Wednesday Morning Presentism: Trump Was Not Inevitable

The biggest pet peeve of historians is “presentism,” the assumption, in telling stories about the past, that it was all just leading up to some present state of affairs. Normally we don’t like presentism because it tends to shore up or reflect the idea that history always moves towards “progress.” But in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory on Tuesday, a lot of people seem to be in danger of making the opposite error: the assumption after the fact that his triumph was inevitable all along.

Donald Trump is a white supremacist. His election is a victory for white supremacy and for the well-off white supremacists, lurking in white flight suburbs and on alt-right internet message boards, that always comprised the core of his base. The coming years just got a lot tougher for people of color and immigrants, along with women and LGBTQ people, across the country. And when he enacts gargantuan tax cuts on the rich, when wages continue to stagnate and wealth fails to accumulate, his “populist” rhetoric will be unmasked all too late. It is crucial not to lose sight of  what his election represents.

But identifying what his election represents is not the same thing as identifying why his election happened. The preferred candidate of well-off racist white people has lost before. If we want to understand why white supremacy won this time, we have to get a lot more specific and a lot more contingent.

My own explanation would begin with legal and institutional change that destroyed the ability of core Democratic constituencies to organize and turn out. The Supreme Court’s dismantling of the Voting Rights Act paved the way for racist voter suppression legislation across the country. Every state that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 enacted some policy designed to limit the ability of people of color to get to the polls in the last four years.

Many of those states have also seen the gradual demolition of unions. That effort was spearheaded by Republicans eager to smash the political power of reliably Democratic working class voters, including working class white people. But it was also aided and abetted by Democratic elites, including many long-time Clinton allies like Rahm Emanuel, caught in the throes of privatization-mad neoliberal ideology and mistakenly convinced that centrism and electability are the same thing.

It’s also important to hammer home the failure of the American media during this election cycle. The media spent more time talking about utterly non-scandalous emails found on Anthony Weiner’s computer than about the tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault and the subsequent on-record accusations from a number of different women. They unreflectively perpetuated Trump’s fictitious claims to be a populist, refusing to subject his policy proposals, as few as they were, to a modicum of scrutiny. In their insatiable desire for clicks and for a horserace they failed the nation.

All that being said, it would be irresponsible to let the Clinton campaign off the hook. They made almost every single strategic decision incorrectly during the general election campaign. No one who held a position above field organizer in this campaign should ever be able to work in politics again. Every time a scandal arose, they blamed Russian interference instead of providing an explanation or an apology in terms that would resonate with voters outside of liberal Twitter. They inexplicably welcomed the support of America’s extremely unpopular foreign policy establishment, from Henry Kissinger to Bush administration neoconservatives.

Even after a remarkably close call in the primary campaign against Bernie Sanders, the Clinton campaign, despite their highly touted reliance on data, ignored the empirical evidence and concluded that his message resonated only among far-left, reliably Democratic voters, and therefore failed to emphasize any of his most successful talking points in the general election. With Sanders voters purportedly in the bag no matter what, Clinton neglected the Rust Belt, ignoring Wisconsin entirely after April and, except for a last-minute appearance with LeBron James, largely ignoring Ohio down the stretch as well.

According to exit polling, Trump cleaned up among voters who said that they thought the economy was rigged to benefit elites. This is a man who pledged the largest tax cuts for the wealthy in US history during the campaign. The voters who swung the election to Trump were not the Nazis who had been in his camp since day one. The reason those Nazis are now celebrating across the country is because Clinton couldn’t seal the deal with millions of people who voted for Obama in 2012 and decided for Trump in the last week of this year’s campaign because at the end of the day, it was Clinton who reminded them more of Mitt Romney than Trump.

And yet, despite all of this, she won the popular vote. Most voters actually chose to repudiate Trump. To understand why he nonetheless scraped out a razor-thin margin of victory, we have to abandon our grand narratives, stop treating his win as retrospectively inevitable, and identify the details of the system’s failure. If we want to prevent Trump and his white supremacist base from winning next time, we have to figure out everything that went wrong, from our state legislatures to our newspapers to the Democratic Party, and work to rectify it. Throwing in the towel and resting on our moral superiority is not an option.


Donald Trump Is Not Beyond The Pale

This week many men in your life will tell you that they have never once heard another man say the sorts of things that Donald Trump was heard saying last Friday, even in an all-male space like a locker room.

They will be lying.

Or, perhaps more accurately, they will be bullshitting: talking without regard for the truth or falsity of what they’re saying for convenience’s sake. This bullshit will, in part, come from a good place: the desire to signal exactly how loathsome they find Trump’s words and behavior. But it will also come from a place less savory, but crucial to acknowledge nonetheless.

Because the elephant in the room is that almost every man has heard another man talk like Trump. Trump is not an outlier, but rather the epitome, the apotheosis, of the culture of masculinity that American men (and I emphatically include myself here) are born into, raised amidst, and always, at the best of times, somewhere in a long process of unlearning.

I don’t say any of this to try to excuse Trump. It may not have been his fault that he grew up, as every boy does, surrounded by men who valorize male entitlement and view sex as a conquest, but it was his fault that he took those lessons and ran with them. It is his fault that he has exploited untold numbers of women, a small fraction of whom are finally having their stories told, and it is his fault that he will serve as a role model for a new generation of American men who will grow up attempting to emulate the projection of power and casual misogyny that has made him so successful.

In order to break that cycle, men, especially men in the public eye, need to take this moment to acknowledge that yes, they actually do know a lot of men like Donald Trump. In fact, they themselves — I really should say we ourselves — have all had moments, perhaps in the adolescence to which many Trump defenders have imagined all male misbehavior is confined, perhaps later, where they have been more like Donald Trump than they would like to admit.

The paradox of a lot of discussion about the Trump tape is the coexistence of reminders of the prevalence of sexual violence and earnest insistence that, actually, men don’t talk or act like Trump in real life. This is rape without rapists, a view that treats sexual violence as more like a natural disaster than a pattern of behavior that flows out of the same sorts of attitudes that many men who don’t habitually assault women nonetheless hold consciously or unconsciously.

A lesson that it has taken far too long for me to learn only imperfectly is that defensiveness and male entitlement are two sides of the same coin. Donald Trump thinks that he has never done anything wrong before in his life. The proclamations of so many men that they and their friends aren’t like him comes from exactly the same place. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

Trust Me, I’m A Scientist

Scientific American published a fascinating article today in which they grade the four presidential candidates “on science” by crowdsourcing feedback on the candidates’ answers to twenty questions to their many bedoctorated readers. There is a lot to say here.

First, the results! They conclude that when it comes to “science,” the candidates can be ranked as follows: Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, Donald Trump. If you think that the readers of Scientific American would have compiled a different candidate hierarchy before reading their responses, I have a used car to sell you.

The point is not that the graders were reading their pre-existing political biases into their analysis of the candidates’ remarks on “science.” Rather, the point is that pretending that “science” is some area uniquely carved off from normal “politics,” where people with PhDs in biology can hold forth with unsoiled objectivity on the merits of the candidates’ points of view, is absurd.

As the scope of the questions — ranging from “innovation” to climate change to “the global economy” — suggests, there is not a single political question that can be discussed without reference to science and technology. And therefore it is impossible to talk about science and technology without also talking about the broader sociopolitical networks into which they have been assembled.

This is not a bad thing. Of course Scientific American posed questions that were inherently political: those are the questions people care about! The problem comes when the classification of certain questions as scientific masks the politics involved and restricts access to decision-making and debate.

Witness, for instance, Scientific American‘s dismissal of Jill Stein’s call for science policy that is “more responsive” to the “preferences and needs of average citizens.” They write that this “raises some concern because it could be a recipe for allowing anti-scientific beliefs to influence science policy.” The subtle tautology of this evaluation is remarkable: the scientists that Scientific American sets up as the ultimate authorities on questions of science policy conclude that scientists in fact ought to be the ultimate authorities on questions of science policy!

The article was thus logically fated from its conception to be, more than anything, an exercise in determining the candidates’ adherence to the liberal-technocratic paradigm for which “pro-science” often serves as shorthand (hence why one could have easily predicted how the candidates would ultimately rank without actually reading any of their answers).

So the democratization of science policy is rejected out of hand, even though it is wealthy, educated elites and not ordinary voters who are driving the Republican Party’s opposition to climate action. Stein’s preference for renewable energy over nuclear power is castigated by referencing “cost” and “political feasibility” even though these are highly debatable assertions. Comprehensive climate action will indeed be politically difficult. That is precisely why it is important for people who care about addressing climate change to admit that their agenda is a political project. We’ve tried to have science speak for itself on climate change. That strategy has unequivocally failed.

I’m voting for Clinton, not Jill Stein, even though my own views are far to the left of Clinton’s. I’m not afraid to admit that I am making a political choice, not simply voting the way “science” tells me I ought to. That kind of hatred of politics, that desire to wipe out messiness and disagreement in favor of someone speaking the authoritative truth, is what has actually driven many people to Stein, and, I think, to Donald Trump as well. I know firsthand that scientists wrestle with uncertainty, negotiation, strategy, and complexity more frequently than just about anyone. It is crucial for them to embrace those aspects of their experience in public.

The Dakota Access Pipeline: Two Lessons

In a major victory for the Native protestors who have been putting their time, energy, and bodies on the line this past week to oppose construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, the Obama administration announced this afternoon that the US government would temporarily halt work on the pipeline project.

This case is important for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost for the striking way that it challenges us to think about “human rights” and “environmental” issues as two sides of the same coin. After all, this one issue could be framed both ways: as a act of institutional violence against indigenous communities and as a massive engineering project designed to facilitate fossil fuel extraction. The point is that it is both at the same time. Because humans are inextricably embedded in their environmental surroundings, the way that we treat humans also affects non-humans and vice versa.

What does that mean for environmental politics? This is the second lesson of the #NODAP movement: environmentalists interested in decarbonizing American society need to make alliances with and amplify the voices of the real human beings (often already marginalized) that fossil fuel extraction hurts, and focus on challenging the powerful forces at the top of the carbonized economy rather than attempting to convince fossil fuel executives and conservative politicians that climate action is actually in their best interest. Because this is the unfortunate truth: serious action on climate change will come at the expense of the free-market society that conservatives hold dear. It will have a real cost in money and power for the kinds of people who are trying to use the DAP to improve access to crude oil and don’t care who gets in their way.

Today’s victory shows that it’s possible to achieve success with the confrontational, agonistic politics that this situation requires. Bottom-up action works, people! “Realism” and “pragmatism” are far too often held to be synonymous with moderation and capitulation. Environmentalists need to disabuse themselves of that notion ASAP.

N.B. The DAP issue is not permanently resolved with this decision. Keep the momentum up: donate to the legal relief fund for arrested protestors and keep the pressure up on the administration to turn this temporary hold into long-lasting policy change.



Science and politics: two recent mistakes

One common theme in science studies is that the traditional distinction between facts and values (or “is” and “ought,” or science and politics) ought to be abandoned. On the one hand, there is no such thing as “value-free” science; supposedly “extra-scientific” factors influence the course of science at every step from initial funding to final publication of results. On the other hand, pronouncements about values are never a “view from nowhere,” but instead are made by embodied actors living within and thinking about the world that the sciences also aim to describe.

Two items caught my eye in the New York Times this week that illustrate the potential pitfalls of clinging too closely to this dichotomy.

First, Ushma D. Upadhyay issues a clarion call for “abortion laws based on science.” What a perfect example of the technocratic dream: all we need to put one of the most contentious contemporary social debates to rest once and for all is an appropriate regimen of scientific studies. Where politics has failed, resulting in irrational anti-abortion legislation, science will succeed.

But, of course, this is pure fantasy. The distinction between clear-headed, rational science and muddled, irrational politics is a convenient fiction. Empirical evidence that restrictions on medicated abortion harm women’s health is undoubtedly useful, but it only matters once it is situated within a broader network of concerns that has already agreed upon “women’s health” as the salient criterion for deciding abortion policy. That value is not external to the scientific facts in question but rather constitutive. If there was an unshakable socio-political consensus that abortion is murder and thus ought to be banned ipso facto, Upadhyay’s PLOS Medicine study would likely never have even been conceived, much less shepherded all the way to publication. The transformation of a set of goings-on in the world into an actual scientific fact required a value judgment.

We do not have laws that restrict abortion access in the name of women’s health because conservative lawmakers are genuinely mistaken about the likely ramifications of those laws on women’s health. We have them because those lawmakers want to restriction abortion access and are willing to deploy any rhetorical strategy that they think will bring them closer to that goal. All the science in the world about the disastrous consequences of anti-abortion laws for women’s health will only make a difference — will only begin to function socially like “knowledge” — when pro-choice campaigners have found a way to ensure that the abortion debate is had on their terms.

In other news, New Journalism eminatus Tom Wolfe has a new book out that illustrates what can go wrong with conceptual models that have no room for unruly science, science that muddles the clear boundaries with which we like to try to circumscribe it.

Wolfe’s contention in The Kingdom of Speech is that the power of speech proves the ridiculousness of the Darwinian account of evolution. He is especially scornful of Noam Chomsky and his thesis that humans are all born with an innate biological capacity to use language consistent with the rules of a “universal grammar.” Plenty of other people have done the work of demolishing Wolfe on a content level, so I won’t rehash their arguments here. Instead, I just want to remark briefly on why Wolfe thought this screed was worth writing.

First, Wolfe seems to have an intuitive-aesthetic displeasure with the theory of evolution. Evolution looks to him like “a messy guess – baggy, boggy, soggy and leaking all over the place,” and thus nowhere near deserving of its preeminent place in intellectual culture. Second, Wolfe’s distaste of Chomsky in particular stems from his conviction that Chomsky almost singlehandedly unleashed a new generation of science professors overstepping their bounds to weigh in (usually from the left) on politics.

These objections seem quite distinct but they really come from the same image of science, the mirror image of Upadhyay’s technocracy but built on the same view of science and politics as easily separable enterprises. Wolfe is repulsed by “messy” science, the sort that “leaks all over the place,” especially into the political realm. Similarly, Upadhyay also wants to confine the sciences to their own neat boxes, where they can come up with pure facts to guide lawmaking in lieu of the process of political debate. Both of these visions bear no relation to the way that the sciences work in practice.

Science is always messy; if it is inappropriate to describe it as “leaking” that is only because it is inappropriate to suggest that there is ever a period (before the leaking) when scientific knowledge can gestate in isolation from the outside political world. It is certainly easier to pretend to live in a world without that messiness, where on the one hand Tom Wolfe can insist that scientists have no right to tell him that his own personal beliefs are mistaken and on the other hand Ushma Upadhyay can imagine that we are one research program away from securing reproductive justice. But it is also irresponsible.

Free speech hypocrisy roundup

Kevin Gannon in Vox makes a similar argument to mine about UChicago’s recent political correctness diatribe: it’s not actually about freedom of speech. A few more pieces of evidence that conservative PC fear-mongering is really just about discomfort with leftist activism and not a broadly coherent pro-free speech ideology.

  1. Via Sean McElwee, the University of Texas’ new concealed-carry policy is already creating an intellectually suffocating environment on campus.

    Surprise, surprise: the awareness than anyone around you could be carrying a firearm makes you watch what you say a little more than the occasional professor letting their students know that a film they’re about to watch has a rape scene.

  2. In an almost-too-good-to-be-true bit of irony, former UChicago student body president Tyler Kissinger points out that the administration’s enthusiasm for “discomfort” and free expression actually has some limits in practice:
  3. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick announced today that he will no longer stand for the national anthem before football games in recognition of the way America “oppresses black people and people of color.” Twitter predictably exploded with calls for him to lose his job, get deported, and much worse. I would hazard a guess that many of these same people were praising the UChicago administration for standing up to censorious social justice warriors only a few days ago. There’s an important congruence between criticism of Kaepernick for “politicizing” sports and criticism of students who dare to point out the political implications of classic literature: what is at stake is not anyone’s right to free expression but the security of the status quo, imagined as politically neutral.

And this is just stuff from the past 48 hours or so. Bottom line: if there is a real threat to “free speech” in American society today, it stems from institutionally embodied conservative discomfort with anti-oppressive critique, not from nineteen-year-old “McCarthyists” on college campuses.

Update: “A Startup Is Automating the Lawsuit Strategy Peter Thiel Used to Kill Gawker”. I’m not holding my breath waiting for the mea culpas from the folks who said Thiel’s campaign was a one-time thing that was just about Gawker’s idiosyncratic sins.

But what about cancelling speakers??

The UChicago letter I wrote about yesterday mentioned three practices that the administration would unequivocally refuse to condone: trigger warnings, safe spaces, and “cancelling invited speakers.” Reading defenses of the letter yesterday, it has become clear to me that the latter is the real bogeyman here, the trump card whose seemingly self-evident badness is deployed as evidence of the necessity of throwing the entire “political correctness” baby out with the bathwater.

Three thoughts about this.

1. Where is the empirical evidence that this is actually a thing? How frequently does this actually happen? When I was at Northwestern, we drew national headlines for our student activism — and I don’t think an invited speaker (and that includes some really reprehensible people, like Dinesh D’Souza and Newt Gingrich) was ever canceled once. Once more, I suspect that the moral panic about speaker cancellations is more likely a cipher for broader anxieties about leftist politics among college students than a proportionate response to a demonstrable trend on campuses.

2. One more reason I suspect that this is true is because the fault for the purported “free speech” violation involved in speaker cancellations lies completely with college administrations, and yet it is student activists who bear the brunt of media criticism. Activists who protest speakers are just exercising their own right to free speech. No one is “censored” until administrations make the decision to disinvite the speaker. The reason that criticism of speaker cancellations focus on student activism, then, has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with the fact that critics simply don’t like students protesting the speakers in question. No cogent pro-free speech ideology would call for less activism.

3. The typical explanation of why speaker cancellations are such a heinous crime on college campuses typically invokes the importance of students exposing themselves to “new ideas.” This argument relies on an ahistorical conception of “ideas” that is truly bizarre and would never be defended in any realm besides politics. In this conception, political ideas are eternally new, never discredited by real historical events, and always worth validating.

Take perhaps the most notorious speaker cancellation of the last several years: Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers in 2014. First, it’s worth noting that there was absolutely no “free speech” violation wrought by students here. Rice declined to speak of her own accord, and faculty condemned her as vociferously as students. Second, what exactly were the “new ideas” to which Rice was supposed to expose students? Rice’s ideas were a key influence on many of the most reprehensible policies of the Bush administration, including the invasion of Iraq and torture. Rice’s neoconservatism is not a “new idea.” It is an idea to which every student at Rutgers in 2014 had been exposed in one way or another, because it was arguably the most important idea shaping global affairs during their childhood. And there is an enormous amount of evidence that it shaped global affairs much for the worse.

The incalculable damage that Rice and her ideas have inflicted on the world is a reason why today’s college students do not need to hear her continue to pontificate about the way the world works, just like we would not expect college students to listen with open minds to an advocate of a scientific theory that empirical evidence has thoroughly discredited. But the tireless defenders of the status quo have an interest in pretending like political debates are always open. As long as politics is a matter of interminable intellectual exchange, not responsive to historical evidence, little different now than in the dialogues of Plato, it’s impossible to change the terms of debate, to achieve consensus for radical action, and to bury destructive ideas in the graveyard of history in which they belong.

Safe Spaces and Marketplaces

Many readers will by now have read the letter that University of Chicago Dean of Students (and, evidently, veritable Edgelord™) Jay Ellison sent recently to incoming students, promising them that they will be sorely disappointed if they arrive on campus expecting “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” The university sees these practices, Ellison wrote, as an affront to “our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression,” one of UChicago’s “defining characteristics.”

This is the most important thing to emphasize about this letter: like all anti-trigger warning/safe space discourse, it is not actually about the practices in question.

The ferocity and volume of criticism is almost surreally disproportionate to the actual prevalence of trigger warnings and safe spaces on campus. As I emphasized in a dialogue on WBEZ Chicago last year with Geoff Stone (another UChicago denizen), trigger warnings in particular are not only scarce, but when they do appear they are almost never formally labeled as such but instead are of a piece with the many mundane, informal ways in which we practice the idea behind trigger warnings in our daily lives: characterizing the level of violence in a movie to a friend who’s about to see it for the first time, giving a heads-up about content that is “not safe for work,” and so forth.

As for “safe spaces,” even after four years as a college activist I’m a little unclear about what exactly critics are referring to with this phrase. The only time I can remember my alma mater (Northwestern) establishing something like a “safe space” was after the campus-wide distribution of a “campus climate survey” about sexual violence. They set aside a few hours at the Women’s Center on campus for people who were upset by reliving past traumatic experiences on the survey to stop by and decompress alone or with a counselor. I’d like to hear Jay Ellison explain how those students were “retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

So especially when criticism of trigger warnings and safe spaces comes from academics who live and work at universities, I am skeptical that they are responding in good faith to a problem that they legitimately perceive to be plaguing their campuses. Rather, I suspect that they are engaging in a subtle but effective rhetorical maneuver. By portraying the controversy over procedural issues like trigger warnings and safe spaces as the salient debate on college campuses, they avoid having to engage with the substantive issues on which student activists actually spend the bulk of their energy.

Bedfellows as unlikely as Sara Ahmed and Northwestern president and economist Morton Schapiro have pointed out that the purpose of trigger warnings and safe spaces is really to facilitate access to difficult conversations. As much as people like Ellison like to praise the “discomfort” of discussion about important issues, that sort of discomfort is only tolerable if students are equipped with the resources to help themselves deal with the strong emotions sometimes provoked by academic inquiry into social sources of pain and trauma like racism and misogyny. The students who do “retreat” from conversations about those subjects are the ones who are neglected by inadequate university support systems, and they are legion.

But by targeting fictitious student activists who demand trigger warnings and safe spaces as ends in themselves, instead of as instrumentally valuable strategies to open up discussion about systems of oppression, critics like Ellison succeed in shoving that ultimate goal back out of view. Thus they are the heirs of a long tradition, stretching back to that original UChicago curmudgeon, Allan Bloom, of critics who seek to scrub the academy of leftist politics under the guise of championing “openness.” It’s extremely telling that many of the most “viral” examples of “trigger warnings gone wrong” are about classic material like Greek mythology. It’s not actually true that trigger warnings are being attached to Ovid on syllabi left and right: these stories really owe their power to anxiety about the disruptive politicization of traditional “ivory tower” scholarship.

Free and challenging academic work is enabled when universities proactively provide students with the support they need to take risks. In a sense, then, there is a real if unintentional germ of truth to the oft-cited image of academia as a “marketplace” of ideas. In both intellectual and financial marketplaces, in the absence of healthy external intervention, structurally disadvantaged players have difficulty accessing the system and the status quo rapidly acquires an overpowering inertia. Make no mistake: whether coming from the UChicago Economics Department or the UChicago Dean’s Office, calls for laissez-faire are really calls for the domination of the powerful to go unchecked.

Flooding pt. 2: How do we know if climate change is to blame?

Today the New York Times finally broke its silence on the catastrophic flooding in Louisiana. And the piece is really good! It explicitly frames the flooding in terms of climate change and the first sentence is a fantastic articulation of one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the climate crisis: “Climate change is never going to announce itself by name.”

The natural disasters we’ve been seeing this summer — from fires in California to flooding in the South to historic heat waves in India and more — are vindicating Al Gore’s now-infamous frog-in-a-beaker analogy from An Inconvenient Truth. The effects of climate change are being felt right now, as we speak, but because there are no Joker-esque calling cards left behind in the wreckage making the climate change’s authorship of these tragedies unambiguous, we, like Gore’s frog, don’t recognize that we are rapidly approaching the boiling point.

This phenomenon is related to a climate-action obstacle that’s sort of unheralded outside of academic circles: the extremely stringent standard of scientific proof demanded by policymakers before taking responsible steps to mitigate carbon output or even acknowledging the magnitude of the problem. Every time activists hold up a natural disaster like the Louisiana floods as evidence of the importance of taking swift action on climate change, the response from some scientists and many politicians is all too predictable: there is not enough evidence to attribute it to climate change. There is even a quote to that effect from the Louisiana state climatologist in the NYT article linked above.

This discourse has two related problems. First, it’s a little unclear to me what it would even mean to “prove” that a particular weather event was “caused by climate change.” Could the Louisiana flooding have happened two hundred years ago? Obviously! No matter what your climate looks like, there will always be once-in-a-generation events.The point is that because of climate change, the once-in-a-generation storms of years past will become more common, and the once-in-a-generation storms of years to come will be more devastating. The Louisiana flooding is thus not ipso facto a portent of doom, but it becomes troubling (beyond the immediate human tragedy) in the context of other extreme weather events this summer.

The second problem, therefore, is that the climate crisis, understood properly, ought to seriously challenge many of our assumptions about the way science works and ought to work, and especially about how it should inform government policy.

Modern science is really great at answering very specific questions posed narrowly within the context of a specific discipline. Science is also great at answering questions about the way the world is now or was in the past. Examples of these kinds of questions include, “How does atmospheric carbon dioxide affect global temperatures?” and “How have global carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures varied over the past 100/1000/million years?”


Answering those kinds of questions has been crucial for achieving our current understanding of climate change. But now we need scientists to behave differently. Scientists need to ask questions that span disciplines, synthesizing atmospheric chemistry with meteorology and the knowledge of people “on the ground” in areas increasingly affected by extreme weather. They need to ask questions not about the way the world works now or has worked in the past but how it might work under different conditions in the future, questions that may not have precisely identifiable answers. Climate science as an institution has been most effective when, like in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it has done this sort of work.

If scientists embraced this role more proactively, it would be far more difficult for politicians to invoke their work to defend the status quo. If we stop expecting scientists to have all the answers, it will become harder to cite their limitations as reason to discredit the answers they do have — and easier to frame a positive vision of a political process that does not shy away from attempting to fill in the gaps. And if we start viewing uncertainty as a feature of science rather than a bug, we can begin to stop viewing the presence of uncertainty as a justification for inaction. Because what really matters is not that scientists are unable to tell us if the storm in Louisiana was the “fault” of climate change, but that if we continue on our present course, there will be a lot more where this one came from.

Postscript: Elisabeth Lloyd and Naomi Oreskes (full disclosure: I’m currently working for Prof. Oreskes) have an article coming out soon in Climatic Change about this topic entitled “Climate Change Attribution: When is it Time to Flip the Null Hypothesis?” As the title suggests, it discusses one specific area of scientific practice where the broader mindset shift I’m calling for here could be put into action. Watch out for it!

Mass Incarceration and Private Prisons

The Department of Justice is phasing out its use of private prisons. This is obviously very good news. It will most likely improve the material existence of real humans and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But like that other liberal criminal justice panacea, ending the War on Drugs, it is barely even a first step towards ending mass incarceration.

The dirty truth is that ending mass incarceration means prosecuting fewer violent criminals and sentencing violent criminals to shorter sentences. That’s just math. If you support ending the War on Drugs and eliminating private prisons, but you’re still okay with locking up all violent offenders for decades (or life) in state-run facilities, then fair enough, but don’t say that you really want to end mass incarceration.

Academic note: I think the contours of this whole discussion reflect the power of what STS scholar Ruha Benjamin calls the “carceral imagination.” When we imagine criminal justice reform we imagine incarcerating only the right kinds of people or incarcerating them without the unique abuses of private prisons but we still have tremendous difficulty imagining wholesale alternatives to incarceration in the first place.