If you have been paying attention, even a little bit, you know that Donald Trump will become the Republican nominee. And he got here by ignoring facts, according to fact-checkers. Nor has he offered the level of policy details that pundits and voters alike say they want. Combine that with Trump’s non-mainstream ideas on climate change and it seems clear that Trump is not the candidate of science. And that’s a problem because we like science. Science is awesome.
But here’s the wrinkle with the view that Trump is not a man of science. One of the things science knows for sure – without a smidge of doubt – is that humans are irrational and we can be influenced by many things…except the truth. Truth is useless for persuasion whenever emotions are involved.
You know what field has a lot of emotional content? Politics. All of it. It is all emotional, from top to bottom. In politics, facts are generally irrelevant. Facts do come in handy while performing the boring work of governing. But during an election, facts are just noise.
So when Rand Paul (for example) tried to win the nomination with his calm demeanor and command of the issues, he fizzled on the launchpad. No traction whatsoever. That’s because Rand Paul did not understand the SCIENCE of persuasion.
Yeah, it’s a science. See my Persuasion Reading List and check it out for yourself, especially the books Influence, Impossible to Ignore, and Thinking, Fast and Slow. The science of persuasion is robust and settled. People are irrational and their decisions are based on emotion, influence, and random variables. Reason is mostly an illusion.
Which of the many candidates for president this season is familiar with the SCIENCE of persuasion? Only Trump, until recently. He saved time and money by ignoring the stuff that doesn’t matter (facts) while putting all of his energy into the stuff that does. And it is working.
And that bothers a lot of people because we think we love reason, and we think we love the truth. What we don’t know is that we don’t really love reason (or use it) and most of what they think of as the truth is actually cognitive dissonance and bias. Human brains did not evolve to provide us with truth. Our brains evolved to keep us alive. So if the false movie in your head is different from the false movie in mine – but we both survive and procreate – nature is satisfied. Truth is irrelevant.
The inconvenient truth about Trump is that he’s operating on a persuasion level because it is compatible with science. And science is awesome. You might notice that Clinton’s team has recently moved toward the science of persuasion by ramping up the Trump=dictator theme. Science knows humans are terrible at predicting the future, and no one has any reliable prediction on who would be the best president. But if you can persuade voters that they can predict the future – and it is a scary future with President Trump – you might get people to vote for what seems the safer choice of Clinton.
Is Clinton really the safer choice for the world compared to Trump? There is no reliable way to know. It is irrational to believe you can know which candidate would be less safe. But Clinton’s team has done a good job of branding Trump as dangerous, and that’s a sticky label.
But what about Trump and climate change? Trump is going against the scientific consensus. Is that a sign of scientific ignorance?
If your filter on this election assumes Trump is ignorant, his views on climate change looks like a perfect example of more ignorance. But beware of cognitive dissonance. You might be seeing something that isn’t really there. Try another filter and see if you get the same answer. Try the persuasion filter, for example.
When Trump called climate change a “hoax,” he was using the language of persuasion. And persuaders (who understand science) know something you don’t know. They know that the scientific consensus is not to be trusted in any situation in which going against the grain is career suicide.
My personal view – that I need to insert now – is that climate change is a scientific fact. I say that because science says so. If you are NOT a trained persuader, the meaning of my prior sentence is that climate change is true, and real, and undeniable.
If you ARE a trained persuader, you know the facts might be solid, but the interpretation is suspect. And by that I mean the predictive models are less reliable than the underlying data.
I’ll restate my point for clarity.
If you are NOT a trained persuader, the scientific consensus on the climate change PREDICTIONS seem solid to you. If most credible scientists are on the same side, that’s good enough.
If you ARE a trained persuader, you might believe the underlying data shows human-made climate change, but you probably place LOW credibility on the models that say it will destroy the world. In the worldview of a trained persuader, mass-wrongness of experts is a routine feature of our experience. We see it all the time. Just think about your friends who picked the wrong religion and don’t know any better. There are MILLIONS of SMART people who have a similar delusion about the wrong religion. (Here I am assuming your religious belief is the right one, whatever it is. It is only the other people who picked the wrong one.)
Have you heard of the McMartin Preschool Trial? If not, you probably think it is unlikely that the majority of experts on any given topic could be fooled. But trained persuaders see a world in which everyone is living in an illusion all the time. When a million people share the same illusion – even if they are recognized experts – it doesn’t tell you much about reality. It only tells you those experts were persuaded in the same direction. By something. That something might be the truth. But there is no reason to think so. Thus, trained persuaders tend to be skeptical of experts – no matter how unified those experts are – because mass delusions among experts is normal and expected.
According to science.
This is what I saw in Trump last year when I predicted he would win it all. He was the only candidate in the race using science to get elected.
And science is a powerful tool.
Note: I recently endorsed Hillary Clinton, for my personal safety. I live in California, so writing about Trump’s persuasion skills was too dangerous because it made me look like a supporter. My political preferences don’t align with any of the candidates.