Last week the Guardian online published a disturbing article under the headline “I’m an Artic researcher. Donald Trump is deleting my citations”. The author noted that links to research on climate change on US government websites no longer worked, and expressed concern that this is part of an effort by Trump’s administration to deny people access to information about climate change.
It seemed to signal a return to the dark ages when the great works of history were preserved only by the determination of Irish monks. And indeed, fearful that Trump would destroy the sites containing their research a number of scientists and concerned citizens have engaged in a massive global operation of copying the data before it disappeared.
I shared their sense of outrage until I discovered what was really happening. It is apparently standard practice when a new US administration comes into power to archive the US government websites maintained in the previous administration. Trump has not deleted citations. Everything that was previously available at whitehouse.gov is now available at obamawhitehouse.gov.
I am deeply troubled by the climate approach of the Trump White House, but the flurry of activity copying websites around the world in the fear they were all to be deleted shows that those of us on the left might be as susceptible to a good conspiracy theory as those on the right. It seems to me to hold salutary lessons as we move into an era in which the divide between left and right is becoming ever more pronounced and populist politics are enjoying great favour.
First, we are all inclined to “confirmation bias”, to paying attention to those bits of research and commentary that confirm our own biases. I don’t think we can ever escape confirmation bias, but being aware of it and taking active steps to pay attention to research that challenges our views and opinions that are different from our own go a long way to helping us avoid the ignorance that confirmation bias induces.
Second, we are inclined to believe the worst about those who differ from us and the best about ourselves. Yet while people are capable of all kinds of despicable behaviours, this does not mean they are actually engaging in all kinds of despicable behaviours. In my experience, people (including myself) are complex and full of contradictions. They surprise me one day with their generosity and warmth and equally surprise me the next with their stubbornness and hatreds.
Third, we are inclined to associate with those who are like us. The digital revolution means we have access to so many sources of information and commentary that many of us retreat into information ghettos in which all we hear are the echoes of our own biases and opinions. The mobility and communications revolutions mean we no longer need to associate with people who are different to us, but can form social networks in which we hang out with people just like us. This will only lead us into a downward spiral of division, fear and misunderstanding.
The only way I am able to combat these inclinations in myself is to make sure my reading, thinking, and circle of relationships include those who see the world differently to me.