“It is totally over. If Trump wins more than 240 electoral votes, I will eat a bug.”
These words, tweeted out on Oct, 18, 2016, and later reiterated on CNN, came from none other than our very own Sam Wang, professor of neuroscience and a founder of the Princeton Election Consortium. At the time, it was music to my ears — I remember texting one of my friends the CNN video clip along with the caption, “okay I feel much better now.” Of course, when a month later Trump won 304 electoral votes (and my hairline receded about the same number of inches), it was time for Wang to eat crow and cricket on live TV.
But then I began wondering: Why did I take such solace in his tweet in the first place? I had heard similarly hyperbolic claims from my friends but had not taken them nearly as seriously. And then I realized that this tweet had come from a Caltech- and Stanford-educated Princeton professor. If he was willing to swallow a bitter bug should his quantitative research be proven wrong, well, he must be right.
This is proof of the reality we live in: We are more likely to believe people who have impressive academic credentials than believe those who do not. Not for nothing does CNN contributor Kayleigh McEnany describe herself on her profile as “a graduate of Harvard Law School [who] studied politics at Oxford University,” which roughly translates into, “My deft defense of our president’s indefensible indiscretions is legit because I went to these shiny schools!”
Indeed, many of us are attending Princeton because we seek that same credibility. We long for the day when our words will carry the full weight of our considerable education, whether we end up at the front of a classroom, in an operating room, on the floor of the Senate, or in a squabble with Jeffrey Lord on Anderson Cooper 360°. We suppress our insurgent egos and listen to others because we hope that someday, others will listen to us.
But this imminent privilege comes with a price.
If our claims are issued under the assumption of credibility, they must be deserving of that credibility. The educated have a responsibility, more so than anyone else, to resist the temptation to traffic in sensationalism. Take Wang, for example. His whole live-TV bug shtick could have been avoided had he simply made a similarly confident claim that nonetheless stuck to the statistics and percentages on which he had built his reputation as a polls-savvy election expert. Sure, these predictions ended up being wrong, but at least he was able to convincingly and scientifically explain his miscalculations. Perhaps dazzled by fame, he instead chose to make a sensationalist promise to strengthen the short-term clout of his message — the end result being a televised moment of self-inflicted humiliation and a slight reduction of his credibility.
And the educated have a responsibility to stick to objective truths. When faced with a wide and eager audience, our statements can have far-reaching consequences. And if we spout untruths, the consequences can be troubling.
For example, a few weeks ago at the enormously successful Day of Action, Professor Doug Massey, during a lecture on Trump’s border wall, referred to a recent incident in which a Sikh man in Washington had been shot and killed in his driveway by a man who had told him to “go back to your country.” But there was one small problem. The victim hadn’t been killed — he had merely been shot in the arm and was on the way to a full recovery. Yet when Massey made that claim, I could see the shock and sadness in the faces of his trusting audience, to whom this brutal killing was news. And despite knowing the facts of the story, I found myself briefly wondering if the victim’s arm wound had become fatally infected.
This last part is crucial, and more than a little unsettling. Despite knowing the facts, I was willing to manipulate them to fit an alternative narrative proposed by a hugely respected academic. It was only because of some hurried fact-checking on my phone that I was able to find the truth. Yet, the majority of the audience probably did not bother doing the same. What of those who went home and repeated this falsehood?
I do not at all believe that Massey purposely disseminated this untruth. It was an honest mistake — conflating the meanings of “shot” and “killed” — that many people, including myself, might have made. But this only highlights the need for us to be more careful in reading the news and assessing our surroundings. This means spending more time poring over details and visiting fact-checking sites like Snopes.com. We might as well get started now because in just a few years we will be the Sam Wangs and Doug Masseys of the world, possessing their concomitant impact and credibility. And a falsehood is not rendered any less false because it is the result of a mistake and not malice.
Despite a lot of talk in recent days about keeping the media sensible and honest, not as much has been said about holding our nation’s intelligentsia to the same standard. And yet they wield just as much, if not more influence among certain audiences.
Need further proof? Two weeks ago, a Princeton alumnus made an uncorroborated, outrageous claim on a major news channel that, although debunked and disregarded by most sane people, was believed by one key person.
The alum’s name is Andrew Napolitano. The channel is Fox News. And the guy who believed him is our President. The rest, as they say, is current events.
Lou Chen is a sophomore from San Bernardino, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.