For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.
RICHARD FEYNMAN, “Personal Observations on Reliability of Shuttle”, Rogers’ Commission Report into the Challenger Crash, June 1986
Learning what is true, what is real, was the underlying focus of Richard Feynman’s life. Feynman, a winner of the Nobel prize as a physicist, looked as deeply into the reality of nature, at its quantum essence, as any man or woman. But he was immensely frustrated when, as a member of the Roger’s Commission reporting on the Challenger disaster – the space shuttle that exploded during launch, he found most members more interested in managing the public relations than in understanding what went wrong. Feynman was able to bring focus back where it belonged with a very visible experiment involving ice water and a rubber o-ring. But his experience was a visible embodiment of the fact that today in the corridors of power, in the mass media, and in the minds of many men, the truth doesn’t really matter.
I saw a bit of how that works firsthand, growing up in Southeastern Connecticut, living in Mystic and later, in 1973, building a house with my brother in Ledyard. The house is built on a slope and, in the winter, with the leaves fallen, you can look across the valley. At that time, what you saw was bare farmland, or trees, or some rocky outcroppings, and maybe, in the distance, Lantern Hill, where they would go to look for returning ships in the day of sails. And one thing that I know, for a certainty, is that I did not see an Indian tribe.
Today, if you look, you see the rising towers of the Mashantucket Pequots – Foxwoods – that glorious greatest casino, where the rich and the poor line up to donate their money to a purported tribe of Pequots. Except that the part about the Pequots is all a lie. Jeff Benedict tells most of the story well enough in Without Reservation. The fact is that there was no such existing tribe – only an old defunct state reservation lived on by one old lady in a mobile home. But the possibility of a tribe, which could be given “sovereignty” to avoid the state laws prohibiting gaming, was all that some clever lawyers and bankers and opportunists needed to get a federal act passed, recognizing the tribe and granting a concession to a privileged few that was worth billions. Go to Connecticut today and you will hear barely a whimper about the truth. No, the state legislature relies on the gaming concessions to balance its budget. Foxwoods is a center for the entertainment industry. And gambling is such fun. Do we care that it is all a lie? Do we care that big money now makes its own truth? Should we?
It is probably not a coincidence that Donald Trump has his fingers in the gaming world, and in the professional wrestling world – both entertainment industry staples that rely on people believing in a fantasy. And one thing that Trump has shown is that the current media, and a substantial base of our population, is perfectly happy to swallow his self-evident lies – whether they are lies about global warming, or election fraud, or Hillary’s emails. In this Trumpian universe, at least for the moment, it would appear – as the media now goes about normalizing Trump and his appointees – the truth doesn’t matter.
But here’s the catch. If you are sitting in the Challenger, the truth – whether the o-ring will work or not – does matter. Noam Chomsky, another Nobelist, in a recent speech, warns of the destabilizing effect of global warming and the dangers in an unstable world of nuclear proliferation. Global warming from over-reliance on fossil fuels and the danger of nuclear holocaust as nations are destabilized is no joke. In this real world, the earth, by analogy, is the Challenger, and the truth does matter. As Feynman put it, “Nature cannot be fooled.” I don’t know how we address this. The media already talks about a “post-truth” world as if it has come to pass, as if we need to “get over it”. It is certainly convenient for big money to be able to make its own “truth”. But I think we need to call out the lies for what they are and need to shame those who propagate them. Any ideas?