Bedeviled by disinformation, advertising and political deceit within our own species, only ethologists, such as I, preoccupy ourselves with deviations between perception and reality among other animals. How senses evolve to narrow that gap with increasing resolution is amazing. Visual communication on land is seriously constrained by light scattering, creating veils between objects of interest and observers’ eyes, as anyone with cataracts can relate. Because shorter wavelengths (blue) scatter more than lower-energy light (red), diurnal and aquatic animals, living in shallows, adapted accordingly. Filters in front of photoreceptor surfaces selectively reduce transmission of shorter wavelengths like specialized camera lenses. These “yellow filters” reduce scatter within the eye and lessen damage from ultraviolet radiation. Predictably, nocturnal animals, needing every possible photon to see at night, don’t have these mechanisms. To fish and other aquatic organisms, viewing above-water is also affected by refraction and 98% dependence on down-welled aerial light to see. Atmospheric light is reflected and bent at water surfaces because of differences in optical densities. Light refraction patterns compress the real 180º world above-water (including the sky) into a solid 97º angle of perception called “Snell’s window.” Placements, structures and shielding pigments in eyes of fish and aquatic insects, frequently near surface, correct for these distortions, enhancing survival. Archerfish, with pinpoint accuracy, expel water-jets from their mouths to knock invertebrates from over-hanging branches. Backswimmers (true-bug predators in family Notonectidae known to pierce human waders) masterfully patrol air-water interfaces of ponds and swimming pools for prey.
If Plato were alive, he’d immediately recognize his Allegory of the Cave playing-out in American politics. Demagogues and media moguls chain us to walls of shadows from which conventional wisdom says “turn away.” Many do not. Comfortable in their unsupportable beliefs, they prefer an illusory cave of fears and prejudices to real world illuminations and scientific reason. Unwilling to adapt, they’re easily exploited ─ not that we haven’t suffered this before. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s downfall began when Atty. Joseph Welch doubted his “sense of decency” during nationally televised hearings in 1954. As McCarthy’s scares about communist infiltrations of the Army became suspect, Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson, and Edward R. Murrow took him down, the latter with stinging editorials and a no-holds-barred interview. Not until a Senate vote effectively censured McCarthy and Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus (1960) named blacklisted Dalton Trumbo in its credits was the coup de grace to Red Scare injustices finally applied. Why haven’t cable media spigots turned off the lies and electoral subterfuge of Donald Trump? Answer: Profit!
In an age of unreason, stoked by prejudice and fear-mongering, global and national problems can’t be solved without universally accepted facts, consensuses to which post-truth radicalism is antithetical. Lies, deceit, and indoctrination politics may be currencies of major party governance these days, but Trump, whose narcissism allows flattery to manipulate him, is uniquely more concerned about himself and reelection than either the country or the biosphere. Like Joe McCarthy, Trump appeals to supporters by attacking his detractors and linking them to communism, tapping into the same nostalgic myths of greatness as Vladimir Putin. Yet Putin in his autocratic lust for lifelong leadership is a unifier, who wants to keep power to perpetuate the state. Trump, the divider, is willing to destroy the state to keep his power. Fealty to him is about idolatry not ideology.
Democracy won’t keep pace with environmental and sociological changes to come if, no matter what’s said, elected officials and demagogues get press attention simply because they’re celebrities, outrageous and marketable. In the time it takes to refute one lie, ten others can be circulated. Moderate Republicans, pushed by Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience,” shelved McCarthy in the 1950s. Now, they should cast Trumpism adrift, put duty before votes, and sail the “oceans of truth” laying before us.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate