Critical ThinkingPolitics

Why I like Donald Trump. Or, how can something so wrong feel so right?

I am a bit of a political junkie. Thus, I watched the first Republican debate even though it is about 99.99% likely that I’ll vote Democrat for president. However, since there is more than a 0.01 chance that the next president will be a Republican, it made me wonder which of the current candidates would I be least aggrieved by. For one reason, and one reason alone, my vote would go to The Donald.

Donald Trump is never a slave to consistency. What he says today may be 180 degrees different from what he said perhaps the day before, and he doesn’t give a damn. What that shows me is that he can change his mind. And a changeable mind is one that learns and may actually value new facts and information. Donald Trump has lived his entire life modulating his principles and beliefs so as to best advance the interests of Donald Trump. This often meant abandoning strategies and tactics that did not work. Admitting being wrong (even if only to one’s self), and then doing something different has its advantages. A cynical president that changes positions purely out of self-interest may nevertheless be much more effective than a rigid, high-minded moralist.

One of the most telling moments of the debate for me was when Marco Rubio was confronted with his earlier willingness to allow some exceptions for abortion. His immediate response was along the lines of “NO! Never!” He could not apparently say that his position had changed because he’d thought more about it or because something he learned in the interim had caused him to reevaluate. It boils down to not being able to admit that perhaps he was “wrong” in some relatively minor way about abortion in the past. No, instead he had to have been always “right” on the issue, but sadly and not his fault, misunderstood. This leaves zero chance that he would ever move in the slightest to recognizing a woman’s right to control her own body. Such a commitment to being consistent and to always having been “right” is scary. What we are likely to get in a non-Trump Republican president is: “We sent in the troops and it is not working well, so let’s send in a lot more.” Or, “Gee, that tax cut for millionaires really did not create jobs or make the economy better, so let’s cut those taxes way more.” Do you think any of the current Republican aspirants will ever admit they were wrong about denying human influence on climate change – other than Donald Trump, who would pivot in a moment if it made business/political/personal sense to do so.

This problem is pervasive across professional politicians. That includes Democrats, too. Hillary Clinton voted to authorize the Iraq war. She regrets that vote, but how does she explain it? Facts were withheld and misinformation was spread! (Which at the time did not seem bothersome.) Knowing how it turned out, would never have been for it! (Well, duh.) Again, to my knowledge, she has never just said, “I was wrong”.   Those seem to be the three unutterable words for any politician of any party.

So what do the preceding paragraphs have to with education – the reason for the existence of this site? I see a connection in my students and in my profession. Students do poorly on a test question and want to know why. I explain what makes for a correct answer. Very rarely is the student response, “Yes – I see that I was wrong.” Much more often it is along the lines of; “I misunderstood the question”, which tosses the blame back on me for confusing writing. Or the test was too long and they did not have time to properly think through the answer (again, the blame is batted back to me). And sometimes the blame is really on me. If 80% of my students answer a question incorrectly, then is it most likely that I wrongly wrote a poor question. Hard to admit that!

This happens often in science, as well. Wrong ideas hang around in fields far too long after evidence and facts have demanded their discarding. Individuals become fixated on a pet idea and devote years and perhaps entire careers, when the evidence literally screams “wrong!” I myself have been wrong about my results meant, and looking back, have realized I hung on to unworkable ideas far longer than I should have.

The problem is that being wrong is demonized rather than recognized as a valuable key to learning. How can we trust someone to be President of the United States if they admit they can be wrong? Isn’t it obvious that any student who can be so wrong in answering my test questions doesn’t belong at UCLA? How will I ever get a job at a reputable research university if I was sometimes wrong in what I thought my research meant?

Being wrong can be glorious in its effect. When I was eight years old I took an IQ test. I remember nothing about the test questions, except one: “What color is a ruby?” I guessed white, not knowing what a ruby was. When I told my parents, they gently corrected me. Still, I will go to my grave knowing that rubies are red!!!! In teaching science we too often seem to equate being wrong with somehow being stupid. Ptolemy, Lamarck and even present-day creationists are obvious idiots because they are (now!) seen to be wrong. But their ‘wrongness’ does not detract from their overall cleverness and intelligence. For example, it took far more brainpower and ingenuity to fit the observable facts of the solar system into a model with the earth at the center than if the sun was there. Similarly, if the earth is very old, how a feature like the Grand Canyon can be formed is a straightforward and somewhat boring proposition. In contrast, if you have to have a 6000 year old earth, then the mental gymnastics required to explain the Grand Canyon are incredible. Inventive, sophisticated and wrong, but not stupid.

In grading tests, I have wondered if the clever but wrong answer might not actually be the better response than a memorized and regurgitated right answer. More and more in my career I have gravitated towards trying to write tests that reward thought, reasoning and creativity rather the ability to mentally store facts (e.g., rubies are red!). If this means that students will sometimes present me with magnificently wrong answers, so much the better. It may put them on track to finding a more correct outcome and with the mental tools to walk that path. I’m sure Donald Trump would agree. Or not.


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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

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