When facts make no difference

Svenska 2016-09-20

Fact resistance and denial of knowledge is something that many researchers often encounter. Basic facts are often worth as much as someone’s feeling, claims Heléne Lööw, researcher.
“We live in the age of emotions,” she says.

There has never been any scientific evidence that the white streaks we can sometimes see in the air are anything other than condensation – which was confirmed in a large international report in August. But according to a widespread conspiracy theory, these streaks are traces of substances deliberately spread to influence people.

In a similar way, several studies have shown that 97% of the world’s climate researchers agree that the earth is being warmed up by human activities. Yet there are those who claim that there is no scientific consensus on global warming.

These are only a couple of examples of what is known as “faktaresistens” – which was recognised as a new Swedish word last year. It means that fact-resistant humans do not allow themselves to be influenced by information that goes against their own opinion, which is based on something else. It may be a conspiracy theory, political idea or other ideological notions.

History denied

The phenomenon in itself is not new. Many scientists have long experience of having their knowledge contested.

“I have encountered that throughout my time as a researcher, but the scale is even greater these days due to social media. We are constantly confronted with reactions and aggression, in emails and phone calls. There is a lot of suspicion about research, a contempt for knowledge that is spreading,” says Heléne Lööw, who conducts research at Uppsala University in history, specialising in national socialism, fascism, hate crimes and so on.

She lists examples: denying that the Holocaust took place, the Armenian genocide, other cases of genocide.

“Facts make no difference. Researchers are dismissed as being cheated or paid off by some foreign power.”

Institutions, universities and museums

Fact resistance does not only affect universities. Museums are also faced with strong reactions sometimes when they illustrate history.

“This applies particularly to certain themes. The Viking age is particularly sensitive,” says Fredrik Svanberg, director of research at the Historical Museum.

The museum has had a permanent Viking exhibition since 2002. Texts and objects that have been exhibited have changed slightly as time goes by, and sometimes there are complicated questions about nationality and what is Swedish.

For example, it has been said that the country of Sweden did not exist in the Viking Age, or that DNA analysis has proved that the Birka girl in the exhibition, who was found in a grave on an island in Mälaren a hundred years ago, does not come from mid-Sweden. She is from a place outside what is now Sweden.

“There was a debate about how we see and define Sweden. Many people want to keep their old picture of its history and see the Viking age as a golden age.”

Reject new research

The Viking exhibition has been discussed on the website Avpixlat, where one article got over 800 comments. The staff behind the exhibition were called PC, culture-Marxists and so on.

“New research is dismissed out of hand with general notions such as PC, or left-wing or right-wing ideas. Then you don’t need to put up a factual argument and any discussion becomes more superficial. As a researcher, I believe that society needs to advance on knowledge and facts, not just opinions,” says Fredrik Svanberg.

He is backed up by Heléne Lööw.

“There has been a shift that is interesting to consider. Knowledge and basic facts have the same value as someone’s feeling. We live in the time of emotions, when what you feel is right.”

Politics, money or ideology

There is a mix of reasons behind fact resistance and conspiracy theories: ideological, political or commercial.

“In some cases there are strong commercial interests behind the ideas, but ideological backgrounds are more difficult to identify,” says Dan Larhammar, professor at the department of neuroscience at Uppsala University, member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and active in the Science and Education association.

There are studies that try to clarify the background. Gordon Pennycock, researcher in cognitive psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, conducted a study showing that certain people are more attracted by phrases that sound good but are lacking in substance. According to his research, they are people who are often less reflective. Many believe in the supernatural, religion and alternative medicine.

Take on a discussion and give facts

How should we deal with myths and fact resistance? Two researchers in Australia have written a guide with tips.

Dan Larhammar thinks it is important to take on a discussion and talk facts with the advocates of teachings such as creationism and homeopathy, even if hardcore believers are not susceptible to rational arguments.

“Otherwise our politicians may be misled into making decisions which, in the worst cases, could have disastrous consequences for the planet and everyone who lives here. It is difficult to make anyone interested in preserving biological diversity if they don’t understand how nature and evolution work. If a patient receives homeopathic care instead of evidence-based treatment, they could die. In the case of vaccines, it is important to inform people about benefits versus risks,” he says.

Read more in Curie: Desinformation as a tool for foreign policy

Text: Siv Engelmark
Photo: SPL / IBL Bildbyrå

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