Whether he wins or loses in one week’s time, one of the most despicable legacies Donald Trump will bequeath to us is the violence he has done to our nation’s capacity to know and have faith in the truth. Two words, “fake news,” which entered our language a few years ago to safeguard us against spurious stories from the yellow press, have now come to mean anything that is unflattering about Donald Trump. Trump has co-opted the term for his own personal misuse. It is a disgraceful bastardization of a language Trump isn’t competent to use in the first place.
In order to combat the violence inflicted on our culture by Trump, two simple truths desperately need to be taught in every American school. The first is: the burden of proof rests with the claimant. The second is: the plural of anecdote is not data. Should these two fundamental truths be learned thoroughly — not just by rote but with actual insight and understanding — it would be much harder for Republicans and other criminal opportunists like Trump to get away with lying, because most people would be better equipped to see through those lies.
Permit me to give you an example of each. In a recent Fox News interview, Ronna McDaniel was asked by Chris Wallace, “Do you have any proof — because he’s denied it — do you have any proof that Joe Biden ever took one penny from either a foreign country or a foreign company?” To which the smug and smiling Ms. McDaniels replied, “I think that’s incumbent upon the press to start investigating …” No it’s not. It’s incumbent upon Ms. McDaniel to provide the evidence or shut up. She can’t provide the evidence because there isn’t any.
Many people see this kind of idiocy from conspiracy theorists all the time online but don’t know what to say about it because its refutation is not taught in schools. When some smug self-anointed Einstein calls you something devastatingly original, like, oh I dunno, a “sheeple,” for example, for believing the evidence of your own eyes and not bothering to dig deeper into their dark paranoid world of wacko theories of Deep States and worldwide cabals, they’re hoping you won’t notice they’re trying to shift responsibility for actual work from themselves on to you. They are, in fact, trying to shift the burden of proof. Don’t fall for it because, again, the burden of proof rests with the claimant. Not you.
Two real geniuses once put it this way. Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Christopher Hitchens put it this way. “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
The reason Ms. McDaniels wants the press to investigate Biden for economic impropriety with other countries is because it looks bad for Biden. Similarly, Donald Trump wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens because he knew it would look bad for Biden. In fact, he didn’t really even want Zelensky to investigate the Bidens, he just wanted Zelensky to announce an investigation. Don’t fall for it. The whole burden of proof rests with the claimants. If they have something, show us the evidence. Otherwise shut up about it.
You see this kind of brainless shell game all the time. The claimants hint darkly about something nefarious and it’s up to us to dig in and find out what’s really going on. One trouble with this kind of thinking is there’s so bloody much of this kind of nonsense out there and people simply don’t have time for it. So if they have something substantial then they can present it. But expecting us to do their work is just lazy and dishonest.
The other truth, that the plural of anecdote is not data, is exemplified in short clips endlessly retweeted by Trump apologists on Twitter. These clips may show a person of color or a group of people of color engaging in violence against police officers or others, for example. Naturally we abhor such actions and we are opposed to violent protests. We also know such things go on in isolated instances. But they don’t represent the Black Lives Matter movement. The vast majority of protests are peaceful. The overwhelming majority of people of color who protest at BLM rallies are peaceful. But when Republicans show clips of isolated incidents they hope we will be seduced into thinking that they are representative of the whole movement and most of the movement’s supporters, even when they are not.
This is why crackpot homeopathy health companies give anecdotal evidence to support their “miracle” claims. They don’t have hard, scientific, double blind experimental statistical data, and they’re hoping you won’t notice. Instead they use lots of anecdotes from individuals claiming success. But again, anecdote is not the plural of data. An anecdote is just one one person’s subjective experience, and it’s not just inconclusive, it is often misleading. Statistics are tools of science, so it’s little wonder why Republicans distrust science.
If most people understood just these two truths, Republicans in general and Trump in particularly would have had a lot harder time deceiving us. The better educated we as a nation become, the harder it will be for evil people to fool us. Let’s step up on November third and show the world that rational thought is still in charge in the United States of America. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.