Thunberg, Trump and the battle for the truth

Duel: The world’s most powerful man against a 17-year-old schoolgirl.

Is emotion stronger than science? Appealing to the most powerful people in the world at the World Economic Forum this week, Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg directly opposed each other.

Imagine all the world’s most powerful people in one place, at the same time. That’s the World Economic Forum.

Every year, it takes place at the Swiss ski resort Davos. Founded to encourage “public-private cooperation”, it describes itself as a place where leaders of society can shape “global agendas.” Billionaire financier George Soros is there. German leader Angela Merkel is there. Prince Charles was there yesterday.

Though the theme of this year’s summit is sustainability, US President Donald Trump encouraged Davos to “reject the perennial prophets of doom. This is not a time for pessimism”. Many saw those comments as a deliberate dig at climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was in the crowd.

“Our house is still on fire,” said Greta, speaking after Trump. “You say: ‘We won’t let you down. Don’t be so pessimistic.’ And then, silence.”

While they did not actually meet at the forum, Trump and Thunberg present a dramatic contrast. A belligerent, brightly-tanned man in a suit… against a 17-year-old girl in a hoodie – the David and Goliath of the climate crisis, battling it out in front of the only audience who could actually make a difference to the future of the planet.

What is most interesting, though, is what each of their arguments represent. Young Greta Thunberg, though often angry, is backed up by almost all the world’s leading scientists. She has the facts on her side.

On the other hand, Trump’s belief system is fuelled by his own self-belief – an emotional reality that does not rely on anyone else’s truth. The US president has previously said that he trusts his own gut more than any advice.

The contrast is especially pertinent today. If you believe in something, you are then more likely to see it happen. This is called “confirmation bias”. And since there is proof somewhere online for almost every belief, this means that fewer people are going to change their minds.

We are living through a crisis of truth, exemplified by the fact that Trump and Thunberg can make opposing claims in the same space, without anyone knowing who will be the most convincing. So, is emotion stronger than science?

Slippery slope

Emotions are easier to understand. In appealing to the gut feeling that humans cannot transform the planet, Trump is telling people what they already believe: change happens slowly; things tend to get better. In a room full of successful people, those claims might ring true. Even Greta Thunberg appeals to guilt and fear in her speeches although she has science on her side.

That said, science offers the value of objectivity. If two people conduct exactly the same experiment, they will end up with the same result. Science can always be improved, but it is the closest thing we have to a shared reality. In a debate as complex as the human contribution to global warming, science provides us with indisputable facts. These can then form the basis of emotional arguments.

You Decide

  1. Assuming you find Greta Thunberg more convincing than Donald Trump, why do you think that is?
  2. Do you have any beliefs that you know go against science? Why do you still hold them?

Activities

  1. Find a scientific fact about global warming. Imagine you are convincing someone to change how they live their life using that fact. Write one sentence appealing to reason and one appealing to emotion.
  2. For many of the powerful people at Davos, money is a sure measure of importance. Research the economic cost of a climate disaster and write a short speech (half a side), using those figures to convince someone at Davos to take action.

Some People Say...

“The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”

Horace Walpole (1717-1796), English art historian, writer and politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
According to the charity Oxfam, the top 1% have more twice as much wealth as the 6.9 billion poorest people on the planet. Speaking at Davos, which he reached via private jet, Prince Charles said, “We must change our economy to mimic nature’s economy, and work with it.” It cost Trump and his entourage over $4 million (£3m) to attend Davos this year.
What do we not know?
Whether it is even realistic to expect the world’s elites to agree on anything, let alone transform how the global economy works. Neither science nor emotion can tell us what the future will actually look like. Everything could end up being much better – or far worse – than either scientific models or our own gut feelings predict.

Word Watch

Agendas
Programs, plans.
Financier
Someone who manages large amounts of money on behalf of governments or large organisations.
Perennial
(Originally used to describe plants that grow throughout the year.) In this context, it means always.
Pessimism
A tendency to see the worst of things, or believe that the worst will happen.
Dig
A targeted criticism or tease.
Belligerent
Aggressive, rude.
David and Goliath
Biblical story where David, a weak, young, underdog defeats Goliath, a giant, powerful man.
Pertinent
Relevant, important to a particular context.
Objectivity
A state of reality that is true for everyone.

Subjects

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