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When it comes to substantive matters we shouldn’t take Facebook seriously. Right? Well, perhaps we should—at least when it comes to getting a glimpse into the American mind.

What Facebook Told Me About America

That’s where I’ve settled. Here’s why.

Not long ago, a group of colleagues and I organized a community forum on the topic of rising sea levels. We live in Florida and the smart money says coastal residents need to start thinking and planning for rising tides. Experts from The Union of Concerned Scientists spoke at the forum, sharing research findings and local sea level projections.

To get the word out, we posted an announcement on Facebook. Nearly 20,000 local Facebook users saw that announcement. Hundreds wrote comments.

The comments revealed a not-unexpected divide of opinions. For some, the rising sea is a matter to be concerned about and planned for. For others, it’s a political hoax, something to be laughed at.

Many of those concerned about the issue relied on scientific findings as the rationale.

“Science is not affected by opinions and what your best friend thinks. It is not affected by politics or religion. Science is only concerned with evidence and testing.”

The reasoning was quite different among those who saw rising seas as fake news.

Higher tides are due to the Earth actually being closer to the moon, I think since 2004. That’s why there’s a Super Moon this month, too. Relax and get ready for a real cold winter—maybe breaking 1977 records. I am not the denier. You flat-earth global warmists are.”

Concerned citizens offered generally measured responses. Many naysayers responded stridently. The F-word was used. There was a cartoon of Trump urinating on a sign with “Liberal” painted on it. Al Gore and climate scientists (among others) were targets of ad hominem attacks (e.g., “They’re on the take!”).

Those comments made me think of a passage authored by a colleague of mine:

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“As one person trying to get it right, sometimes the best you can do—the most you can do—is point to the sky, turn to the guy next to you, and ask: “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Alice Dreger, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice. New York: Penguin Books, 2015

When forum night arrived, I didn’t find many (if any) strident naysayers in the audience. For sure, none of the attendees expressed anything along the lines of what I had been reading on Facebook.

“If you're stupid enough to believe the Globalist agenda, come on people, think for yourself. It's bullshit. The banks wouldn't make loans to build condos here if it was true.”

We experienced Americans who reject science, use “alternative facts” to explain phenomena, and politicize a subject by turning it upside-down and inside-out.

Yes, we organized a forum on rising seas, but we experienced something more. We experienced Americans who reject science, use “alternative facts” to explain phenomena, and politicize a subject by turning it upside-down and inside-out. That mindset repudiates how we’re taught to think and reason. And, thanks to Facebook, it came into full view.

Yes, it’s mostly the meanderings of mindlessness people who masquerade as ‘informed citizens.’ But the bigger problem isn’t what these people say or even how they say it. It’s what the approach yields. It obliterates the need for analysis. It denies the introduction of new and different ideas. It paints everything and everyone in one category of another. And it disables the possibility of moving forward in a reasonable and systematic way.

It’s close-mindedness at its worst, a nasty amalgam of ignorance, intransigence, and sociopolitical fervor. And it’s what we’re up against these days—no matter what the topic. It just happened to be rising seas this time.

What’s my takeaway from the experience? The difference between hope and disaster for America is the work Progressives do as citizens and as professionals. In this case, it was citizens associated with a public university (Michigan State) collaborating with The Union of Concerned Scientists. That’s just one example—of thousands of examples—of citizens and organizations working for the public good.

But what doesn’t get enough attention is how much time and energy is involved. Emotional weight is added by having to deal with misguided and ill-tempered people—people who choose not to engage in a thoughtful, open manner. Indeed, they seek to derail it.

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It’s just another reason why this is vital work … for America’s sake.

Frank Fear

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The Union of Concerned Scientists team (staff, consultants, and environmental collaborators) included Astrid Caldas, Erika Spanger-Siegfried, Melissa Meehan Baldwin, Susan Glickman, Ashley Siefert, and Kate Cell. Thank you!