The Big Picture: Trump’s Attack on Knowledge

This is the final installment of The Big Picture, a public symposium on what’s at stake in Trump’s America, co-organized by Public Books and NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge. Read IPK Director Eric Klinenberg’s introduction here.
On any particular policy, we can always hope President Trump will flip-flop. Expel the Dreamers; save the Dreamers. Maybe he’ll keep the US in the Paris climate accords after all. Threaten Kim Jong ...

On any particular policy, we can always hope President Trump will flip-flop. Expel the Dreamers; save the Dreamers. Maybe he’ll keep the US in the Paris climate accords after all. Threaten Kim Jong-un, but not really blow up the world. One thing we can know for sure: whatever Trump does, it won’t be on the basis of knowledge—not even, it would appear, knowledge of his own enduring values.

Trump is resolutely against knowledge. It’s not just that he doesn’t have much, or that too much of what he thinks is true is really false. The very idea of knowledge seems to make him uncomfortable. He takes the notion that he can’t make up whatever truth he wants as a personal affront, a limit to his autonomy, and an insult to his narcissistic ego. He believes in being smart—and brags frequently about his IQ. I’m sure he believes in information, preferably insider information about stock trades, real estate opportunities, or what his enemies are up to. He just doesn’t believe in knowledge.

Correct information is a first step in knowledge. But whether it is embodied in theories or practical reason, knowledge is more than just discrete and isolated facts. It is the ability to judge alleged statements of fact, the ability to put these together in meaningful ways—to “connect the dots,” and to understand the implications.

We know Trump is at ease with lying. He lies habitually; lies to himself; and believes his lies. His claim that more people attended his inauguration than Obama’s could be checked and proven false by photos, videos, and Park Service reports—but that didn’t seem to bother him (though contradiction on that basis did). He lied to get elected. He lied about his failure to marshal assistance for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. He lies about economic policy and about the risks of nuclear war. He lies about health care and the environment. He lies about whether Mexico is really going to pay for a wall on our mutual border. He lies about his own behavior. This is pervasive and extraordinarily damaging. But lying is not the whole issue.


Ignorance as Well as Deceit

Trump mocks experts and panders to poorly supported opinions. He favors ad hoc policy-making over careful analysis and preparation. If Donald Trump baked, he would yell at cakes to rise instead of looking at a recipe.

Trump’s contempt for knowledge shapes his approach to appointing government officials, the gathering of official data, funding education and science, and relating to the news media. It extends to contempt for citizens’ right to know what their government is doing and for the government’s need for knowledge to do its work. This amounts to an attack that threatens to undermine both good governance and one of the foundations of democracy.

Climate change is a prime example. Trump ignores scientific findings about the causes of climate change, encourages public misunderstanding, and makes policy decisions at odds with what science shows. He seems to do this for short-term political expediency, not because of any deep-seated disagreement with prevailing science. It is not that he weighs arguments and evidence pro and con and simply reaches nonstandard conclusions. He shows no willingness to be guided by scientific knowledge—including economic and social science analyses of mitigating and adapting to climate change. When he asserts that he can bring back coal, he wins cheers from workers desperate for jobs, but he misleads them about their real prospects—not least because coal has declined for economic as well as ecological reasons.

Or again, Trump maligned several of his immediate predecessors when he asserted falsely that previous presidents never called the families of soldiers killed in combat. But this doesn’t seem to have been an intentional lie, just a rush to build himself up at the expense of his predecessors with no regard for the truth.

Trump hurries to speak—or tweet—without first finding out what is true. He is like a comedian who tests a joke by seeing whether audiences laugh. If his lines win cheers from crowds, then they are true enough to repeat. But those cheers are not tests of knowledge, only of popularity among self-selected followers. The confusion is ominous.


Blocking Knowledge the Government Needs

Trump’s contempt for truth and honesty is manifest in the many lies he told during his campaign and continues to tell as president. But Trump’s attack on knowledge is more than merely mendacity. Someone could respect knowledge a great deal and lie simply to deprive others of it.

Trump avoids knowledge. He makes policy watching Fox News at 3 a.m. rather than on careful analyses of evidence and arguments. He accepts reports from his aides that cite no data, evidence, or sources, but merely summarize opinions. He disdains the work of intelligence agencies and analysts. He makes no effort to build an administration that brings expertise and honest evidence to its handling of major issues. These all reveal a remarkable conviction that his uninformed opinions are better than actual knowledge. This is the hubris.

Trump has left the presidential Council of Scientific Advisors empty. Indeed, he has so little respect for scientific knowledge that he didn’t invite America’s Nobel Prize winners to the White House. He’s ignored the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, failing to appoint a director. He has cut funding to the US Census, a primary source of honest information about what’s happening in America, linked to the effective administration of a wide range of US government programs and even the establishment of fair electoral districts. In the name of reducing regulation, he backs efforts to limit research and data collection to identify risks and inform policy on issues from pharmaceuticals and health care to toxic chemicals in the environment.

Along with congressional Republicans, Trump attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act without making clear what would be put in its place. This reflects not only a cavalier attitude to the well-being of citizens but a disregard for the importance of knowledge—in government and in public efforts to monitor government. The Congressional Budget Office is a nonpartisan agency mandated by law to supply accurate knowledge about the implications of legislation. It revealed that 22 million more Americans would be uninsured if the repeal bill passed. In response, Trump and some Republican congressional leaders proposed to slash the CBO’s budget or even abolish it.


The Big Picture: Trump’s Charisma

By Steven Lukes

Trump makes much of being a businessman, but he seems to think business is centrally a matter of bluffing, bargaining, and bullying. In fact, business is based in significant part on knowledge—of how production processes work, of what clients or customers want and what suppliers can provide, of how to recruit and retain employees. Innovation doesn’t just happen; it is based on knowledge. Markets depend on the availability of accurate business information. Regulation ensures honest disclosure rather than secrecy or deceit. Businesses are expected to have sound financial accounts and auditors who know how to evaluate them. And this becomes more important the larger and more complex the businesses and the markets.

Knowledge is similarly required to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to organize health care and education, to regulate the banking system, and to set economic or trade policy, environmental policy, and telecommunications and IT policy. Government is required—and requires knowledge that can be taught and checked—because all of these involve complex and very large-scale processes, not just interpersonal transactions that can be managed by two or three people face-to-face based on unsystematic learning from personal experience and anecdote.

This is why education is so important—and the Trump administration attack on public schools so disastrous. Just as dangerous are the proposals Trump endorses to tax graduate students when universities waive their tuition fees.

Knowledge is not all “book learning.” It is also embodied in practical skills—like cooking, making a plumbing system work, or filing a tax return correctly. But in a complex society—and a complex structure of global relationships—it is vital to complement the knowledge gained from experience and embedded in practical expertise with the capacity to use data and conduct analyses to grasp how things work on larger scales.

Knowledge is needed throughout government. Wherever complex processes are at stake, and wherever it is crucial to understand what others may do, then knowledge is necessary. The military knows that knowledge is crucial. Generals don’t organize troop movements just on hunches—or shouldn’t. They investigate conditions and constraints; they gather intelligence on enemy actions; they model possible consequences. We would think it outrageous if the Pentagon just guessed at whether it could move enough supplies to a field of battle to support the soldiers it sends there—and when Pentagon logistics fail, there is harsh criticism.

In general, the US military operates with a high level of knowledge and invests heavily in continually improving its knowledge base. The rest of the government should do the same. But Trump has presided over not only budget cuts but also a widespread hollowing out of those government agencies that should be sources of knowledge.

Trump’s contempt for knowledge undermines the work of those who do bring expertise to their jobs.

The State Department is a glaring example. Evidently Trump does not think US relations with other countries or participation in organizations like the International Monetary Fund should be based on knowledge. He and his secretary of state have left empty many of the positions required to understand foreign countries, what they might do, and how US actions will be perceived and with what consequences. Trump tries to substitute bluster and bluff for knowledge in dealing with North Korea and China. He does not make a serious effort to know what is going on. He watches Fox News and he guesses. Indeed, he has failed to appoint ambassadors to a quarter of the world’s countries. Jobs for intelligence and policy analysts also sit vacant. He treats intelligence agencies with contempt.

This is not an America-first, pro-sovereignty policy. It is incompetence. But it is also resistance to gaining and using knowledge. It affects not just diplomacy in general, but key areas like cybersecurity, nuclear weapons, and policies on trade and tariffs.

Trump has appointed people to senior positions—like White House press secretary—who are laughably (and frighteningly) out of their depth. Other members of the Trump administration are smart enough, but bring little knowledge of the fields in which they are called to work or the agencies they are charged with administering. Some are simply advocates for industries with a financial interest in policy rather than committed to using all available knowledge to design the best policy for the country. This may be because Trump doesn’t like whole areas of policy. He’s happy to have an incompetent head of the EPA because he doesn’t want the EPA to make or administer good environmental policy. He’d like to close it or have it be ineffective.

But Trump also appoints intelligent officials who do seem to know what they are doing, including former generals and corporate CEOs. Presumably he does want to have successful policies in some areas. But it is not clear he gives much respect to the genuine knowledge of his own appointees. He demands absurd displays of flattery from his cabinet. He announces and sometimes denounces policy on the spur of the moment, without even telling the relevant cabinet secretary, let alone conferring on the decision. He undercuts their efforts—as when he told Secretary of State Tillerson he was “wasting his time” on North Korea. Trump’s contempt for knowledge undermines the work of those who do bring expertise to their jobs. Perhaps this signals a fear that their knowledge will diminish his authority or be used to challenge his personal opinions.


The Authority of Knowledge

Believing in knowledge means accepting that it commands authority. While there may be no accounting for taste, as the saying goes, there is accounting for knowledge. It is shared among different people on the basis of reasons to believe, of modes of validation including most crucially logic and evidence. Whether one prefers Mexican food to Chinese, or opera to jazz, may be merely a matter of taste, but there are right and wrong answers to questions like which country is larger—or which has the greater trade imbalance with the US.

Where questions are more complex, science is crucial. Science is a method for producing knowledge, checking it, and improving it, notably by experiment and other sources of empirical evidence and by theory and other applications of logical reasoning. Scientific knowledge is also the basis of less systematic but powerful real-world testing: it produces applications that work; it makes sense of what we do and technologies we use every day. Electricity really does power my toaster. Airplanes heavier than air really do fly.

Alas, I don’t know very much about aerodynamics. My trust in the science that underpins the design and manufacture of engines and wings and the training of pilots is partly based on experience—not falling out of the sky. But it is also based on respect for expertise: the knowledge that enables engineers to make good designs, companies to build good manufacturing facilities, and pilots to make good decisions in the air. I could try to check up on each of these, but without becoming an expert myself that would be hard, and no one could become an expert in every area of knowledge.


How Conservatives Waged a War on Expertise

By Kathryn C. Brownell

This is one of the main reasons we benefit from government agencies—and insurance companies and courts—that do this checking for us. And this is why it is so dangerous that Trump wants the government to rely less on knowledge. Neither he nor anyone else knows everything there is to know on every topic.

Similarly, lawyers are expected to know what is required to make a contract sound, not rely on ad hoc formulations. When the law is unclear, courts exist to resolve disputes. Judges exercise judgment, but based on knowledge of the law, not simply on their personal preferences. As in the case of science, the authority of knowledge rests in part on the ability to check what is argued; for example, to appeal a case to a higher court.

To make knowledge open to checking, challenge, and reconsideration, it ideally should be public. This is especially important in a democracy, where one of the key rights of citizens, one of the central ways in which they may be said to have power, is to reexamine government decisions on the basis of the same knowledge available to legislators. One of the important roles of regulatory agencies is to make sure adequate information is available for this—for, say, consumer protection. But even where knowledge is necessarily restricted—by privacy concerns or security classification, for example—it is important that it be subject to scrutiny and correction by competent specialists. Inside the CIA and other US government agencies there are capacities for such review—though they are now threatened when their findings are politically unpopular.


A Crisis of Trust

The authority of knowledge was in crisis before Trump. He is symptom as well as dramatic exacerbation of that crisis. He was elected partly because a significant number of US citizens distrusted the experts and institutions that are meant to be sources of knowledge. They found truth not so much in detailed policy analyses as in shouts that the “elites” can’t be trusted.

Trump campaigned against knowledge. He systematically discourages relying on knowledge. He publicly devalues it, mocks it in tweets, belittles those who raise evidence-based questions about his policy preferences. This worked for him in connecting to the large part of the American public that had become disillusioned with experts and elites.

Perhaps a third of the electorate seems willing to give credence to whatever Trump says—and refuses to take seriously those who contradict him. These millions of people are not just independent, self-mobilizing anti-intellectuals. Nor did their resentment of elites simply grow spontaneously. They have been guided and goaded by organized and well-funded efforts to persuade them not to trust established institutions and experts, and to have faith in alternative narratives and news sources. These efforts work as well as they do because they are reinforced by the polarization of American public discourse and the containment of different accounts in different echo chambers. At least for some, evidence doesn’t really matter, facts are whatever a website you like says they are, and a politician understood to be on the “right side” can get away with saying anything.

Social media are not friends to in-depth inquiry, rational-critical discourse, or reliance on knowledge. They do expand communication, and of course they are used to circulate serious analyses as well as jejune commentary, cat pictures, and Russian propaganda and disinformation. But vulnerability to hacking and intentional circulation of fake news are major issues. So are business models and reliance on algorithms that discourage effective editing of the posts on Facebook, Twitter, and the others. But social media didn’t create the political polarization that they now exacerbate.

It is not just the political right that has segmented itself into a separate discursive arena; the left has too. Together they have drastically weakened the political center. Instead of a public sphere where views are subjected to debate and rational-critical analysis—ideally informed by knowledge—we seem currently to have only counter-publics, separate arenas trying to achieve their own critical mass and contest the alleged domination of a nonexistent conventional wisdom.

It doesn’t help that necessary expertise is embedded in a structure of unnecessary inequality. This complicates making an effective argument for knowledge. The best-educated experts have attended schools and enjoyed careers that lead them not only to be part of a knowledge elite but also participants in a wider elite culture. This involves not just ostensibly refined tastes, but also the idea that the hierarchy of tastes clearly reflects underlying value. Too many embrace an ideology of meritocracy that pretends unequal outcomes are the result of differences in talent and effort, ignoring the impact of very unequally distributed opportunities.

That knowledge is necessary doesn’t guarantee that it will be used well, shared widely, or kept distinct from claims to status or power.

And along with other kinds of inequality, differences in educational opportunities have grown more extreme in recent decades. Knowledge has come to be treated as a private good to be bought, directly or indirectly, rather than a public good to be shared democratically. Parents, for example, focus on getting their kids into the Ivy League to the exclusion of making sure public universities offer a strong alternative available to all; even public universities have been drawn into constant pursuit of hierarchical distinction. When elites begin to see their own educational and occupational success as evidence that they are better than others, giving them the illusion that privilege is really meritocracy, they are apt to add insult to injury, helping to provoke just the sort of crisis we are seeing.

Elite management of American and global affairs has not been an unmitigated success. Knowledgeable elites with degrees from good universities presided over growing inequality, massive financial crisis, decline of American hegemony, and an escalating national debt held largely by China. Elites may have been in the foreground of calling for action on climate change but they have also tolerated policies producing it. Elites made Middle Eastern policies that brought thousands of deaths—mainly of non-elites—and greater terrorist threats in the course of a depressing and long-lasting military engagement. Trust declined in part because elites were not altogether trustworthy.

Other factors undermined the authority of knowledge even before Trump. Academic attacks on problematic “master narratives” sometimes turned into generalized debunking and challenges to the very ideas of truth and even truthfulness. A false choice between excessive certainty and relativism obscured genuine capacities to move from weaker to stronger knowledge. Ideologues exploited confusion about how science works to portray scientific theories as mere conjectures and imply that because science is a method for continual improvement there is no strong reason to trust current formulations. The Bush-era neoconservative denigration of a “reality-based community” too focused on facts instead of creating a new reality helped to usher in the appeal to “alternative facts” made famous by Trump aide Kellyanne Conway.

Media trivialization has also sometimes undermined trust in scientific knowledge. Hardly a day goes by without newspaper and TV reports of allegedly scientific diet and health “news.” This constantly shifting advice, often based on taking single studies out of context rather than connecting different dimensions of knowledge, encourages the view that what science proclaims today may be dismissed tomorrow. And it doesn’t take a lot of probing to realize that the constant news reports reflect not just a relatively mindless side of the media but also the organization of medical research in a constant pursuit of publicity and funding.

Quite outside the Trump administration and the government, contemporary America faces an erosion of public access to knowledge and openness to scientific assessment and error correction. Increasingly, the data needed for scientific research, checking up on both government and business, and even managing our personal affairs is either not freely available or privately controlled by business corporations. As a result, data quality is often not checked. Access is restricted. And security breaches expose ordinary citizens to extraordinary risks.


The Challenge

A preference for Donald Trump’s bombast and populist gestures is a horribly counterproductive response to genuinely problematic policies and elites too complacent to rethink them adequately. But it does point to a chronic challenge for modern, complex societies. The systems on which they depend—technological, governmental, economic, organizational, media—can only be run on the basis of significant specialized knowledge. This makes expertise critically important. Yet it also creates the potential that experts will pursue their self-interests alongside national (or global) interests and that they will be insufficiently attentive to the implications of their policy choices for a variety of fellow citizens different from themselves.

The fact of this challenge doesn’t excuse the racism and other repugnant attitudes commonly bundled into populist resentments. But it does help us see one of the ways in which societies dependent on advanced knowledge become vulnerable to attacks on knowledge. That knowledge is necessary doesn’t guarantee that it will be used well, shared widely, or kept distinct from claims to status or power.

It’s hard for me to accept that the president of the United States doesn’t like knowledge. I grew up in a household where knowledge was an unchallenged value. My parents read the newspaper and watched the Huntley-Brinkley Report. They asked how I did in school. They read the Bible. They bought my brother and me the World Book Encyclopedia (from a salesman who said it would help us do better in school and even reach beyond what the schools offered in our small Kentucky town). Aiming higher, they even bought a set of gold-embossed leather Great Books endorsed by the University of Chicago, together with its own bookcase, to stand in our front hall as evidence of the fact that we were the sort of people who believed in knowledge. They were not alone. They were part of a broad middle that has all but vanished with political polarization and economic inequality.

Like many, I find Trump shocking and offensive. He is crude. He makes immoral policies. But his attack on knowledge may do damage that far outlasts his repugnant, embarrassing presence in the White House.

What is at stake is not just that Trump makes decisions in ignorance, or that as a result he leads the US government in extremely risky ways. That’s bad enough; indeed, it’s terrifying. But what’s ultimately at stake is the authority of knowledge itself, for Trump is leading an effort to make knowledge less available, less trusted, and less used throughout society.

Yet choices, and thus freedom, depend on knowledge as well as values. If you have no idea of the consequences of your actions, you cannot make good choices. Unintended consequences will potentially overwhelm you and thwart what seemed good intentions. And if the government fails to institutionalize support for knowledge and reliance on knowledge, both democracy and good governance will suffer. This is the dark road Trump and Trumpism are taking us down. icon

Featured image: Jaume Plensa, House of Knowledge (2008). Photograph by Adrien Sifre / Flickr