American life. Yet, a trademark of Donald Trump’s presidency has been his ability to lie and mislead with words, despite evidence to the contrary. His calumny seems to dissolve in a foam of deception.
When President Trump attempted to cover a misstatement about the threat Hurricane Dorian posed to Alabama, words were not enough. The National Weather Service offices in Alabama had corrected Trump publicly on Twitter, his favorite communication tool, which surely infuriated the skin-like-an-onion President. To respond, he had to resort to magic marker, drawing a weak and wobbly Sharpie line extending from an outdated map projecting Dorian’s track to show what he claimed was the danger to Alabama.
Things have since spiraled, with the Secretary of Commerce implicated in browbeating NOAA officials into toeing the President’s line, the head of the NWS commending the Alabama forecasters for standing up for science and the truth, and the NOAA launching an investigation into matters.
Of course, as a President who always has a side hustle, Trump is selling custom Sharpies now. These won’t bring in as much as diverting taxpayer money to his hotels and resorts, but every penny counts for such miserly types.
What #Sharpiegate shows me are a few things — first, an image of a lie is more likely to backfire than words, especially images that show the lie in an obvious and laughable form; second, public opinion about climate is hardening with each passing year and weird season, resolving strongly around the long-established scientific consensus that global warming is occurring; and, third, it’s a political mistake to mess with science that people understand and benefit directly from on a daily basis — i.e., weather forecasting.
The public continues to respect science and scientists. They know what Yuval Noah Harari, author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” wrote a few years ago:
During the last five centuries, humans increasingly came to believe that they could increase their capabilities by investing in scientific research. This wasn’t just blind faith – it was repeatedly proven empirically. The more proofs there were, the more resources wealthy people and governments were willing to put into science. . . . The last 500 years have witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power. . . . The total value of goods and services provided by humankind in the year 1500 is estimated at $250 billion, in today’s dollars. Nowadays the value of a year of human production is close to $60 trillion.
#Sharpiegate is yet another scandal in a presidency that is essentially a storm of scandals. But this one may do more damage — not to Alabama, but to the spinner of lies and his minions. For the sake of science, empiricism, and truth, let’s hope that prediction carries some element of truth.