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M Forward

semi random thoughts on political engagement

I’m an Indivisible member, I’m a progressive, and I’m a registered and active Democrat. But first and foremost, I’m a scientist, an engineer, and a humanist. I look at issues and campaigns from that perspective – is there a rational basis for something I’ve heard? In particular, is it based on evidence, or did someone just toss some words into a salad?

This point of view leads me to be deeply concerned with the ongoing rebellion against expertise. Unfortunately, for far too many people, the more credentials someone has, the less they are believed. We can see this in unsupported claims of electoral fraud. But another trend that is at least as concerning is the rejection of informed public health recommendations. We’ve seen the increase in deaths from Covid for Republicans over Democrats after vaccines were available, which may well have been caused by right wing political skepticism.

We’re also seeing suppression of research, even with a Democratic executive and Senate. A small number of radicals in a tiny Republican majority in the U.S. House have been able to inhibit research funding in Federal agencies. As noted in this Washington Post article, research into misinformation on social media is being suppressed. This happens because funders are extremely wary about offending appropriators, so they often self-censor.

In a previous life, I often applied for grants from Federal organizations like the National Science Foundation (NSF). While most of my proposals were to fund technology, in my later years as a researcher I was increasingly interested in studying the effects of money on politics. This was not fundable from the Federal government. NSF and other such sources had been warned by Republican Congressmen that they were not to fund any research that was viewed as “political.” Program managers understood that anything remotely like this could get them in trouble, so such proposals were a non-starter.

That was bad, but it was mild compared to what is happening now. In addition to concerns about losing appropriations, government officials (and others, including librarians and election workers) now have the added worry of personal safety. The Orange One’s cult has encouraged fringe actors to threaten and sometimes actually carry out violent acts, and many in prominent positions in science and medicine have to take this into account.

And of course, there’s still the election denial, which goes on, and on, and on … this too embodies a rejection of professionalism and expertise. I was reminded of this when I recently went to the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center (MCTEC), along with a group of Democrats from my LD. In another era, this tour would have been fairly boring. It comprised a tutorial on the process of ballot-handling, showing us machines and rooms where the work is done. Informative but ordinary.

But in this paranoid political atmosphere, the presentation was dramatic. In fact, the very prosaic nature of the process stood out as a contrast to the continual flood of conspiracy theories. Each time we were shown records of the number of ballots at each point in the process, it presented a clear contrast to the conspiratorial nonsense that we often hear, over and over.

I supposed we could think of it as a tribute to human imagination, that people can always come up with another fantasy cause for an undesired outcome. The potential for imagined explanation is unlimited. Consequently, those who work at knocking down false claims about election fraud have an unlimited task (I’m thinking here of people like Garret Archer, ABC15’s “Data Guru”.) It doesn’t matter how many nefarious schemes are ruled out with facts and logic; people can always come up with more nonsense.

I think of this all as a kind of fever dream. I’m hoping that the country can wake up soon.

But it will take more than just yelling facts at our fellow citizens to turn this around. More on that topic another time.

Nelson Morgan, (Morgan) an Emeritus Professor at the University of California at Berkeley and former director of the International Computer Science Institute, is the author of “We Can Fix It: How to disrupt the Impact of Big Money on politics”, with a foreword by George Lakoff. He lives in Phoenix, and currently volunteers for both Indivisible and the Democratic Party, with a particular interest in redistricting (2030 is closer than you think)


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