The First to Die
If “the first casualty of war is the truth,” as US Senator Hiram Johnson once opined, then truth never stood a chance. This country has been waging war — on poverty, drugs, Iraq, terror, sugar, Christmas — for my entire life. Every election has become a “war for the soul of America.” If there were any doubt left about the vivacity of truth, Tuesday’s result bayoneted it.
The 2016 presidential election was a crucible in which we subjected the truth to many tests. An unlikeable billionaire conspiracy theorist faced off against an unlikeable lifelong public servant. She was deemed by a slim majority of Americans in swing states to be the untruthful and untrustworthy one, and she lost. So did the truth, I think.
We will be talking about truth and trust for a long time to come. For someone who studied philosophy back in college, it’s a delightful pastime. But for someone who has to work in science, for the environment, and in the real world, it’s terrifying. Truth is supposed to be the bedrock on which we build all our work. How do we know what’s true, when lies have become facts?
Polls cannot be trusted. The media cannot be trusted. “The system” cannot be trusted (though it’s only rigged if it doesn’t deliver the result you want). Why should someone who tells you he can bring back jobs, restore a mythical America, and build a wall a thousand miles long and fifty feet high be trusted?
Where does trust come from? I used to think it was earned. Or at least accumulated. In science, data tell us what happened or is happening in the world. More data usually lead to more confidence in the truth of a theory. But not always. More data, if poorly collected, or confusing, or misinterpreted, can add to the noise obscuring the truth.
Worse, we often refuse to acknowledge truth even when it’s plainly right in front of us. But if a simpler or more comforting explanation comes along, one that more neatly agrees with our own ways of seeing the world, it’s nearly impossible to change our minds and see the truth.
Over the past few months, I’ve had my own shakings of faith in institutions I trusted. It’s not a pleasant feeling. I do not wish it on all those who put their trust in our new president. It’s going to be a rude awakening for many. We will not always be entitled to our own facts; false beliefs will eventually shatter against the hard wall of reality.
Time will tell whether Mr. Trump’s quick fixes actually exist. I believe that our nation’s longterm problems have NEVER been solved with the stroke of pen or the wave of a hand; anyone who says differently must be selling something. I just thought it was steaks and neckties.
My 9-year-old son cried over his pancakes the morning after the election. I tried to reassure him that everything would be mostly fine, that nothing would really change, that his country wouldn’t fall apart, and that the sky outside would still be blue. Because my son trusts me, he was reassured by my words. For his sake, I hope they’re true.
Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His monthly column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and present, truth and fiction. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.