How did we do in 2019 and what can we expect in 2020? The signs are ominous, obviously. Last week Boris Johnson won the election and will lead Britain out of Europe; the US Congress voted to impeach Trump (though he will not be ousted, but may even win extra votes in the fall election); and the latest COP meeting in Madrid failed. There is violence in Hong Kong, India, Iran, and Iraq.
We mainly complain about the lack of democracy, but the worse truth is that democracy no longer works. When “the people” make decisions, they often make horrible ones, picking leaders and policies that are patently contrary to their own interests. Democratic choices may even extinguish civilization.
Right-wing nationalism is sweeping the world just when enormous change is required. The polls don’t support a Marxian account but a Weberian one: Not class conflict but status envy explains the resentment of these right wingers. It is not the egregious levels of economic inequality that offends their pride; they are not bitter toward billionaires (they love them!) but toward educated elites who, in their self-assured political correctness, show disdain for scientific illiteracy and climate change denial. The gesture of this rebellion is not the uplifted fist but the uplifted middle finger. The whole purpose is to withhold deference from cultural and scientific elites. Donald Trump is their hero, never humiliated, but even proud of his own vulgarity. They may “cut off their nose to spite their face,” but they’ll win.
But perhaps not. There is still hope, for others can also withhold deference, and same even for the sake of decency itself. During this miserable week of the Brexit election and the impeachment hearings, Time Magazine named a sixteen-year-old girl with Asperger’s “person of the year.” Her success came from undeferentially accusing her elders of “stealing her childhood.” Greta Thunberg went to Madrid and displayed simple scorn for the whole crowd of adults. They have not responded to the climate emergency, she said. And while the adults dithered, her troops of teenagers rallied and denounced the authorities.
So a great battle will be fought this year between two armies: Donald Trump and his proudly farting anti-scientists versus Greta Thunberg and her hordes of angry children who fight for science. That is fortunate because science will win. The truth will out in the end—though maybe too late to matter. In the short term, power is more useful. Galileo won eventually, but his power was insufficient in his lifetime. Greta has reality on her side, but children, even armies of children, have little power.
The scientists have power, but do not know it. They could threaten even Trump by refusing to make technology or medicine help him, but scientists don’t think that way. We adults have some power—more than Greta and the children, but our minds are too compromised to use it. We do not really make decisions on the basis of scientific evidence, but in the heat of group dynamics. Greta’s lack of politeness is explained as a disease, for any “normal” sixteen-year-old knows better than to speak the truth as she does. She must be sick, they say.
We need more science. We know too little to make wise decisions now.