Friday, May 12, 2017

How should you engage with Trump and Brexit supporters?

Trump's election win surprised many, including me. Most people underestimated the level of resentment towards "elites" and the "establishment", particularly among working class white voters. This was also a factor in Brexit.

This post is about how scientists and university faculty might engage more effectively with such groups. Some of the concerns I have are similar to those I have about Marching for Science.

Over the past six months I have read some articles and had some interesting conversations with people in both the USA and Australia, who either voted for Trump or would have. What surprised and shocked me was, even among some ``well educated'' people, was the level of distrust and resentment towards the "elites"? [``You should not believe anything in the New York Times... Trump is telling the truth about crime statistics... We aren't safe.. All these liberals had it coming....'']
I also found helpful the book, Hillbilly Elegy.

My wife is a US citizen and one of her relatives in the USA works at a state university and sent us a popular newspaper article, written by a local faculty member, that aims to open a dialogue with a particular demographic that voted heavily for Trump. I largely agree with the author and have some similar political and religious views. I particularly liked the sincerity of the attempt to open a dialogue on several specific issues. However, there were several aspects to the article that I thought underlies the problem we face, rather than moving towards a real dialogue. I have made the debatable decision to not link to the actual article, because of the negative comments I make about the author and I am worried some of the content and issues discussed may distract readers from my points, which I think are part of broader challenges.

We are the elite.
The author claims they are not elite because they have a working class background and never studied at, or worked at, an Ivy League university.
I disagree. The author is a full Professor and has an annual salary of US$100 K [At that state university the salary of all employees is public and can be looked up in minutes.] In addition, they and their family may receive significant health care benefits and college tuition subsidies. They will keep their job until they choose to retire in their sixties (or even later) on a generous pension.
A survey found that the average american thinks that $122K per year makes someone "rich".
I would think the author (like me) is in the global one per cent. Furthermore, they have a job where they have fun teaching and researching subjects [in the social sciences and humanities] that many (but not me) would consider are "soft" or "left wing", and of no "economic" benefit.
Let me be clear, I think the remuneration, job security, and academic freedom of faculty is generally appropriate and important. We may not be Wall Street investment bankers or highly paid political consultants. But, we should acknowledge that we are part of the elite and privileged, regardless of our backgrounds.

Why should people trust us?
The author says that Trump voters should trust and respect the expertise of faculty on scientific, social,  economic and policy matters. "You don't seem to understand that our work goes through the extremely rigorous process of peer review."
In physical sciences, a lot of nonsense still gets published, especially in ``high impact'' journals. The social sciences and humanities are arguably even worse.
Hype from scientists, soft action by universities on scientific fraud (this New York Times article includes the photo below of the relevant professor with his private art collection!), and excessive university administrator salaries, is not helping create trust and respect.

Don't talk down to people who are less educated.
Although, I felt the author tried hard to engage the Trump supporters I could not but help feel (perhaps unfairly) that they were talking down to their audience. ``We know what is right and what is best for you. You really aren't smart enough to understand...''
This problem can also occur when scientists interact with groups such as climate change ``skeptics'' and young earth creationists.
I know that at times I am not as patient or as diplomatic as I could be.

What do you think? Are these general concerns part of the problem?


  1. Relieved finally there's a physicist who display some humanity in common with the so-called grassroots. You know how disappointed here in UK have known any physicist kind of understanding the situation. Most people simply put a label on those who voted for BREXIT and distainfully look down at them. My ultimate relieve is, believe it or not, there is still THE LORD!

  2. I would be careful about ridiculing the idea that scientists should be trusted just because bad papers get published. It is obviously true that the peer review process is flawed, but I presume you agree that we should be using scientific analysis to determine rational public policy. Sowing mistrust only helps those who dismiss climate change as a hoax or who wish to frighten parents into not vaccinating their children. I think the real problem is not a mistrust of scientific results, but a mistrust of our motives as scientists. Unscrupulous politicians have been successful in suggesting, not that we are incompetent, but that we have an agenda that opposes the interests of those in poorer communities, i.e., if I work on battery research, it must be because I am a liberal that despises coal miners. I'm not sure I know how to combat that perception.

  3. article by B Sanders after election.
    From the above article.
    "They are tired of having chief executives make 300 times what they do, while 52 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent"

    About science
    From the above citation here below
    In Novum Organum, FRancis Bacon wrote: ‘Empiricists are like ants; they accumulate and use. Rationalists spin webs like spiders. The best method is that of the bee; it is somewhere in between, taking existing material and using it... and then ..... the article goes on to say " and then a modern Baconian method that incorporates reductionist ideas through data-mining, ....

    Ray Osborne
    "if I work on battery research, it must be because I am a liberal that despises coal miners" is akin to saying that pro climate change supporters are leftists and climate sceptics are rightists.

  4. @Ray Osborne

    Science is not trusted not simply because peer review is imperfect (by the way, no peer review can be perfect). Out there there are far too many stuff self proclaimed science, while actually should be something Feynmann dubbed pseudoscience. What makes it worse, there are social/political powers that prevent non-mainstream researchers from having their voices properly heard. I remain to be convinced that global warming is happening. As a physicist, I see both evidence and counter-evidence, and I do not think the issue is settled, much the same as the inflation theory recently getting hotly debated. Yet sadly, the mainstream simply labels those who seriously consider the counter evidences 'sceptic/denier'. This is certainly not scientific. We cannot predict weather a few days beyond. How can we predict the climate in tens of years? So far I see no modeling matching observations.

  5. I should apologize to Ross - I had no idea that climate trolls would be reading your blog.

    1. Thanks. But there is no need to apologise. You wrote a comment that I found thoughtful, helpful, and stimulating. You are not responsible for what others do with it.

  6. Peer review. Information about DNA structure
    Crick and Watson model.
    "All three papers appeared with no peer review — unthinkable now"

    The above lines from Nature journal . Please see below.

    Please keep writing and keep up the emergence of your Descartesian view with elaborate Baconiasm. Diplomacy is like curve fitting too many data points.

  7. A bit more self-awareness would go a long way. There were some frankly hysterical and unbecoming reactions among too many academics, about the vote going the "wrong" way. We need to call out such behavior, as it reinforces the stereotypes and does nobody any favors. There is clearly a liberal/left-wing bubble which pervades academia and some of those inside it seem to think that they have a monopoly on both intellect and morality, whereas in fact academia is probably as (if not more) prone to groupthink than any other sector of society, and having multiple degrees doesn't necessarily make you smarter than others.

  8. Very much agrees with the anonymous comments !