Trump, Scientism, and Puerto Rico

With Hurricane Florence churning over the Carolinas, the media seems to be licking its lips in anticipation of President Trump’s “Katrina moment.” Trump isn’t playing along, however, so instead of retreating he recently bragged about his administration’s record to date when it comes to natural disasters, including Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year. Thinking that meant they had an opening instead of recognizing the trap, the media began countering the narrative by highlighting the almost 3,000 people who, they say, died as a result of that disaster.

Then things got interesting. Trump refused to accept their 3,000 dead narrative, calling it fake news. In challenging this media narrative, Trump brings to the fore one of the most pernicious aspects of our ongoing cold civil war.

Where the Number Came From
claim that almost 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria is a lie. It is a pernicious lie because it is so casually repeated and accepted without question.

“Nearly 3,000 people died,” you say? Any normal person immediately thinks 3,000 people clearly died in the hurricane or immediately after. Perhaps one thinks of a list of 3,000 names or 3,000 funerals. Surely no one would make a claim like this without such lists. Not so fast.

Politicians and the media only estimate that almost 3,000 people died and this number is based only on “studies” conducted by so-called “experts” using computer models. Whatever the language used to make these studies the end result is still an approximation.

“To estimate excess mortality associated with Hurricane María,” explain one group of researchers, “it was necessary to develop counterfactual mortality estimates, or estimates of what mortality would have been expected to be had the disaster not occurred.”

In other words, to estimate, the experts first had to . . . you guessed it . . .  estimate. Then they had to guess how many people might have left Puerto Rico—another estimate. Moreover, the total estimates are based on information from September 2017 to February 2018—five months! Worse still, they admit they cannot establish any actual causality for the estimated number of deaths. They had to estimate it!

All that estimation seems a bit uncertain, one might say. It isn’t clear how estimations by experts are any more factual than estimations by nonexperts. They might be better estimates (key word: might), but it does not mean they are true. But what about an appeal to consensus? Multiple studies by multiple groups estimated similar things. But saying “everyone agrees” does not make an estimate a fact any more than expert opinion does. And why wouldn’t we suspect these studies were conducted by people with certain biases?

But . . . But . . . FACTS!
So along comes President Trump with his non-expert opinion and common sense, and he says:

3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000. This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!

The media and leftists were flabbergasted. How could Trump deny “the facts?” Doesn’t he know that it is “science?” Trump appealed to common sense reasoning about what happened and the motives of others. The rest of the talking heads claim to have science on their side.

This difference of emphasis on common sense as opposed to unquestioning acceptance of things said to be taking part in “scientific method” reminded me of a passage from Leo Strauss’s What is Political Philosophy? in which he described what is sometimes called “scientism,” which is the view that only scientific knowledge is real knowledge.

The belief that scientific knowledge, i.e., the kind of knowledge possessed or aspired to by modern science, is the highest form of human knowledge, implies a depreciation of pre-scientific knowledge. If one takes into consideration the contrast between scientific knowledge of the world and pre-scientific knowledge of the world, one realizes that positivism preserves in a scarcely disguised manner Descartes’ universal doubt of pre-scientific knowledge and his radical break with it. It certainly distrusts pre-scientific knowledge, which it likes to compare to folklore. The superstition fosters all sorts of sterile investigations or complicated idiocies. Things which every ten-year-old child of normal intelligence knows are regarded as being in need of scientific proof, which is not only not necessary, is not even possible…Pre-scientific knowledge, or “common sense” knowledge, is thought to be discredited by Copernicus and the succeeding natural science. 

Strauss goes on to point out that this mistake—the rejection of common sense—is one of the subjects of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

A Mania That Destroys Reason
Scientism, which emerges from Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, and others, is criticized by Swift, David Hume, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton. Hume explained how “skepticism about the senses” and modern scientific investigation apart from the lessons of common life lead to ludicrous conclusions. Chesterton described the preoccupation with modern science as a sort of mania that destroys reason.

All of these thinkers realized that a blind faith in the scientific method leads one to detach from reality in the pursuit of the abstract. Common sense becomes despised in favor of a knowledge we call “expertise” today. But for this expertise and science to have any authority, we must forget that the experts and the scientists are mere men. We must forget or deny the common sense that men can wield science for personal or political gain or corrupt knowledge through incompetence and dishonesty. Thus science converts to scientism, a blind faith in the power of science and those who claim to use it.

Along the way, we tend to become enamored of “facts” that can only be expressed in numerical or quantitative terms. Eventually, all morality is nothing but emotion, while truth is that which can be explained in numerical charts, graphs, and regressions. Soon, anything that can be explained with a graph, chart, or in terms of numbers is assumed to be true. Any claims seeking to counter those charts are assumed to be false or unsupported.

What We Think We Know Matters
And so we arrive at almost 3,000 dead in Puerto Rico. Trump makes the only sane claim: we don’t really know how many people died as a result of the hurricane, but it is awfully suspicious that the numbers went up so dramatically only to be used as a cudgel in our hyperpartisan debate. This seems both factually correct and commonsensical. But a large segment of the population, including most of the “highly educated,” believed Trump has denied science because there exist charts that make different claims.

Trump took the debate right to the heart of one of the biggest parts of our cold civil war: our different understandings of how we know what we think we know.

This epistemological disagreement is one of the least discussed aspects of the great political debate of our time. It remains one of the most important, however, because people have a hard time agreeing about anything if they can’t agree upon what is knowable. This isn’t some backroom academic debate for philosophy nerds; it has real political consequences for today and it must influence the statesmanship necessary to address our circumstances.

I don’t expect to change the mind of anyone who is a faithful adherent of scientism. I could never produce charts enough to satisfy them they are wrong. But for those with common sense, this episode serves as a useful reminder or example of how deeply we are divided in American politics today. We don’t just disagree about policy or even about what justice is. We disagree about how we can even know anything at all. The fact is, grappling with that problem might change the dynamic as we wrestle with our path forward.

Photo credit: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

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About Bill Kilgore

Bill Kilgore is the pseudonym of a writer serving in the United States military. It should go without saying that the views expressed in his articles are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Photo: A young man shows a sign warning drivers that the road is flooded in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico braced for potentially calamitous flash flooding on Thursday after being pummeled by Hurricane Maria which devastated the island and knocked out the entire electricity grid. The hurricane, which Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called "the most devastating storm in a century," had battered the island of 3.4 million people after roaring ashore early Wednesday with deadly winds and heavy rain. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)