Enter the post-factual world

The term, “Post-factual,” was all the rage in Brussels a few months ago, referring to the trend observed by many in our societies to ignore factual evidence in political decision-making, and in particular hard scientific evidence, as in the case of global warming. I attended a conference on science policy-making and pathways to government science advice where this term was used many times over. As usual, linguistic inflation tended to exaggerate the issue but it was also clear that we do have a problem. By “we,” I mean scientists and science policy scholars whose goal is to find the proper fora and methodological tools in order to inform policy at all levels of government, using precise scientific evidence and facts. It is no easy feat, as people at both ends of this exchange (politicians and scientists) do not share the same knowledge base. Nor do they share the same language, the same constraints or, very importantly, the same timeline for decision-making.

The matter had subsided a little since September…until the recent presidential election in the United States. The term “alternative facts” was used by a presidential advisor in order to support a statement from the White House. The term actually originates in the famous Georges Orwell novel “1984”, as every social media buff is now aware.

Beyond the brouhaha caused by this unfortunate slip, scientists the world over are probably feeling as I am feeling now: worried, seriously worried! Facts should not be one way or another. There should be no room for ‘mainstream facts’ vs. ‘alternative facts,’ not in a world that continues to be guided by physical laws.

Humpty-Dumpty: When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.

Alice: The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.

Humpty-Dumpty: The question is which is to be master – that’s all!

Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll, 1872

What creates a significant difficulty is that empirical findings can be presented as facts in a variety of manners. In economics for instance, a simplified presentation of such a finding is called a “stylized fact” as it can only provide a broad summary that does not necessarily hold in all real-world circumstances (e.g. “real wage grows over time”).

Regardless, I am concerned here about the trend observed in recent years to deliberately ignore real-life facts and offer distorted or made-up versions and systematically ignore expert advice as something that is inherently suspicious. The Internet has helped conspiracy theorists bloom everywhere, and this ease of circulation has certainly helped to enhance this tendency. I am quite fascinated by the notion that a lot of people seem to accept the daily bread brought by technological development (weather forecast, internet and social media, better cars, smartphones, low-cost flights to sunny places, etc.) but do not appear to give credence to the things that makes all these goodies possible: science, knowledge, real facts!

For scientists and science policy-makers, this trend is dangerous. The past two centuries were driven by the notion that all the world’s problems would soon be solved by science. This was admittedly not entirely right. But broadly speaking, this remains true: an awful lot of problems were indeed solved by science (e.g. lifespan increase through medical progress; vaccines eradicating or tremendously diminishing infectious diseases that killed millions in the past; better hygiene, food, housing, or labour conditions). Yet, it looks as if a large fraction of citizens are distrustful of scientists, or at least of experts. Clearly this mistrust does not stem from a lack of faith in the broader disinterested quest for knowledge, but from the intricate relationships entertained between scientific and technological development on the one hand, and the political, military and economic aspects of our society on the other hand, whose interests go way beyond mere scientific production. Science is an intrinsic part of our world, which enables and nurtures it, and it cannot therefore be judged simply on the face of its intellectual outcome.

The preoccupying question is then, of course: if people no longer trust evidence and advice – the facts – as presented by those who know best, whom are they going to trust? He who speaks loudest, who appeals to basic emotions, to the reptilian brain and not to reason? Are we already too deep into the post-factual world and, if so, what can we do about it?

In Europe, there is too often the tendency to feel that we are safe from such misguided ways, or as Sinclair Lewis had put it “It can’t happen here”… Well, perhaps it can!

On the one hand, we need to find better ways to interface with and advise science policy-makers, congressional staffers, governments. This requires a change on both sides: decision-makers have to realise that investment in R&D is vital for economic development and that the corresponding path is to support basic research. Educating the politicians and their staffers in science is part of the answer. But equally important is the realisation from the science side that advice to politicians needs to be more immediately useful and precise, and that the timeline for providing this advice is usually short.

On the other hand, scientists and scientific organisations need to find ways to oppose the current, increasing trend of “twisting the facts” that we can observe in so many fora and with many public figures. This is an altogether different issue than the one mentioned above, and a much more difficult one. The first one was akin to reasonable people trying to find a better way of communicating and interacting. Here the problem is to combat scientific illiteracy and provide effective counterarguments to populist campaigns that are based on fabricated evidence. This effort must be undertaken in such a way that those who are most susceptible to believing fabricated evidence will not feel as though they are being spoken down to by scientists and (the already-suspect) experts. Finding the right tone and content for messages aimed at educating this scientifically less-literate public will not be easy, but it is necessary if we are to have any impact at all.

The views expressed by the authors of the Science Connector Blog articles do not necessarily represent the views of the European Science Foundation as a whole, or of its members.

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