TLDR – Week 1

The human senses are a marvelous thing. Sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste are, of course, the classic five senses, but there are others: thermoception (heat-sensing; a crisp fall evening in front of a campfire shows how pleasant a sense this can be), proprioception (sense of self; it’s what lets you touch our finger to your nose with your eyes closed), and nociception (pain; an important, if unpleasant, sense) are but a few of these other senses.

It is important to rely on our senses. Smell and taste are important not only in determining what foods we like but also play a role in detecting poisonous foods. On a day-to-day basis, the vast majority of the population rely on sight and hearing, and not having one of those senses is considered to be a disability. Doctors who do not perform a hands-on physical – instead relying on lab tests – have been known to miss crucial factors in their diagnoses.

But our senses are also prone to deception. Optical illusions are numerous; any photographer can tell you about how our eyes automatically adjust for colors, and M.C. Escher centered his drawings around more traditional optical illusions. Ear buds and other small speakers produce what sounds like a low frequency through an auditory illusion – the fundamental low frequency is not actually present, but a specific combination of overtones confuses the ear into thinking it exists. There are also a number of tactile illusions; the Aristotle illusion, for example, can fool your brain into thinking you have two small objects (peas, for example, or even your nose) instead of just one. To see that these are illusions, we need additional tools. A ruler can help us see through many optical illusions, an oscilloscope takes care of the auditory illusions, and in the case of the tactile illusions our own eyes become the tool that clears up the confusion.

Learning how to tell when our senses are being deceived can be difficult. We all have to rely on them to a point, but how heavily we rely on them, and how heavily we rely on tools to provide supporting information, differ from person to person and situation to situation. In some cases, a simple estimate will suffice, and our human senses are usually capable of providing that estimate. In other cases, from carpentry to engineering to forensics, we rely on tools to augment and clarify what our own senses tell us. In some cases, these tools confirm what we sense; in other, they refute it and lead to some surprising results.

This leads us to this week’s bizarre situation with the President of the United States arguing with the news media about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Setting aside the weirdness that the president was fixated for days on what, ultimately, is a trivial detail, it does show something about Mr. Trump’s relation to his senses. Some people would say that he is out of his senses, but in fact he is too much into them.

Mr. Trump claims that there were more people at the inauguration than the media reports. It is actually quite reasonable to Mr. Trump to have overestimated the size of the crowd. If you look at photos of the inauguration crowd taken from the Capitol building, the National Mall looks packed. Somebody standing there would come up with a high estimate of crowd size. But that estimate is based on an illusion; the crowds were in segments, divided by the roads that cross the National Mall. From the Capitol building, one can see the fronts of those segments, but cannot see the backs – the people standing in front get in the way. The brain assumes that these segments are full – if they weren’t, why wouldn’t the people standing further back come forward? But in this case, this assumption is wrong; the people didn’t come forward, and this left large gaps in the crowd that were not easily visible from the Capitol building. Cameras from other angles, especially the one atop the Washington Monument, captured these images and provide a better estimation of the crowd size than ones positioned on the Capitol steps.

This would not be alarming had this been a passing mistake. But the ferocity with which Mr. Trump and his administration pushed back when presented with other evidence is the most concerning issue discussed, and it has two implications. The first is the fact that Mr. Trump apparently relies on his own senses to the exclusion of other tools. Mr. Trump saw a dense crowd of people at the front of the National Mall and assumed that that same crowd density extended all the way back, regardless of what other information says. This is not an isolated instance of this, either. Mr. Trump sees stories of people casting votes illegally and assumes that that is the general state, regardless of the fact that no studies have ever uncovered evidence of large-scale voter fraud. Mr. Trump sees the events of 11 September 2001, where people claiming an Islamic faith launched an attack on American soil, and assumes that all Muslims mean America harm, regardless of the fact that most Muslims are peaceful. Mr. Trump sees stories of Mexican immigrants committing crimes in the United States and assumes that all Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists, regardless of the fact that the Mexican immigrant population has one of lowest rates of criminality in the United States. This is not an exhaustive list of Mr. Trump’s assumptions based exclusively on his senses, either; there are many more examples.

The second implication is perhaps more troubling than the first, however. Mr. Trump and his administration have been challenging the reliability of our tools. The camera atop the Washington Monument should not be trusted; the images it produced were clearly tampered with, according to Mr. Trump, because they did not show what he believed he saw with his own eyes. This discrediting of the tools is not limited to the inauguration crowd size, either. The numerous studies that show no signs of voter fraud, to Mr. Trump’s mind, are also not to be trusted; he has ordered his own studies be conducted. Likewise, to Mr. Trump reports and surveys of Mulsim-Americans and refugees are politically charged and should not be trusted; he has enacted a ban on immigration from many predominantly-Muslim nations. Criminality rates are misleading, according to Mr. Trump, and so a wall between the United Stated and Mexico must be built. This attempt to erode trust in our tools, be they cameras, journalism, or statistics, is the core issue and should no be ignored. Mr. Trump is not the first to erode this confidence – many years ago, for example, there was a rumor that climate data was being falsified – but Mr. Trump is perhaps the most influential person to do so. And there are those who assist Mr. Trump in eroding this confidence, either because their own confidence has been eroded or because they have something more nefarious in mind. For example, according to Mr. Lamar Smith, a US Representative from Texas, we should not rely on these tools and instead, “get [our] news directly from the president.”

It is possible to create something without relying on measuring tools. However, the more complex the thing, the more it is necessary to use tools to take accurate measurements, and the United States is a very complex creation. Mr. Trump is attempting to replace existing tools with his own. It is as if Mr. Trump were trying to redefine the foot to be the length of *his* foot, or the inch to be the length of *his* knuckle. Measurements are only good when we all agree on the units, and Mr. Trump is trying to replace our existing, agreed-upon units with his own.

So listen to those with the tools for measuring things. But do not listen from just one source; the more people there are taking measurements, the more difficult it is to enact a conspiracy. Listen to those who take measurements of climate data. Listen to our National Park Service rangers. If you will not listen to Muslims, then listen to those who talk to and work with Muslims. Listen to your Mexican and Latin American neighbors. Listen to the women of America and to the LGBTQ society. Listen to the African American community. Listen to our police departments, too. Listen to everybody who will talk.

There are times to rely on our senses, and there are times to rely on our measuring tools. And so listen to Emily Dickinson, who reminds us that there are times we must let go of what we believe to be true and rely on measurements and science.

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see –
But Microscopes are prudent
In an emergency.

– Emily Dickinson