On witchcraft, Trump and evidentiary standards

Sarah Habershon
January 20, 2017

In the spring of 1692, the Massachusetts Bay Colony fell victim to a wave of murderous public hysteria that claimed the lives of twenty-five people.

Source: Pixabay

It wasn’t until after the Salem Village doctor had already diagnosed the ‘bewitchment’ of two young girls who had been suffering fits that others in the community began to present the same mysterious symptoms.
The Puritan colony had a strong culture of law and judicial process, so special courts were appointed to deal with the witch trials as a surge of accusations overwhelmed the fledgeling judicial system.
These special courts based almost every conviction on ‘spectral evidence’, meaning afflicted community members’ reports of the people they accused revealing themselves in apparitions and dreams. On the basis of these dreams and visions, twenty people were executed and several more died in prison. The situation escalated until the wife of the colony’s governor stood accused, and the authorities decided that enough was enough. By the time the hysteria had run its course, the community was permanently scarred by shame, loss and regret.

Apologies and explanations were offered to the formerly accused and the families of the people who had been killed. Once the tide of panic had receded, these people were understood to be the real victims. An investigation into evidentiary standards resulted in spectral evidence being declared inadmissible, and it was decided that accusers did not make reliable witnesses – especially when their testimony was the sole grounds for conviction. Prosecution practices were reviewed and overhauled. All those executed remained dead.
The eventual upshot of the Salem Witch Trials was a shift in the community’s standards for evidence, and another step in the development of our modern standard proof doctrine, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.


Telegram to the President from Sen. McCarthy, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/201514

260 years after the trials, Arthur Miller dramatized the events of Salem in “The Crucible”, an allegorical criticism of McCarthyism in 1950s America. References to the Salem Witch Trials recur throughout popular discourse as the ultimate cautionary tale about the dangers of mass hysteria, false accusations and capricious standards for evidence and truth.
The legacy of this episode and its lessons are so potent that it has permeated our vernacular. Today, we use the phrase ‘witch hunt’ to describe any and all situations in which proponents of an unpopular opinion or political perspective are sought out for harassment and penalisation; where a campaign to expose perceived disloyal or subversive elements within a culture or organisation is conducted on the basis of poor, incomplete, or manipulated evidence and justified on the pretext of safeguarding the community at large.

Fast forward to 2016, the year in which the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year was ‘post-truth’:

“Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

2016 was the year in which we saw a US presidential candidate’s National Security Adviser tweet blatantly false, defamatory fake news articles accusing a political opponent of being implicated in sex crimes against children despite a complete lack of evidence, spectral or otherwise.
The US presidential campaigns spiralled rapidly into the realm of farce, and took on some of the flavour of a good old-fashioned witch-hunt, pitchforks raised and shaken to chants of: “Build the wall!”, “Lock her up!”, “Drain the swamp!”, “CHINA!”. Evidence admitted to the court of public opinion ranged from the downright fabricated to the dangerously selective. The ivory towers of liberal intellectualism released long-form think pieces on Trump’s most extreme, cringeworthy gaffes and episodes of verbal incontinence in a fashion no less hysterical than the fake news websites spitting vitriolic falsehoods into the respective social media echo chambers of the partisan camps. Populism went to town and bought a new hat.
Even before the election itself, commentators on both sides of the cultural divide expressed awareness and concern about the way the culture of public information, media and news is changing, and the shifting goalposts of evidentiary standards in our time. These discussions considered the role that social media platforms played in the dissemination of fake news during the presidential campaign, the dangers of information (or misinformation) bubbles curated and maintained by algorithms, and information dissemination systems that make no pretence of the objectivity that was once held to be a sacred and self-evident principle. It’s not just that the news is fake. It’s that the market for this sort of hypersensationalised partisan propaganda doesn’t even seem to care. Where once the objectivity principle – or at least the appearance of it – was at worst a key prop in the charade of biased partisan media, it didn’t even warrant lip service in the post-truth information culture of 2016.
It seems to me that communities seem to be content to construct a reality based up their personal identities, rather than to allow events outside themselves to determine their situation in the world.

In the era of personal narrative and public profile, we write our own stories and curate our own realities. Is this radical individualism the root of our collective disdain for the objective truth?

As a historian, I struggle with even the concept of an ‘objective’ fact. As someone who tells stories with data, I’m acutely aware that a fact is only ever a fact in context, and an ‘accurate’ figure delivered without the appropriate caveats can be either deliberately or unintentionally misleading. Data are not facts, they are merely the raw material from which facts can be inferred. Which leads me to the question: in today’s world, where the institutions that once dealt in objective assessments, and whose credibility and profitability was predicated on their delivery of verifiable information, have surrendered control of the medium of publishing, whose responsibility is it to establish the credibility of a source of information?
Sometimes, I feel as though I’m straying into to tin-foil-hat territory. But I do believe it’s extremely important for our culture of information consumption to remain critical, and for us to adapt to the technologies that have democratised the dissemination of information products to this extent. I’m certainly not trying to evoke any sort of nostalgia for a ‘golden age of truth’ that certainly never existed. Media bias has always been a thing, institutions have always had an agenda of their own, and politicians have always told lies.

Someone suggested to me that data journalism was the answer.

But what is the point of data journalism if it’s released into a world in which facts are no longer currency? If no one really cares what’s true anymore, what good can data do? Data-driven articles and visualisations can be falsified just as easily as anything else. Data-driven content is still subject to an angle: look at the difference between these two articles citing the same LINZ data for a pertinent example. What sets data-driven content apart, however, is the potential to follow the claims made by the information product all the way back to its source. To cite and make available the unit-level evidence from which the facts were derived.
Civic culture is evolving as fast as technology and media. If we are to maintain a culture that values evidence and transparency, then free and easy access to public data is the most basic, fundamental step. Embracing Open Data will go a long way to achieving this; empowering citizens as well as governments to formulate informed perspectives and make evidence-based decisions. An information culture that demands the availability and accessibility of primary evidence is an information culture that can fight the post-truth phenomenon. It’s a culture that will recognise a witch hunt when it sees one.
What happens at the end of a witch hunt? People get hurt. The first three women in Salem to be accused, arrested and tried as witches were a Caribbean slave, a homeless beggar, and a widowed woman who was involved in a long-standing legal dispute with the powerful family of her late husband. Evidentiary standards are important if we are going to prevent the most vulnerable communities amongst us from being subject to witch-hunts fuelled by the same sort of xenophobic sentiment that grows out of baseless fears and expresses itself in statements like “Build the wall!”.

Data is beautiful – Sarah

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