Yale prof: Trump's 'lies' bigger threat than 'fake news'

Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan gave a lecture at the University of Vermont last week claiming that “fake news” pales in comparison to the "lies" of the Trump administration.

According to Kahan, holding the presidency makes Trump "a toxic-meme propagator of unparalleled influence" and causes his supporters to reflexively dismiss accusations of lying.

Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan gave a lecture at the University of Vermont last week claiming that “fake news” pales in comparison to the "lies" of the Trump administration.

UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics hosted the event on “Communicating Science in the ‘Alternative Facts’ Republic,” which Kahan said would explore questions surrounding the influence of fake news, and in particular the role allegedly played by Trump in the phenomenon.

“Does fake news influence people's views or otherwise distort democratic deliberations? Should we worry about the Trump Administration's distinctive stance towards what counts as a ‘fact’ worry us?” Kahan asks in the event description. “My talk will use insights from the science of science communication to address these questions.”

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Kahan is a professor at Yale Law School, where he is best known for his “Cultural Cognition Project,” a scholarly initiative aimed at “studying how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs.”

When asked about the points he conveyed at the UVM lecture, Kahan told Campus Reform that the lecture was closely modeled after a section in his class, “The Science of Science Communication,” as well as a blog post adapted from a presentation about fake news that he gave as part of a panel discussion for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In the blog post, Kahan compares “fake news” to “a bad head cold” while assessing the current health of science communication, but declares that “the systematic propogation [sic] of false information that President Trump is engaged in, on the other hand, is a cancer on the body politic of enlightened self-government.”

Kahan clarifies early on that "everything I think on these matters is in the nature of informed conjecture,” pointing out that social scientists have yet to reach any definitive conclusions regarding either fake news or presidential misinformation.

One conclusion he does reach, though, is that “we shouldn’t equate the Trump Administration’s persistent propagation of misinformation with the misinformation of the cartoonish ‘fake news’ providers,” because while the latter exert only a minimal influence on the science communication environment, presidential misinformation “fills that environment with toxins that enervate human reason.”

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“This is why we should worry about Trump: his form of misinformation, combined with the office that he holds, makes him a toxic-meme propagator of unparalleled influence,” Kahan argues. “When Trump spews forth with lies, the media can’t simply ignore him, as they would a run-of-the-mill crank. What the President of the United States says always compels coverage.”

He goes on to surmise that Trump is insulated from repercussions for uttering falsehoods by a concept he calls “identity-protective cognition,” whereby individuals reflexively reject information that contradicts the shared commitments of groups with which they identify. In this case, he posits that any accusation of lying directed at Trump is likely to be seen by his supporters as an unfounded attack on their champion’s character.

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“We aren’t polarized today on the safety of universal childhood immunization,” he submits as an example, “but we could easily become so if Trump continues to lie about the connection between vaccinations and autism.”

Kahan concludes the blog post by urging his audience not to let “concern over ‘fake news’ on Facebook” become a distraction from “the threat [Trump] uniquely poses to enlightened self-government or from identifying the means by which the threat his style of political discourse can be repelled.”

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