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Disconnecton from Reality 4

For years, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement has spread confusion about vaccines.

Its co-founder raised links between vaccines and autism. Its political leader campaigned against a law making vaccines obligatory. Its myriad websites drew traffic with posts by vaccine skeptics, and its party representatives blamed vaccines for tumors and allergies. ...
On Thursday, as school began this past week around Italy, the Five Star Movement and its coalition partner, the League, passed a measure that allows children to stay in school as long as their parents attest that they have been vaccinated, or will be by March. No doctor’s note is required.

Critics consider the decree a dangerous, and purely political, measure that creates chaos in the school system, increases the risk to classmates with autoimmune deficiencies and tempts a public health crisis.

Only a year ago, the number of measles cases in Italy climbed to 5,006 in 2017, from 843 in 2016. Last year, Italy had Europe’s third-highest per capita rate of measles after much-poorer Romania and Greece. Mexico has recommended that its citizens be vaccinated before traveling to Italy.

Italy is perhaps the most acute case of a contagion of another kind spreading in Europe and the West — one in which populist politics, misinformation and psuedo-science on the internet have combined with an anti-establishment mood in which experts are not to be trusted.
But now the populist forces that have fueled that trend hold power.... ...
On Thursday, Five Star senators said they would next seek to undo the vaccine law altogether. ...
The measles vaccine, which over the past 50 years has helped eliminate the disease in the United States, was introduced in Italy in 1976. The percentage of coverage climbed steadily to more than 90 percent in 2003. But the obligation was eased in 1999, Ms. Lorenzin said, because Italy had mistakenly believed it had ingrained the belief in science and vaccines into the culture.

Instead, she said, the opposite happened. She attributed the surge of distrust in vaccines to the fact that the diseases had become so rare as to seem unreal, to the debacle of a since-rejected and retracted report in the scientific journal The Lancet linking vaccines to autism, and to what she called “Doctor Google.” ...
Cases of measles, which can cause blindness, brain inflammation, pneumonia and in some cases death, have been rising. ...
Beppe Grillo, the co-founder of the Five Star Movement, has raised a link between vaccines and autism, suggested that vaccines weaken the immune systems of healthy children, and claimed that the pharmaceutical industry has pushed them for profit. Members of the party in the European Parliament have proposed eliminating some obligatory vaccinations for some public employees and professed a link between leukemia, tumors, allergies and autism to vaccinations. ...
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant League, Five Star’s coalition partner, apparently wanted to get in on the anti-vaccination action as he built his own populist movement.
- Jason Horowitz, Italy Loosens Vaccine Law Just as Children Return to School, NYT, Sept. 20, 2018



On the face of it, the following report in the Times indicates that after adjusting for inflation, average hourly earnings increased .2 percent during August, suggesting an annual rate of increase of 2.4%.

And wage growth is still slow: after adjusting for inflation, average hourly earnings increased just 0.2 percent in August.
- Linda Qiu, Fact-Checking Trump’s Speech to the United Nations, NYT, Sept. 25, 2018

But later in the same issue of the Times (Sept. 26, 2018 print edition), we read this:

Between August 2017 and August 2018, the most recent available data, average hourly wages increased by 2.9 percent, but after adjusting for inflation, the increase was just 0.2 percent, according to the Labor Department’s flagship survey.
- Binyamin Appelbaum, One Reason for Slow Wage Growth? More Benefits, NYT, Sept. 25, 2018

So the reported .2 percent increase was not in August, but during the past year ending in August. A reader of the Times who reads only the first article may well fail to understand the rate at which earnings are increasing. When it is so hard for such a person, presumably relatively educated and attentive to what is happening in the world, has trouble coming to know such basic facts, what chance is there that people will come to understand the modern economy and be able to come to the right conclusion about what must be done to make America prosper?

The ones who will suffer most will be the British people, who were lied to by the Brexit campaign during the referendum and betrayed and treated like idiots by elements of their press. The shamelessness still knows no bounds: the Daily Express has asked in all seriousness whether the inferno in the tower block was due to the cladding having been designed to meet EU standards. It is a simple matter to discover that the answer to this question is No, but by failing to check it, the newspaper has planted the suspicion that the EU might be to blame for this too. As an aside: a country in which parts of the press are so demonstrably uninterested in truth and exploit a disaster like the fire in Grenfell Tower for their own tasteless ends has a very serious problem.
- The Laughing Stock of Europe, Translated by Paula Kirby from the original article dated 17 June 2017 in Der Bund Switzerland


Brexit is already costing the public purse £500m a week, new research has found – a stark contrast to the £350m “dividend” promised by the Leave campaign.
- Michael Savage and Robin McKie, Brexit costing Britain £500m a week and rising, says report, The Guardian, Sat 29 Sep 2018


The Obama administration estimated that it would cost the electric utility industry an estimated $9.6 billion a year to install that mercury control technology, making it the most expensive clean air regulation ever put forth by the federal government. It found that reducing mercury brings up to $6 million annually in health benefits — a high number, but not as high as the cost to industry. However, it further justified the regulation by citing an additional $80 billion in health benefits from the additional reduction in soot and nitrogen oxide that occur as a side effect of controlling mercury.

The new proposal directs the E.P.A. to no longer take into account those “co-benefits” when considering the economic impact of a regulation.
- Coral Davenport, Trump Administration Prepares a Major Weakening of Mercury Emissions Rules, NYT, Sept. 30, 2018


The EPA’s analysis of mercury reduction benefits is limited to quantifying lost future earnings due to lower IQ. The idea here is that mercury, a neurotoxin, can cause development problems for in utero fetuses. To account for the cost of this risk, EPA places a price on wages lost because of lost IQ points.

But any parent whose child has been exposed to mercury will care about more than the loss of potential earnings — over a lifetime, contact with the pollutant can mean more than smaller paychecks. There are also risks of cognitive and social defects, negative autoimmune effects, genetic effects, and heart attacks that are not quantified.

Even the narrow IQ-related effects EPA looks at are estimated only for a small group of people — children born to families that catch freshwater fish for their own consumption. Excluded are any of the potential risks that come from eating commercially bought fish, which is the vast majority of total consumption.

Some seem to like to pretend that these unquantified risks don’t exist at all. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, in a broadside against the rule, quoted EPA’s finding that “the benefits to society from the mercury reductions in the utility rule max out at $6.1 million, total.” The paper failed to mention all of the benefits that EPA recognized, but was unable to put a dollar figure on.
- Michael A. Livermore, Three cheers for new mercury pollution standards, Grist, Dec 21, 2011


The popularisation of ‘social constructionism’ is widely agreed to be traceable to the publication of The Social Construction of Reality by the sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in 1966. In subsequent years, this concept attracted a large number of young, mostly left-leaning academics to the humanities departments of French universities, where social construction became an ideological tool useful to those engaged in the Parisian youth rebellion of 1968. From there, it spread rapidly though humanities departments in Europe and America, and into the social sciences.

The changes in intellectual thinking that this development catalysed reverberate across the West’s academic institutions to this day. What transpired in the late sixties was nothing short of a cultural revolution, riding a wave of academic trends referred to as ‘social constructionism,’ ‘postmodernism,’ and ‘poststructuralism,’ although it never became entirely clear if or how these concepts differ from one another. While foreign to some, social constructionist jargon is now routinely invoked by the young academics who successfully conquered the humanities over the ensuing 40 years.

These developments have not gone unnoticed in other parts of academia, where they have raised both eyebrows and tempers among social constructionism’s growing number of critics. Sceptics maintain that academic study of any kind demands intellectual rigour, consistency, and coherence if it is to produce meaningful intellectual reasoning and valuable conclusions. However, the major tenets of postmodernism/poststructuralism are that objectivity should be abandoned and academic endeavour should not be devoted to the pursuit of ‘truth,’ because objective truths simply do not exist.
- Kåre Fog, Lost Down Social Constructionism’s Epistemic Rabbit-Hole, Quillette, April 6, 2018


Aside from using at least three unedited rally hours this week to level https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/12/us/politics/fact-check-trump-rallies-midterm-campaigns.html" rel="external nofollow">factually inaccurate claims against his enemies, the president also submitted an op-ed attacking the Democrats’ “Medicare for All” proposals in USA Today that was eventually deemed misleading by the news outlet.

He falsely accused Democrats of wanting to turn the United States into Venezuela in interviews on Fox News, wrongly attributing the country’s economic crisis to its health care system.

He repeated the falsehood that United States Steel is opening “seven plants” to a crowd of supporters in Pennsylvania; it has announced none. He cited a nonexistent bill to claim that Democrats supported “open borders” at a rally in Kansas.
- Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman, ‘Donald Trump in Full’: The President’s Very Talkative, Very Televised Week, NYT, Oct. 12, 2018


Both images are the result of digital manipulation, and what, in its most ominous form, is called deep fakes: technology that makes it possible to show people saying things they never said, doing things they never did. ...
But, as always, the same technology that contains the opportunity for good also provides an opening for its opposite. As a result, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new world — one in which it will be impossible, literally, to tell what is real from what is invented.
- Jennifer Finney Boylan, Will Deep-Fake Technology Destroy Democracy?, NYT, Oct. 17, 2018


For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. ...
Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.
The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon. ...
In his essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Latour observed that conservatives had begun using methods similar to those of critical theory to muddy debates around issues, like climate change, that required immediate and decisive action. Conservatives were casting doubt on the reality of planetary warming by pointing to “the lack of scientific certainty” around the issue. Latour had made a career questioning “scientific certainty” and worried that his critical “weapons” had been “smuggled” to the other side:

Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.
Some liberals have argued that the best way to combat conservative mendacity is to insist on the existence of truth and the reliability of hard facts. But blind faith in objectivity and factual truth alone has not proven to be a promising way forward.

Even if we felt comfortable asserting the existence of something like “truth,” there’s no going back to the days when Americans agreed on matters of fact — when debates about policy were guided by a commitment to truth and reason.
- Casey Williams, Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools?, NYT, April 17, 2017


He accepts less-than-credible denials from autocratic heads of state about nefarious acts. He disputes the existence of man-made climate change and insists that photographic evidence of the crowd at his inauguration is fake, part of a media plot to harm him.

Over the course of 21 months, President Trump has loudly and repeatedly refused to accept a number of seemingly agreed-upon facts, while insisting on the veracity of a variety of demonstrably false claims that happen to suit his political needs. ...
...Mr. Hayden... quoted a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush, Michael Gerson, about Mr. Trump: “He lives in the eternal now — no history, no consequences.” ...
His long career in the New York real estate world convinced Mr. Trump that all people are prone to shading their views according to their own self-interest. Objectivity is not something he expects of people, and he long ago came to believe that “facts” are really arbitrary. ...
In his interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday night, Mr. Trump repeatedly painted climate science as a matter of political opinion. Scientists who have documented the man-made impact on climate change “have a very big political agenda,” Mr. Trump said, offering no evidence.

Even DNA evidence does not sway Mr. Trump from his beliefs. He maintained that the five young men imprisoned for the Central Park crime were still guilty even after they were exonerated by DNA evidence and a detailed confession from a sixth man. ...
As a citizen and a candidate, Mr. Trump repeatedly tweeted that there was a link between vaccines and autism, a claim scientists have rejected.

“I am being proven right about massive vaccinations — the doctors lied,” Mr. Trump wrote in a 2014 tweet.

And long after Mr. Obama released his long-form birth certificate in 2011, Mr. Trump appeared on Fox News and suggested that the president might not be a citizen.
- Maggie Haberman, A President Who Believes He Is Entitled to His Own Facts, NYT, Oct. 18, 2018


After the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was strangled in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul....
- Ben Hubbard, Khashoggi Double Sent to Create False Trail in Turkey, Surveillance Images Suggest, NYT, Oct. 22, 2018 [As a reader from Quebec commented, the Times presumably does not have any way of knowing Khashoggi was strangled. It seems unlikely he was strangled. It is sad that (unless the Times knows more than is plausible, in which case the Times should make that clear) the Times is so careless about distinguishing a claim by untrustworthy Saudis from fact.]


The mid-1990s were the years of the so-called science wars, a series of heated public debates between “realists,” who held that facts were objective and free-standing, and “social constructionists,” like Latour, who believed that such facts were created by scientific research. To hint at any of the contention and compromise that went on behind the scenes, the realists feared, would give succor to the enemies of progress: creationists, anti‐vaxxers, flat‐earthers and cranks of all stripes. If scientific knowledge was socially produced — and thus partial, fallible, contingent — how could that not weaken its claims on reality? At the height of the conflict, the physicist Alan Sokal, who was under the impression that Latour and his S.T.S. colleagues thought that “the laws of physics are mere social conventions,” invited them to jump out the window of his 21st-floor apartment.
At the time, the science wars struck most people outside the academy, if they noticed them at all, as an overheated scholastic squabble. Lately, however, these debates have begun to look more like a prelude to the post-truth era in which society as a whole is presently condemned to live. The past decade has seen a precipitous rise not just in anti-scientific thinking — last year, only 37 percent of conservative Republicans believed in the occurrence of global warming, down from 50 percent in 2008 — but in all manner of reactionary obscurantism, from online conspiracy theories to the much-discussed death of expertise. The election of Donald Trump, a president who invents the facts to suit his mood and goes after the credibility of anyone who contradicts him, would seem to represent the culmination of this epistemic rot. ...
Those who worried that Latour’s early work was opening a Pandora’s box may feel that their fears have been more than borne out. Indeed, commentators on the left and the right, possibly overstating the reach of French theory, have recently leveled blame for our current state of affairs at “postmodernists” like Latour. By showing that scientific facts are the product of all-too-human procedures, these critics charge, Latour — whether he intended to or not — gave license to a pernicious anything-goes relativism that cynical conservatives were only too happy to appropriate for their own ends. Latour himself has sometimes worried about the same thing. As early as 2004 he publicly expressed the fear that his critical “weapons,” or at least a grotesque caricature of them, were being “smuggled” to the other side, as corporate-funded climate skeptics used arguments about the constructed nature of knowledge to sow doubt around the scientific consensus on climate change. ...
This, in essence, is the premise of Latour’s latest book, “Down to Earth,” an illuminating and counterintuitive analysis of the present post-truth moment, which will be published in the United States next month. What journalists, scientists and other experts fail to grasp, Latour argues, is that “facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media.” With the rise of alternative facts, it has become clear that whether or not a statement is believed depends far less on its veracity than on the conditions of its “construction” — that is, who is making it, to whom it’s being addressed and from which institutions it emerges and is made visible. A greater understanding of the circumstances out of which misinformation arises and the communities in which it takes root, Latour contends, will better equip us to combat it.
Philosophers have traditionally recognized a division between facts and values — between, say, scientific knowledge on one hand and human judgments on the other. Latour believes that this is specious.
- Ava Kofman, Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science, NYT, Oct. 25, 2018


As crude pipe bombs were discovered at CNN headquarters and in mailboxes across the country, Mr. Trump’s supporters like the Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh and the conservative writer Ann Coulter asserted that the crime was a frame job by Democrats.
Before pipe bombs and the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings dominated the news, the main story was the migrant caravan — and it was accompanied by wild speculation on talk radio, social media and from opinionated personalities on Fox News. A myth went viral: The thousands of desperate Hondurans making their slow way toward the American border were players in a drama hatched by Democrats and funded by the right’s all-purpose villain, Mr. Soros, a notion Mr. Trump seemed to nod to at a rally in Montana. ...
Mr. Trump’s communications director for 10 days, Anthony Scaramucci, was matter-of-fact when he told Bloomberg TV on Thursday, “Yes, the president is lying, but he’s doing it intentionally to incite certain people, which would include left-leaning journalists and most of the left-leaning politicians.”
- Jim Rutenberg, Trump’s Attacks on the News Media Are Working, NYT, Oct. 28, 2018


President Trump went out of his way on Friday to distance himself from Matthew G. Whitaker, his choice to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general, saying repeatedly that he did not know Mr. Whitaker and had not spoken to him and emphasizing that the new attorney general was merely “there in an acting position.”

“I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” Mr. Trump told reporters.... ...
In addition, the president’s claim that he did not know Mr. Whitaker was called into question by Mr. Trump’s own words from just about a month ago, when he said in a “Fox & Friends” interview: “I can tell you Matt Whitaker’s a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.”

Mr. Whitaker has also visited the Oval Office several times and is said to have an easy chemistry with the president, according to people familiar with the relationship. And the president has regarded Mr. Whitaker as his eyes and ears at the Justice Department.
- Eileen Sullivan and Katie Benner, Trump on Friday: ‘I Don’t Know Matt Whitaker.’ Trump Last Month: ‘I Know Matt Whitaker.’, NYT, Nov. 9, 2018


Supporters of the tax cuts repeatedly claimed the bill would increase economic growth enough to offset the decline in tax receipts. “I'm totally convinced this is a revenue-neutral bill,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, when a preliminary version of the bill was approved in the Senate in December 2017.

Despite a remarkably strong economy, the fiscal health of the United States is deteriorating fast, as revenues have declined sharply. The federal budget deficit — the gap between what the government collects in revenues and what it spends — rose to $779 billion in the 2018 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. That was a 17 percent increase from the prior year.
It’s highly unusual for deficits and borrowing needs to grow this much during periods of prosperity. A broad variety of analysts attribute the widening deficit to the tax cuts (along with increased military and other domestic spending ushered in through a bill Mr. Trump signed earlier this year).

Corporate tax revenues are down one-third from a year ago. Federal revenues as a whole ran $200 billion behind the Congressional Budget Office’s forecast for the 2018 fiscal year — even though economic growth was faster than the C.B.O. expected. The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reports that nominal federal revenues are down by at least 3.6 percent since the tax cuts took effect. ...
The Treasury expects to borrow a total of $1.338 trillion from global investors this calendar year. That would be 145 percent higher than the $546 billion the federal government borrowed last year.
- Jim Tankersley and Matt Phillips, Trump’s Tax Cut Was Supposed to Change Corporate Behavior. Here’s What Happened., NYT, Nov. 12, 2018


Everything is up in the air in the Britain’s tumultuous politics right now, but there is one certainty: There is no limit to the practical, economic and psychological damage these Brexiteers are prepared to inflict on the rest of us in the pursuit of their delusions or their demented desire for power. ...
If they were reasonable people, the pro-Brexit faction would now be shocked into facing reality. But they are not. These are the same politicians who tricked voters out of Europe by promising them that leaving would be all gain and no pain. ...
It was always rubbish, marketed by people deliberately indifferent to facts. The European Union was never going to let us leave the club while retaining all the advantages of belonging, any more than a tennis club allows ex-members to use the facilities for free.
- Jenni Russell, The Men Who Want to Push Britain Off a Cliff, NYT, Nov. 16, 2018


“It feels very lonely out here,” said Jamie McDaniel, a 36-year-old home health care worker in Topeka, Kan. .... ...
“I prefer to be in the dark because of all of the hostility going on,” she said. ...
The ugliness of politics has turned some people off. ...
''“I guess I would have to say that I’m completely confused as to who is lying and who is telling the truth,” Ms. Vetter said. “I just feel helpless.”
“For the last two years it’s been impossible to go to a bar on a Monday night and not have to talk about politics,” he said. “Most Americans are sick of that. I think you can win in 2020 by promising that if you become president, people can go back to talking about football.”
- Sabrina Tavernise, These Americans Are Done With Politics, NYT, Nov. 17, 2018


And what did “Trump” say Democrats would do? Why, that they would “eviscerate” the current Medicare program. Oh, and that they would turn America into Venezuela. Because that’s what has happened to countries that really do have single-payer, like Canada and Denmark.

Why do Republicans think they can get away with such blatant lies? Partly it’s because they expect their Fox-watching followers to believe anything they’re told.

But it’s also because they can still count on enablers in the mainstream news media. After all, why did USA Today approve this piece? Letting Trump express his opinion is one thing; giving him a platform for blatant lies is another. And as fact-checker Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post put it, “Almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood.”
- Paul Krugman, Goodbye, Political Spin, Hello Blatant Lies, NYT, Oct. 11, 2018


“Something has gone wrong in the university — especially in certain fields within the humanities,” the three authors of the fake papers wrote in an article in the online journal Areo explaining what they had done. “Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields.”

Their project quickly drew comparisons to a famous 1996 hoax in which the physicist Alan Sokal got a paper mixing postmodern philosophy with the theory of quantum gravity into a prestigious cultural studies journal.

But while that hoax involved a single article, the new one involved 20 papers, produced every two weeks or so, submitted to various journals over nearly a year.

The authors — Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian — said that four papers had been published; three had been accepted but not yet published; seven were under review and six had been rejected.
- Jennifer Schuessler, Hoaxers Slip Breastaurants and Dog-Park Sex Into Journals, NYT, Oct. 4, 2018


Mr. Trump had begun the day appearing to soften his stance somewhat on the wall. In a series of morning tweets, he falsely stated that substantial sections of the “Great Wall” on the southwestern border that he has long championed have already been completed, and he suggested that his administration could continue construction whether Democrats fund it or not.

That would be illegal, but it suggested that he was looking for a way to keep the government funded past Dec. 21, even if Democrats balk at wall funding.
- Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael Tackett, Trump Vows to Shut Down Government if Border Wall Is Not Funded, NYT, Dec. 11, 2018



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