Since Wednesday, I, like most Americans, have been trying to make sense of the events of that day. I find it’s usually best to begin with the facts, so that’s where I will start this reflection.
Wednesday was to be devoted to proposal writing. After reading the newspaper, then eating breakfast, and a morning walk with Jodi, I settled into writing. I spent the next several hours in an effort that resulted in 10 pages, when only 3 were necessary. This is how I work: get it all down on paper and worry about condensing, compressing, and editing it later.
I got so deep into this work that I tuned out the world. Mostly, that was intentional; my phone was muted, social media was safely tucked out-of-sight, and all that I had to keep my attention was Overleaf and a stack of references and ideas. What do I mean by “mostly intentional”? Well, I was scheduled to meet with a Dean at 2pm and completely lost track of time. When I came up for air (and email) at 2:40pm, I realized my mistake and panicked. While I raced to email the Dean and try to connect with them, I noticed the news notifications on my phone.
There were many … more than usual. I am used to a few breaking headlines every day from the Washington Post app, but this was way above and beyond a typical day. Of course, we know why … it was not a typical day.
Thousands of enraged devotees and disciples of President Trump, their anger stoked by the President’s rally in front of the White House, marched on the U.S. Capitol Building. Hundreds, if not more, pushed through police who seemed to do the minimum required to keep them back and smashed their way into the complex. Senators and Representatives were whisked to safety or sheltered in place. There was gunfire. Chemical agents were deployed by police and by the fascist crowd storming the legislative branch, looking to overthrow the results of a free and fair and verified election. Waving a myriad of flags, some of which actively advocate against our union of states, this traitorous mob was looking to setup a dictator in place of a representative democracy. They would have their Mad King George seated on a throne of lies, no matter what damage had to be done, or who had to die.
While these were Americans, and while they no doubt represent the worst impulses of our nation that have been with us since its founding 244 years ago, they created a moment that represented one of the clearly darkest in our history. We watched Americans assault the very foundations of the democracy that made their liberties possible in the first place.
None of this was a surprise. As many commentators have noted, it was nonetheless horrifying.
As a scientist, I have watched the slide of Americans into the darkness, fueled by credulous thinking and misinformation, for a long time now. Long before I became aware of the undoing of American reason, it had already begun. You might go back to slavery itself and note what wrong thinking led to that awful institution, whose legacy is still with us. You could point to the snake-oil salesmen and hucksters of the old west, duping the un- and under-educated public. You could point to the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” which marked the rejection of the scientific explanation of biological diversity in favor of a specific Christian theological explanation in public schools. You can point to the anti-science campaigns of tobacco companies designed to hide the health crimes of their product. You could point to the rise of fundamentalist Christians as a political movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, aided by the Reagan presidency, and the birth of the “scientific creationism” movement – a rebranding of the movement to literally interpret the Bible and accept it as scientific fact. You can point to climate change denialism, and human-induced climate change denialism. You could point at vaccine denialism, flouride denialism, chiropractic, and alternative medicine. You can point to “intelligent design,” the “wedge strategy” of a wing of the fundamentalist Christian right, the misunderstanding of economics, or the demonization (against all evidence) of migrants or non-Christian religions.
In truth, all of those were pieces in a long-building puzzle that culminated on January 6, 2021. Each of those episodes was a test of critical thinking, one which people inevitably failed. Maybe it was few people. Maybe it was many. But each chapter was a step on the road to the credulity that fueled the rage we say on 1/6. The work of tobacco companies, for instance, over many decades to perfect the trapping of science while undermining public trust by avoiding the foundations of science, gave the public permission to think that all conclusions are equally valid. For every one scientist who finds evidence on one side, it seemed, there will be another who finds evidence on the other. This play-acting at science was designed to avoid the questions of “what kind of evidence?” and “what quality of evidence?”
If you cannot discern reliable evidence from poor evidence, then of course you will fall prey to people who make claims about quantity without reference to quality. For example, if you think testimonials are as equally valid as information gathered from records or experiments, then of course you will believe when someone says there are lots of signed testimonials attesting to, say, voter fraud or election fraud. The same movements that undermined American’s ability to discern the quality of evidence in public discourse – the creationist movement, the anti-climate science movement, etc. – allowed for the rise of a demagogue who acts only in service to himself while duping others into siding with his cause.
American democracy can resist this, of course, but only if people uphold the foundations on which it is built. As members of the legislative or executive branch act to undermine constitutional democracy by claiming fire where there is only a smoke stoked by lies, the foundation weakens. I believe that each of us is the bulwark against the fall of our democracy, each of us a candle in the night and a light against the dark. Our light is snuffed out when we fall prey to magical thinking, wishful thinking, and credulity. Our light is brightened when we accept hard truths, backed by the best quality of evidence, even when those truths run counter to our desires.
Our founding fathers were flawed, complex human beings. Among their better qualities, however, many of them understood the value of scientific thinking … even practiced it. (albeit not in all things, such as in relation to skin color and inherent value) They even enshrined the importance of arts and sciences in the main body of the Constitution, writing,
The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;The U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8
They would not even enshrine some of the things we take for granted these days – freedom of speech, of religion, of the right to bear arms – until the amendments to the Constitution were passed (the “Bill of Rights”). However, promoting the progress of science and the “useful arts” was right up front in the powers of the legislative branch.
We must recognize that rekindling the light of liberty and restarting the heart of our republic will begin with a turn to science and arts, which themselves are a reflection of human reason, creativity, and expression. You don’t have to be a scientist, or even have a college degree, to practice basic critical thinking – the kind that can cast the light that will be needed to drive out the shadows that waged war on constitutional democracy on 1/6.
Photo by David Tomaseti on Unsplash
The Washington Post has compiled an excellent and terrifying video timeline  of the events surrounding the insurrection. It shows the rage, the violence, and the terror inflicted on the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 … all in service of a pure lie. It also shows the heroism of security and police, even as we continue to learn more about how unprepared … and even encouraging of the insurrection … officials and parts of the police force were that day.
 Dalton Bennett, Emma Brown, Sarah Cahlan, Joyce Sohyun Lee, Meg Kelly, Elyse Samuels, Jon Swaine. “41 minutes of fear: A video timeline from inside the Capitol siege”. The Washington Post. January 16, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/2021/01/16/video-timeline-capitol-siege/