Facts, feelings and politics

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Laconia Middle School, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016, in Laconia, N.H. (Evan Vucci/AP)

A few weeks before I came back up to Storrs for the semester, two headlines on the front page of my local newspaper gave me pause. “Global Warming Divides Americans more than Abortion” read the first, and for a second I thought I read it wrong. It seemed inconceivable that Americans would disagree more on what is overwhelmingly regarded in the scientific community (read: the people who research this stuff and actually know what they’re talking about) as a fact than an issue that provokes strong and emotional opinions from all sides. And right next to this was a column stating “Perceptions about higher crime don’t match national, local statistics”. Together, two blatant examples of people’s beliefs and views standing in direct contrast to established fact.

That people’s feelings on important issues digress from the truth of the matter is discouraging, and also surprisingly relevant to the 2016 political season. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has repeatedly lied or spread misinformation on essentially everything, especially statements or views he has held in the past. For example, Trump often likes to repeat the lie that he was opposed to the Iraq War, when we have video evidence proving otherwise. Politifact has rated only 15 percent of his statements as true or mostly true. But Trump isn’t selling facts, he’s selling feelings.

If you watch any of Trump’s speeches you’ll notice they are often light on concrete policy, and instead tend towards evoking strong emotions. To a lot of people that emotion is something like disgust or revulsion, but the constant is fear. Fear of terrorism, immigrants, and crime is provoked by his statements. It is an excellent motivator and a common political tool; to scare people and convince them that you’re the only one who can fix what you make them fear.  

One famous Neil deGrasse Tyson quote states “The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” So in one sense, people believing something contradictory to what the evidence indicates does not matter because it doesn’t change the objective truth of the situation. But it does matter because those beliefs determine the actions they take, which subsequently shapes the world around them. It can be very worrisome when people turn away from facts and data and rely more on how they feel, at least when determining who is going to govern a country.

For example, not believing in climate change could cause members of both Congress and the general public to oppose environmental regulations, even though scientists can use forecasts to model the fact that this will have disastrous consequences for our planet. And scientists are undoubtedly more reliable than politicians.

A politician could say their tax plan will create five million jobs, and the actual number could vary greatly. But if a scientist (or more accurately 97 percent of them) states that we need to cut carbon emissions by a certain amount to avoid certain global repercussions we can trust that they have done research and know what they are talking about.

One noteworthy segment of the global warming article mentioned that having scientists explain their research made some people even more skeptical. We are seeing more and more that scientists and other experts in their respective fields are not regarded with the same degree of confidence they have in the past. People like this are especially prevalent in the Tea Party, where one poll showed that only 28 percent of their respondents trusted scientists on environmental issues. Scientists and experts are viewed more and more as elitists who can’t be relied on. But they are exactly the people we need to trust most, instead of the politicians or pundits who so often alter facts to fit the narrative they want to sell.

We can’t allow ourselves to rely on how we feel when it comes to issues where we can turn to evidence. We need to more readily at put our trust in the experts, and then base our actions off of the data they present to us. Anti-intellectualism is a danger to effective decision-making. Success in everything from crime reduction to climate change necessitates that we listen to the facts and then make informed decisions.


Jacob Kowalski is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.