Critical Thinking Guide: President Trump’s First National Address

Tonight, President Trump will address the nation during prime time (9pm EST). Major networks will carry the speech. The Democratic leadership will rebut the speech afterward. The speech is expected to focus on the following claims from the President:

  1. There is a national security crisis at the southern U.S. border.
  2. The crisis is the result of an historic wave of illegal immigration through that border outside of checkpoints and border crossings.
  3. Only the President’s oft-repeated “wall” can solve the problem.

This is a brief guide to thinking critically about the claims of the President.

Baseline Statistics on President Trump’s Honesty

President Trump’s honesty when he makes claims has been assessed independently by a number of fact-checking organizations. Typical information gleaned from these analyses is as follows:

  • President Trump lies about 70% of the time he utters a claim. For instance, PoltiFact’s Trump Scorecard indicates 444 claims that were mostly false, false, or “pants on fire” out of a total of 638 evaluated (and fairly distinct) claims. He repeats a lot of his false claims over and over.
  • The Washington Post Fact Checker tracks false claims vs. time and found that as of Dec. 30, in the first 710 days of his presidency, he has made a whopping 7645 false claims… that’s an average of about 11 per day, and that’s an increase over time. He utters more false claims per day now than he did in the first half of those 710 days.

Helping You Navigate Claims

Things to watch out for:

  • The President is an adept liar and propagandist. Watch out for logical fallacies typical of his style:
    • The Either/Or Fallacy: the misleading argument that there are only two solutions to a complex problem, and you have to choose one or the other.
    • The Ad Hominem Attack: making personal attacks on opponents, which distracts the audience from thinking critically about your actual substantive claims.
    • The Straw Man Fallacy: defining your opponent in base and simple terms so that it’s easier to attack them or knock them down. For instance, painting all people who attempt to cross the southern border as “murderers” or “rapists,” or in general “criminals”. See the Washington Post’s cheat sheet to understand the real demographics of people currently attempting to enter the U.S. through the southern border (below).
    • Cherry Picking: selectively only emphasizing a minority of data to portray the majority. For instance, the President likes to cite the few cases of violent crimes by illegal immigrants, even though that population commits such crimes at a rate less than that of U.S. citizens.
    • Appeal to Emotion: using language intended to make you angry or sad, which then by-passes your critical thinking mechanisms to evaluating the real claim.
    • False Equivalency: describing two things as if they are the same, when they are not. For instance, claiming that migrants seeking asylum is the same as illegal immigration (these are highly distinct things, especially in the eyes of the law). Another example would be equating all illegal immigration to southwest border illegal immigration. In fact, most illegal immigration is done by overstaying a visa, and the single largest culprits in that category are from Canada, then Mexico.

The above are a few ways the President, or any skilled propagandist, will attempt to deceive you by short-circuiting your slower and more careful critical thinking mechanisms. Remember, the burden is on the President to justify that (1) there is a national security crisis, a physical threat to the U.S. due to unique circumstances at the southern border, (2) that the attempts by people to enter the U.S. illegally are the primary means of implementing this threat and (3) that the numbers of illegal immigrants, people who cross the border without the intent of seeking asylum or other legal means, can be stopped by spending $5.7 billion to construct about 200 miles of wall.

The Washington Post has already cataloged a cheat sheet to help you unwind the 20 mostly likely claims the President will make or repeat tonight:

Keep this resource handy if you choose to listen to what I believe will largely be a misleading propaganda speech intended to shore up support from his base, but otherwise attempt to mis-inform the general public (based on the data from his past behavior).


Here are links to the President’s speech and the rebuttal by Democratic leadership:

Here is the Washington Post Fact Checker’s evaluation of the president’s claims: claim evaluation from Jan. 9, 2019.


A peek in the wheelhouse

Is anyone driving the national science policy ship of state? Photo by John Hoey and available from Flickr under Creative Commons.

The U.S. has been without a “science adviser” (technically speaking, a Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP) since the inauguration of the current president. Based on existing records, this is the longest that the U.S. has ever gone without this position being filled (492 days). I haven’t taken a broader look at the state of science policy in the U.S. in a long time, mostly because I have tried to remain entirely focused on research and teaching. Thinking about how this particular executive branch behaves also generally fills me with despair for our nation, so I guess I have also actively avoided it. But sometime, you just have to look into the wheelhouse to see if anyone is driving. Of course, you might learn you are on a big ship on an uncertain path, with no one steering.

UPDATE [June 10, 2018]: The New York Times has an excellent and very comprehensive article on how the Trump administration has almost entirely abandoned the use of science in policy, the use of scientists in science policy positions, and the filling of science policy advisory positions. They make an excellent point: negotiations with a nuclear-armed country demand scientific input (e.g. advice on whether or not de-nuclearization verification procedures are complete and sound), and there is no science advice used in the process of preparing for, or conducting, the upcoming summit with North Korea. Science, as a methodology, establishes the most reliable facts about reality; to abandon science in policy is, ultimately, to abandon reality in policy.

Continue reading “A peek in the wheelhouse”

What now for U.S. Graduate STEM Education?

Final Update: What Became Law

Dec. 22, 2017

You can love or hate the tax overhaul that Congress passed and the President just signed into law, but there is one thing to celebrate in the bill. More specifically, there is something NOT in the bill worth celebrating: changes to qualified tuition waivers. These changes did not survive conference committee, and were not made into law.

I would like to extend my personal thanks to Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX) for hearing the voices of his constituents and leading a group of at least 25 House Members in a “Dear Colleague” letter railing against such changes to graduate education support in the U.S.

Update: A Look at the Final Senate Bill

Dec. 3, 2017

The U.S. Senate, shown in session (1999). Early this morning, the Senate passed their version of tax reform, but the bill was not available in its final form in An earlier version of this post drew conclusions based on what was sent to the Senate floor, not what survived their process. That is not amended in this blog post.

Based on comments from some people (thanks!), I had to revisit my consideration of the Senate bill passed on Saturday morning because the text I had access to was merely the one that was sent to the floor of the Senate on Nov. 28… it was far from the one finally voted on. In a sense, this demonstrates the ridiculousness of the procedure used to reset tax policy by this government: a bill, drafted within 48 hours by markup and amendment, voted on before anyone could read it or score it, and not even available on the standard congressional bill recording systems for the public to consider. But, I digress.

One commenter sent me the link to the bill [1], merely a scan of text. I had to run it through optical character recognition [2] to convert it to searchable text. This allowed me to look for mention of the provisions striking text or subsections from U.S. Tax Code section 117, the one dealing with qualified tuition reductions and qualified scholarships.

What did I find when I searched? Nothing. Indeed, the final draft of the Senate bill does not appear to touch at all this section of the U.S. Tax Code. So, my original post really still only applied to H.R. 1 as passed by the House of Representatives. 

There is still the conference process and reconciliation of the bill between the two houses of Congress. It’s possible these provisions could come over from the House version of the bill. Now is the time to contact your members of Congress to influence this process. But be vigilant. This Congress is clearly willing to make sweeping policy changes under cover of darkness in very short periods of time. The average American citizen’s window of influence is small, and rapidly closing.

Here is the text of the Senate version of the bill, as recovered from the scanned document by OCR. Beware! OCR is NOT 100% accurate and words and meaning may have been changed by this process. The Senate should not rush such large bills before they can be placed into their public accounting system, so I wouldn’t have to do inaccurate things like this just to search the bill.



Continue reading “What now for U.S. Graduate STEM Education?”


Senator Orrin Hatch recently said, “I grew up in a shack with a Meadow Gold Dairy sign for a wall. I worked as a janitor to pay for law school. I believe in opportunity because I’ve lived it.

And that’s what we’re going to deliver with #TaxReform.”

He is right. With the GOP plans in both the House and Senate, most Americans again will surely be guaranteed a house with at least one wall made from a disused sign, and that they will have to work a low-wage job just to scratch out enough money to afford a higher education.

Thank you for accidentally being honest in a poorly written tweet, Senator Hatch.

The only opportunity delivered by the GOP tax plans to most Americans is the opportunity to lose more wages to taxes.