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Science in a Post-Truth Regime

It is clear that truth and reason are serving a diminished role. Decisions are not being made based on calculated truths but rather based upon irrational fears.

I can not state how deeply this disturbs the physicist in me. One of my good friends was a graduate student in physics at the University of Michigan while I was an undergraduate there. During a discussion of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), he told me that no matter the results of the experiments, it would be exciting  because it offered a new view of the truth. Physics, you see, is the study of the truths of our universe. That was from the perspective of a theorist, who would certainly have a huge increase in likelihood of a postdoc position for him in the scenario that the LHC found new, unexplained physics. The truth was the most interesting part, not the potential personal gain.

Now, I am a graduate student myself. I have learned an array of skills to study these truths. Paramount, above the rest, is the use of data and data science. I take data in the form of photographs taken by huge cameras attached to even bigger telescopes. This data is the primary input. It is the view of the truth.

Likewise, policies should be decided upon based on a view of the truth. For example, it is the truth that since 9/11, no Americans have been killed by an immigrant from the seven countries currently banned by this executive order. This fact, should influence decision making, and it should push us to not develop irrational fears that will guide history astray.

Even if you do not want to make logical leaps from pure science to political science, I have thoughts on this. The president is now only allowing the EPA to release studies or offer financial support for outside research after a final review from the White House. The president is putting blinders on the search for the truth.

This scientific censorship is scary. It undermines the work of experts. The data show we should be making very specific changes to our energy generation. Instead of doing that, we are blocking the source of this knowledge because it is inconvenient.

The threats to knowledge, science, data, and reason are very real. I received an email two days ago asking me to volunteer to help pull data from government websites under the threat that it may disappear otherwise.


I was having trouble coming up with what this all feels like until this evening. I was walking during dusk, and I gazed upon the moon and Venus, which are very close in projection in the sky. I urge you all to view it yourselves over the next few nights. Here is a shitty picture from my phone.

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It made me think of a time from distant history. After the invention of the telescope, astronomers gazed toward the planets, and after many nights and much painstakingly tedious measurements, they noticed that the planets traveled across the sky in a way unsupported by the Earth-centric view of the times. Earth, along with those other planets, in fact orbit the Sun.

Galileo Galilei was one of these early champions. He lived in Italy, where the Catholic Church had the power to place him under house arrest and censor his findings, which were in stark contrast to the Earth-centric picture that the Bible seemed to support. He lived the last years of his life, from 1633 until 1642 under house arrest for revealing the truths of the Universe. He was officially charged with heresy and force to recant his findings.

When you see Venus, sitting next to the moon, know that our science has revealed that it is actually sitting tens of millions of miles behind the moon. Remember that Galileo lived out his life unable to teach his expertise.

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He probably looked out and saw the planets, and knew the truth.

We have moved a long way past this history: nearly 400 years.

Or have we?

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