There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.
Our political climate and capability as a nation to engage each other in meaningful, respectful conversations has plummeted to dismal lows. The best description of our 2016 political campaign is a “rolling dumpster fire.” At the core of all of our dysfunction is a critical break from fact-based discussion, confronting objective reality and the ascendency of emotion and spin into the fact-vacuum and alternative reality. One might think that working at a scientific-engineering Laboratory would free me from this appalling trend, but the same dynamic is acutely felt there too. The elements undermining facts and reality in our public life are infesting my work. Many institutions are failing society and contributing to the slow-motion disaster we have seen unfolding. We need to face this issue head-on and rebuild our important institutions and restore our functioning society, democracy and governance.
A big part of the public divorce from facts is the lack of respect and admiration for expertise. Just as the experts and the elite have become suspicious and suspect in the broader public sphere, the same thing has happened in the conduct of science. In many ways the undermining of expertise in science is even worse and more corrosive. Increasingly, there is no tolerance or space for the intrusion of expertise into the conduct of scientific or engineering work. The way this tolerance manifests itself is subtle and poisonous. Expertise is tolerated and welcomed as long as it is confirmatory and positive. Expertise is not allowed to offer strong criticism or the slightest rebuke without regard for the shoddiness of work. If an expert does offer anything that seems critical or negative they can expect to be dismissed and never invited back to provide feedback again. Rather than welcome their service and attention, they are derided as troublemakers and malcontents. We see in every corner of the scientific and technical World a steady intrusion of mediocrity and outright bullshit into our discourse as a result.
Let’s give an example of how this plays out. I’ve seen this happen personally and witnessed it play out via external reviews I observed. I’ve been brought in
to to review technical work for a large important project. The expected outcome was a “rubber stamp” that said the work was excellent, and offered no serious objections. Basically the management wanted me to sign off on the work as being awesome. Instead, I found a number of profound weaknesses in the work, and pointed these out along with some suggested corrective actions. These observations were dismissed and never addressed by the team conducting the work. It became perfectly clear that no such critical feedback was welcome and I wouldn’t be invited back. Worse yet, I was punished for my trouble. I was sent a very clear and unequivocal message, “don’t ever be critical of our work.”
This personal example of dysfunction is simply the tip of the iceberg for an adversarial attitude toward critical feedback. . We have external review committees visit and treated the same. Most seasoned reviewers know that this is not to be a critical review. It is a light touch and everyone expects to get a glowing report. Any real issues are addressed on the down low and even that is treated with kid gloves. If any reviewer has the audacity to raise an important issue they can expect not to be ever invited back. The end result is the increasingly meaningless nature of any review, and the hollowing out of expertise’s seal of approval. In the process experts and expertise become covered in the bullshit they pedal and become diminished in the end.
This dynamic in review is widespread and fuels the rise of bullshit in public life as well as science and engineering. This propensity to bullshit is driven by a system that cannot deal with conflict or critical feedback. Moreover the system is tilted toward a preconceived result, all is well and no changes are necessary. When this is not the case one is confronted with engaging in conflict against these expectations, or simply getting in line with the bullshit. More and more the bullshit is winning the day. I’ve been personally punished for not towing the line and making a stink. I’ve seen others punished too. It is very clear that failing to provide the desired result bullshit will be punished. The punishments for honesty means that bullshit is on the rise as nothing exists to produce a drive toward quality and results. In the end bullshit is a lot less effort and rewarded a lot more highly.
At the end of the day we can see that the system starts to seriously erode integrity at every level. This is exactly what we are witnessing society-wide. Institutions across the spectrum of public and private life are losing their integrity. Such erosion of integrity in an environment that cannot deal with critical feedback produces a negative loop that feeds upon itself. Bullshit begets more bullshit until the whole thing collapses. We may have just witnessed what the collapse of our political system looks like. We had an election that was almost completely bullshit start to finish. We have elected a completely and utterly incompetent bullshit artist president. Donald Trump was completely unfit to hold office, but he is a consummate con man and bullshit artist. In a sense he is the emblem of the age and the perfect exemplar of our addiction to bullshit over substance.
I personally see myself as a person of substance and integrity. It is increasingly difficult to square who I am with the system I am embedded in. I am not a bullshitter, when I produce bullshit people notice, and I am embarrassed. I am a straight shooter who is committed to progress and excellence. I have a broad set of expertise in science and engineering with a deep desire to contribute to meaningful things. This fundamental nature is increasingly at odds with how the World operates today. I feel a deep drive on the part of the workplace to squash everything positive I stand for. In the place of standing up for my basic nature as a scientific expert, a member of the elite, if you will, I am expected to tow the line and produce bullshit. This bullshit is there to avoid dealing with real issues head on and avoid conflict. The very nature of things stands in opposition to progress and quality, which are threatened by the current milieu.
This gets to the heart of the discussion about what we are losing in this dynamic. We are losing progress society wide. When we allow bullshit to creep into every judgment we make, progress is sacrificed. We bury immediate conflict for long-term decline and plant the seeds for far more deep, widespread and damaging conflict. Such horrible conflict may be unfolding right in front of us in the nature of the political process. By finding our problems and being critical we identify where progress can be made, where work can be done to make the World better. By bullshitting our way through things, the problems persist and fester and progress is sacrificed.
In the current environment where expertise is suspect we see wrong beliefs persist without any real resistance. Falsehoods and myths stand shoulder to shoulder with trust and get treated with equivalence. In this atmosphere the sort of political movements founded completely on absolute bullshit can thrive. Make no mistake, Donald Trump is a master bullshitter, and completely lacks all substance, yet in today’s World he has complete viability. All of us are responsible because we have allowed bullshit to stand on even footing with fact. We have allowed the mechanisms and institutions standing in the way of such bullshit to be weakened and infested with bullshit too. It is time to stand up for truth, integrity and expertise as a shield against this assault against society.
Everything present in the political rise of Donald Trump is playing out in the dynamic at my workplace. It is not as extreme and its presence is subtle, but it is there. We have allowed bullshit to become ubiquitous and accepted. We turn away from calling bullshit out and demanding that real integrity be applied to our work. In the process we implicitly aid and abed the forces in society undermining progress toward a better future. The result of this acceptance of bullshit can be seen in the reduced production of innovation, and breakthrough work, but most acutely in the decay of these institutions.
We have lost the ability to demand difficult decisions to solve seemingly intractable problems. When we do not operate on facts, we can turn away from difficulties and soothe ourselves with falsehoods. Instead of identifying problems and working toward progressive solutions, the problems are minimized and allowed to fester. This is true in the broader public sphere as well as in our scientific environment. I have been actively discouraged from pointing out problems or being critical. The result is stagnation and the steady persistence of problematic states. Instead of working to solve weaknesses, we are urged to accept them or explain them away. This will ultimately yield a catastrophic outcome. At the National level we may have just witnessed such a catastrophe play out in plain view.
In the workplace I feel the key question to ask is “If we don’t look for problems, how can we do important work?” Progress depends on finding weakness and attacking it. This is the principle that I focus on. Confidence comes from being sure you know where to look for problems and up to the challenge of solving them. Empty positivity is a sign of weakness. Yet this is exactly what I am being asked to do at work. The resulting bullshit is a sign of weakness and lack of confidence is being able to constructively solve problems. The need to be positive all the time and avoid criticism is weakness, lack of drive, and lack of conviction in the possibility of progress. We need to refresh out commitment to be constructively critical in the knowledge and belief that we are equal to the task of making the World better. This means stamping out bullshit wherever we see it. There is a lot to do because today we are drowning in it.
With the benefit of time i have a couple projections for the future:
- The GOP and President Trump will do little or nothing to help the people that voted for them. The key to our democracy is whether they will take any responsibility. If history is our guide they will deflect the blame onto minorities, LBGT, women and
everyone, but themselves. Will the people fall for the same con as they did when they elected these charlatans?
- Things will be very dark and dismal for an extended time, and we will spiral toward violence. This may be violence directed by the new ruling class against “enemies of the state”. It also may be violence directed toward the ruling class. Mark my words blood will be shed by Americans at the hands of other Americans.
- The only way out of this darkness is to work steadfastly to repair our institutions and figure out how to solve our problems in a collective manner for the benefit of all. I work for one of these institutions and we should be taking a long hard look at our role in the great unraveling we are in the midst of.
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
― John Adams
Footnote: I started writing this on Monday, and like almost everyone I thought the election would turn out differently. It was a genuinely shocking result that makes this topic all the more timely. Instead the results amplified the importance of this entire discussion immensely. The prospect of a President Trump fills me with dread because of the very issues discussed here. Trump exists in an alternative reality and his lack of presence in an objective reality will have real consequences. He is a reality TV star and professional buffoon. He is the most stunningly unqualified person to ever hold that office. I fear what is coming. I also feel the need to be resolved to pick up the pieces from the disaster that will likely unfold. We need to rebuild our institutions and reinstitute a knowledge/facts/reality based governance to guide society forward.