2+2=5 or how to be a scientist in a post-factual world

2016-11-18

“For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?”

It is not uncommon for passages of Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” to eerily reflect changes in society since its first publication in 1949. Yet, the announcement of ‘Post-truth’ as word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries is a stark reminder that Orwell’s words ring truer than ever.

The tremendous success of populist movements across the western world have been fueled by anger and distrust of the establishment and sprinkled with an unhealthy dose of xenophobia and isolationism. Because such views are often at odds with facts, its advocators have promoted the distrust of experts, whom they label as “out-of-touch elites”, and made use of acritical spreading of fake news in social media and predisposition to conspiracy theories to achieve their goals.

The campaign leading to the election of the demagogue Halloween pumpking known as Donald Trump was littered with inaccurate or blatantly untrue claims that had fact-checkers working double-time. Exposing Trump’s lies did little to affect his popularity, even increasing it at times. The same disdain for the truth and expert commentary was prevalent in the campaign leading to the Brexit vote. Michael Gove’s claim that “Britons have had enough of experts” encapsulates the spirit of the post-truth world. The fact-based opinions of economists, scientists and business owners were discredited as biased.

This is a world in which Trump’s America and Brexit Britain will hold hands with Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey and Duterte’s Philippines – a consortium of authoritarian demagogues that exert much of their power through the use of post-factual language. Large swathes of the European electorate, Sweden included, appear inclined to follow like-minded leaders who reinforce their factless belief that Europe is being invaded by Muslims or that feminists are set to destroy all bearers of protruding gonads.

Needless to say, the disdain for facts is dangerous. The fight against climate change is set to be the first victims of this discourse, judging by the people being appointed by Trump for his cabinet. If left unchecked, this narrative might lead to the propagation and validation of other scientifically discredited beliefs like the anti-vaccination movement or that “big pharma” is somehow hiding the cure for cancer in a Siberian bunker. Soon, half of the population could be wearing tinfoil hats.

Our role as scientists is to fight this. To intervene as much as possible in public discourse to correct inaccuracies with facts and rational thinking, be it amongst friends, on social media or over Christmas dinner with the family. Scientists must step up and steer the conversation back to the facts or we might be looking at a grim future.

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  • Tomas Ekström

    Brilliantly written!

    2016.11.25

  • Wouter van der Wijngaart

    Are there any historical indications, or is there some factual "proof", that societal policy based on correct facts is, in the long run, better than policy based on whims of the day ? We all do presume this, but has it actually been show to be true ? Any references to studies comparing both types of government ?

    2016.11.25