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.]

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