Is the War on Science Over? Why We’re Optimistic
“In its purest form, post-truth is when one thinks that the crowd’s reaction actually does change the facts about a lie.” — Lee McIntyre
Former President Trump’s second impeachment is now over (he was found “not guilty.”) It came out of the events of January 6, 2021, when lawmakers were certifying electoral votes and Trump supporters broke into the Capitol shortly after a speech in which Trump claimed, again, that the election was stolen from him.
Whether you support Trump or not, and whether you call the events of January 6 a legitimate protest or an insurrection, the claim that the election was stolen—with no evidence of fraud to back it up—is essentially a “post-truth” claim. Post-truth sounds like a fancy word for lying, but there is more to it than that.
Lee McIntyre wrote about post-truth in a book of that name, with a cover that features an illustration of a hand with crossed fingers—the kind of thing you do behind your back when telling a lie. The quote at the front is George Orwell’s: “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.
“In its purest form,” McIntyre says in the first chapter, “post-truth is when one thinks that the crowd’s reaction actually does change the facts about a lie.” You can see this at work on January 6. In a post-truth world, the crowd and its reaction somehow confirms the claim that the election was stolen, in a kind of reverse justification.
Science Under the Biden Administration
No one is perfect, no matter what side of the political divide we’re on, be it left, right, or center. But the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth is fundamental to both law and science, which rely on evidence and rational debate to get at the truth. Post-truth and anti-science, however, reject objective truth: The election was stolen. COVID-19 is a hoax. And so on.
Post-truth and anti-science are two sides of the same coin.
As we wrote last November about the ongoing war on science, the National Commission on Forensic Science was disbanded shortly after Trump took office in 2017. The Commission was created to elevate the standards of forensic science, to improve the quality of evidence used to convict people accused of crimes. But in the post-truth context, high standards in forensic science don’t matter as much, not when “law and order” and being “tough on crime” is thought to be more important than due process and a fair trial.
It’s easy to be optimistic over the hashtag #ScienceIsBack and what the hashtag represents—not from a political standpoint, but from our perspective as criminal defense lawyers. Eric Lander used this hashtag on Twitter when announcing his nomination as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under Biden, prompting writers for The Intercept to ask, “Will bringing science back to the White House reinvigorate forensics reform?”
“Save for DNA analysis,” wrote Jordan Smith, “forensic science disciplines were mainly developed according to the needs of law enforcement—bereft of scientific underpinning. That’s particularly true of so-called pattern-matching practices like fingerprint analysis, firearm analysis, bite-mark analysis, shoe tread analysis, and handwriting analysis, all of which involve an ‘expert’ looking at a piece of evidence and visually tying it to a suspect.”
There are nearly always many different factors in a case, but to use a simple example: The cut-off for DUI in terms of blood-alcohol content is 0.08, which means criminal consequences, whereas 0.07 fails to meet the threshold for criminal liability. The difference between these numbers isn’t much—but it’s huge when it comes to the accused driver’s guilt or innocence. This means that accurate testing is important. So, we had better get the science right.