Trump, Puerto Rico, and the Ethics of Skepticism

Arial photograph of destruction caused by Hurricane Maria
"Hurricane Maria" by US Department of Agriculture is public domain (via Flickr)

In September, Donald Trump claimed on Twitter that the number of deaths in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria reported by the media was exaggerated: instead of the widely cited number of approximately 3000, Trump claimed that the real death toll was closer to 16. According to Trump the number was inflated by his political opponents with the intention of making him look bad. To support such a bold claim one would expect to be presented with a significant amount of evidence, but Trump presented none. Instead, it seems that he merely raised the possibility of a conspiracy and appealed to his supporters’ distrust of the political left in order to try to deflect criticism that he did not sufficiently address the problems created by Hurricane Maria.

Many interpreted Trump’s claims as abhorrent: not only was Trump apparently attempting to capitalize on a recent tragedy in order to score political points, he was also expressing a complete disregard for a significant loss of life. Carmen Yuliz Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, put the matter succinctly when she tweeted: “Mr Trump you can try and bully us with your tweets BUT WE KNOW OUR LIVES MATTER”.

While many from those on both sides of the political spectrum repudiated Trump’s claims, responses from some diehard Trump supporters differed. It is common to find comments on articles and tweets made by those that praise Trump for what they take to be expressions of truth, and chastise what they take to be bias in reporting. Here are some representative responses on Trump’s follow up to his original tweet:

“I think Puerto Rico needs to show a list of the names .. just like when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 … It  only took 5 to 6 days…”

“It’s a rabbit trail designed to distract. Don’t waste time beating that dead horse Mr. President. Time to start tweeting out your MANY success. Let the mainstream media chase its tail.”

“Our President Mr Trump had done nothing wrong when Maria hit Puerto Rico he did exactly what he was supposed to. All the goods he had sent there sat in haulers no one wanted to drive them and you blame this on our President. It was their President that failed them.”

“I am amazed that “fake news” has infiltrated the weather channel. News reporters acting like the wind is about to blow them down with people walking in background at a normal pace. Then, reporters telling about a death toll with so much exaggeration. Shameful scaring of people.”

Of course, these claims are not generally supported with evidence, either. Instead, in the wake of Trump’s tweets, many of his followers have responded in the following way: it is really impossible to know, exactly, how many people died in Hurricane Maria, perhaps because it took a significant amount of time for the death toll numbers to come in, or perhaps because there are suspicions that those in charge of reporting such numbers are corrupt or incompetent. Since his supporters see Trump as trustworthy and his opponents untrustworthy, they claim that it is more plausible that Trump’s numbers are accurate.

It is unclear whether Trump truly believes what he is tweeting, or if he is trying to purposely mislead people. At the very least, what Trump appears to be doing is sowing seeds of doubt in his supporters, in this case by raising the possibility that the officially reported death toll numbers are wrong, solely on the basis of egotism and distrust. He is, then, engaging in a disingenuous form of skepticism. It is sometimes a good thing to be skeptical – we do not want to believe just anything that anyone tells us without thinking about it, and so it is often a good idea to scrutinize information we’re given or to look for additional evidence ourselves. But skepticism without cause and that is based not on trying to get to the truth can be detrimental and, in some cases, even unethical.

When philosophers talk about skeptics they have in mind someone who attempts to convince us that we do not know something (or in general, that we do not know anything) by reminding us of all the ways that we could be mistaken. For instance, the classic philosophical skeptics challenge us to consider whether we could merely be dreaming, or raise that possibility that we could be living a life in the computer simulation like the Matrix. Since these are possibilities that I can’t rule out – I really can’t tell whether I’m dreaming right now or whether I’m awake, and if I were in a computer simulation I would never know it – it seems like I’m stuck: for all I know I could very well be wrong about everything I thought that I knew.

In the real world, skepticism is typically much more narrowly focused: someone expresses a belief, and that belief is called into question because of the possibility that someone could be wrong. Again, this can be a good thing: it is a good practice to call one’s beliefs into questions and to make sure that one has good reason to believe them. But it can also be unhelpful: when we have a significant amount of evidence, raising the mere possibility of being wrong can be a distraction, something that prevents us from believing what’s true. Conspiracies are often based on unfounded skepticism: that the moon landing was faked in a Hollywood studio, or that the roundness of the Earth is a NASA plot are both possibilities, but not ones that most people take seriously. We should only pay attention to the skeptic, it seems, when they have good reasons for their skepticism.

Trump’s skepticism seems to fall squarely into the category of that which we should ignore, as there is significant evidence for the numbers that are widely reported to be accurate – for instance, in the form of an independent report conducted by The George Washington University – and no evidence that they have been fabricated. While it is still true that it is possible that the report was conducted incorrectly, and that it is possible that there is a conspiracy at play in an attempt to further discredit Donald Trump, these possibilities are not ones that we really need to take seriously: there is no evidence for these claims, and so much evidence that they are false, that we should not be worried about being wrong.

One worry with Trump’s recent tweets, then, is that he is spreading false information. However, expressing his skepticism in this way has moral consequences, as well. By convincing others not to believe that the reported death toll is correct, they will not only be less inclined to provide any assistance (say, in the form of donations to those affected by Hurricane Maria), but also threatens to strip from Puerto Ricans the right to seek such assistance. The people of Puerto Rico should be considered victims of a natural disaster, and as such we have certain obligations to help them. Trump’s skepticism, however, attempts to relinquish himself and his followers from any such obligations. The more significant problem behind Trump’s tweets, then, is not merely a dispute about numbers, but rather that an unfounded skepticism of reliable reports can result in lasting damage to people in need of aid.

Ken Boyd is currently lecturer in philosophy at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. His philosophical work concerns the ways that we can best make sure that we learn from one another, and what goes wrong when we don’t. You can read more about his work at kennethboyd.wordpress.com.