The War on Facts Is a War on Democracy

In a time when facts don’t matter, and science is being muzzled, American democracy is the real victim

 Credit: Gage Skidmore Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Credit: Gage Skidmore Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Jonathan Foley

There is a new incumbent in the White House, a new Congress has been sworn in, and scientists around the country are nervous as hell.

We’re nervous because there seems to be a seismic shift going on in Washington, D.C., and its relationship with facts, scientific reality, and objective truth has never been more strained.

Already, in the opening days of his administration, Mr. Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, willfully ignored clear, empirical evidence about the size of the inauguration crowds, and bristled at the suggestion experts said they were smaller than in years past. He seemed almost paranoid, and insinuated that a media conspiracy—rather than simple arithmetic—was trying to embarrass his boss. And the Trump Administration continues to claim, without any evidence, that widespread voter fraud cost Mr. Trump the popular vote, even though this has been thoroughly debunked by numerous, bipartisan sources—including his own lawyers.

Even more bizarrely, Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to Mr. Trump, has offered up the notion that “alternative facts”, rather than actual truth, were in play now. I don’t know what “alternative facts” are, but I think my parent’s generation would have called them “falsehoods” or even “lies.”

But it’s not just absence of facts that’s troubling, it is the apparent effort to derail science and the pursuit of facts themselves.

Ultimately, a healthy democracy depends on science. The pursuit of truth, having an informed citizenry, and the free and open exchange of ideas are all cornerstones of our democracy. That’s one thing that always made America truly great—the fact that, when all is said and done, evidence and the truth would always win the day in America. Without that, we join the league of ordinary nations.

Scientific American

Either With Us or Against Us

As Turkey’s ruling party consolidates its power, the space for free expression narrows.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
(By Randam (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“A militant in the guise of a journalist — a shameless woman. Know your place!” This is how three-term Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose to describe Amberin Zaman, the Economist’s longtime Turkey correspondent, during a campaign rally on Aug. 7, just three days before he won the country’s first-ever direct presidential election. Erdogan lashed out at Zaman for having allegedly “insulted” Muslims in an interview with opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu on the 24-hour TV news channel CNN Turk — and she was likewise vilified in the conservative press and aggressively harassed online by Erdogan supporters.

The next day, Enis Berberoglu, editor in chief of Hurriyet, one of the country’s highest-circulating dailies, abruptly resigned. Because Hurriyet is owned by Dogan, the same media group that owns CNN Turk, many doubted that Berberoglu’s move was coincidental. Erdogan went on to win the election with 52 percent of the vote. By the time of his inauguration at the end of August, several journalists at other newspapers had also lost their jobs — for reasons widely regarded as political.

These events followed a pattern that has become disturbingly familiar in recent years. As Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has grown increasingly entrenched since it first came to power in 2002, the space for free expression has narrowed perceptibly. This trend has been particularly evident over the past 15 months, starting with the protests that began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and which then swept the country in the summer of 2013, when dozens of journalists were fired or forced to resign after expressing critical viewpoints. Most recently, Turkey’s trouble with press freedom made headlines this weekend when Erdogan denounced the New York Times for, he said, implying that the Turkish state was connected with Islamic State (IS) militants.

In 2013, Turkey remained the world’s top jailer of journalists (followed by Iran and China) for the second year in a row. As of the end of the year there were 40 reporters behind bars — one of several factors that led Freedom House to downgrade the country from “partly free” to “not free” in its 2014 press freedom rankings. Turkey came in 134th out of 197 countries.

Social media has not been spared. In the lead-up to local elections on March 30, the Turkish government shut down Twitter for two weeks and YouTube for 67 days in an effort to suppress the leak of damning wiretapped recordings that surfaced in a police and judicial investigation into government corruption at the highest levels.

“The main problem is that pro-AKP media is not only the dominant media, it’s the obligatory media,” said one Turkish journalist who asked not to be named. “If you’re not with them, you’re against them.”

Read more at Foreign Policy

Without Notice, Putin Dissolves a News Agency


MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin exerted new control over Russia’s state news media on Monday, dissolving by decree one of Russia’s official news agencies, RIA Novosti, along with its international radio broadcaster as he continues a drive to strengthen the Kremlin’s influence at home and abroad.

Dmitry K. Kiselyov, a Kremlin backer, was appointed the head of a new news agency.

The decision shutters a decades-old state-run news agency widely viewed as offering professional and semi-independent coverage, while putting a reconstituted news service in the hands of a Kremlin loyalist. Since returning for a third time as president last year, Mr. Putin has taken several steps that critics have denounced as a strangulation of political rights and open debate, concentrating power in an ever tighter circle of allies.

The decree comes at a time when Russia has become increasingly assertive on the world stage, most recently in the tug of war with the European Union over political and economic relations with Ukraine, a country with deep historical and cultural links that Mr. Putin and others here believe bind it to Russia, not the West.

The Kremlin’s intense lobbying and strong-arming of Ukraine’s embattled president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, have been a principal grievance of the hundreds of thousands who have poured into the streets in the last two weeks. The reorganization of Russia’s state news media occurred only days after a meeting between the two leaders — and unconfirmed rumors that they had reached a secret deal to forge a strategic partnership — served to intensify the protests.

Mr. Putin’s presidential chief of staff, Sergei B. Ivanov, said the decision to close the news service was part of an effort to reduce costs and make the state news media more efficient. But RIA Novosti’s report on its own demise said the changes “appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.” Its executive editor, Svetlana Mironyuk, the first woman to lead the agency, appeared before her stunned colleagues and apologized for failing to preserve what she called the best news organization ever built by state money, according to a video recording of the meeting.

Read more at The New York Times

A Muzzled Chinese Artwork, Absent but Speaking Volumes

The Chinese sculptor Wang Keping at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

BEIJING — A wood sculpture of a larger-than-life man’s head whose gaping mouth is stuffed with a plug — a piece of Chinese protest art from more than 30 years ago — was supposed to be a star attraction at a retrospective here.

The startling visage, called “Silence,” born as a cri de coeur against the censorship of the period after the Cultural Revolution in China, was shown briefly during an artistic spring in Beijing in 1979 and 1980, before being banished.

A work called “Silence” was supposed to be a star attraction, but the center did not submit it to the authorities for review, believing it would be rejected.

Even today, says the creator of the work, Wang Keping, who lives in exile in France, his signature sculpture is too hot. “Silence” is notably absent from the exhibition of his works from his years abroad at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in the fashionable 798 Art Zone in Beijing.

“If it were part of the exhibit, there would be no exhibit,” Mr. Wang said as he showed a visitor dozens of dark-wood abstract sculptures, some of them hinting at the bodies of men and women, made in his studio outside Paris.

These newer pieces, including two towering black sculptures that in style and shape faintly recall the heads on Easter Island, proved acceptable to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture. The bureau must see in advance the number and subject of artworks imported for exhibits.

The Chinese authorities were in fact never given a chance to judge “Silence” anew.

Read more at The New York Times

Turkey Cracks Down on Cleavage

How do you know whether a regime that frees women to wear Islamic headscarves at work is liberal and furthering democracy, or Islamist and restricting it?

The question concerns Turkey’s government, which in the space of a few days has ended a headscarf ban for civil servants (except in the judiciary and security services), but also caused a female TV music-show presenter to be fired for showing too much cleavage.

The headscarf ban was a piece of unabashed social engineering introduced in the 1920s to make Turkey, the rump of the former Ottoman Empire and Islamic Caliphate, secular. If you are liberal and not Islamophobic, ending the ban is a good thing: Women should not be excluded from the workplace just because they are devout and believe this requires covering their hair, period.

But what if the change — which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan introduced as part of a broad “democratization” package — is part of a wider plan of social re-engineering, this time designed to impinge on the liberties of non-religious conservatives? If so, the numerous cases in which women were discriminated against, fired or passed over for promotion for wearing a headscarf even outside of work would now be repeated in reverse: Women who don’t wear headscarves to work, and men whose wives don’t cover their hair, will be discriminated against, fired and passed over for promotion.

Turkey’s secularists say this is already happening to men whose wives show their locks. That’s hard to prove, but the real issue is trust — secularists believe the worst of Erdogan’s intentions. Are they right?

Read more at Bloomberg

With global influence, Turkey matters

The Committee to Protect Journalists promotes press freedom worldwide by defending the rights of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal. Founded in 1981, CPJ takes action when journalists are censored, jailed, kidnapped, or killed for their work, without regard to political ideology. In its defense of journalists, CPJ protects the rights of all people to access independent sources of information – an essential part of a free society.

Turkey is hardly a press freedom paradise, but what makes the country so exciting for journalists is the amount of news it generates on any given day. The domestic story is huge, with near-daily street protests, the booming economy beginning to sag, and the prospect of regional conflict looming with Syria. And Istanbul is a base for the international press covering not only Turkey but also Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

All of this means that it is not hard to get a crowd of journalists together in Istanbul, especially if you’re buying the drinks. The talk inevitably turns to not only of what is being reported but what is not.

CPJ’s classification of Turkey as the world’s leading jailer of journalists was last year’s headline. The use of broad anti-terror laws to criminalize critical expression has long been a key component of the Turkish government strategy to suppress the Kurdish media as well as leftist and nationalist groups that it alleges are trying to topple the government.

The situation today is actually worse than it was when CPJ’s comprehensive press freedom report was issued in October 2012. In June, when street clashes over the destruction of Gezi Park morphed into broader demonstrations, journalists covering the protests became frequent targets of police abuse. During CPJ’s visit to Turkey last week, I met with one journalist, Hüseyin Gökhan Biçici, of the broadcaster IMC, who described how police detained him, ripped off his gas mask, and repeatedly beat him with clubs, focusing on his genitals.

But most mainstream journalists don’t fear being beaten or jailed. Instead, they fear losing their jobs.

The primary means of media control and manipulation involves indirect methods, such as pressure on media owners whose complex business interests depend on government support. There are widespread reports of phone calls from government advisers resulting in a particular journalist being fired or hired. The Turkish Union of Journalists reports that dozens of journalists have lost their jobs.

Read more at The Huffington Post