The authors of three critically-acclaimed books met in public for the first time last night to discuss the rise of the ‘post-truth era’ and what it means for science.
The event was chaired by Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre, who challenged the panel on whether the ‘war on truth’ really is new.
James Ball, Special Correspondent for BuzzFeed UK, author of Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World (Biteback Publishing), said that post-truth is, in reality, ‘a collection of old problems, weaponized by the internet.’
Science was forced to grapple with these problems long before the phrase ‘post truth’ was coined with issues such as climate change denial, and misinformation about autism and tobacco. However, he added, ‘that does not really mean we have got any better at tackling it.’
Evan Davis, BBC presenter, Newsnight anchor and author of Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit (Little Brown) said that the post-truth phenomenon was a ‘new and virulent form of an old disease’, pinning its rise on the election of President Trump in particular.
When it comes to scientists, however, Davis added that they are all too human; they make mistakes; there are replication issues and confirmation biases; and there are those ‘facts’ that turn out to be wrong or more complicated than thought.
His tactical advice to scientists is to ‘apply a bit of psychology’ and not to be hectoring, or rely on spin, but ‘more modest about what they know’, to express more doubt, respect and to be less dogmatic.
To persuade people of the truth, ‘shouting at them and telling them they are an idiot is not the way to do it.’
The decline of traditional institutions and the ‘rocket booster force’ of digital technology has created a new climate, said Matthew d’Ancona, columnist, Science Museum Group Trustee and author of Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back (Ebury).
However, he acknowledged the problem dates back more than half a century, to the birth of a well-funded ‘systematic disinformation industry’ that worked on behalf of vested interests, such as the corporate-sponsored work on tobacco and lung disease.
The aim was not to refute science but to undermine the scientific consensus to sabotage public confidence, creating a ‘critical mass of doubt’ so as to preserve the status quo as long as possible.
He added that the disinformation industry is hard at work today to sow doubts about climate change but ‘what is new is the way we are consuming the mendacity.’
This has driven the rise of scientific denialism, ‘the growing conviction that scientists, in league with government and big pharma and shady forces are somehow at war with the best interests of humanity and our best interests.”
‘We have reached an astonishingly volatile point where evidence-based research is trusted less than anecdote,’ he said, joking that the definitive text on the post-truth era is the Homeopathic A&E sketch by British comedy duo Mitchell and Webb.
The answer for science, said d’Ancona, is to have more ‘charismatic leadership’, referring to the likes of Tim Peake, Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking.
He added that scientists also ‘need to communicate facts in a way that recognises emotional as well as rational imperatives.’
Truth, he said, ‘requires an emotional delivery system that is not snarled up by technical language, statistics and acronyms.’
James Ball pointed out that ‘there is good money in making fake news,’ but ‘we have got quite bad at telling stories from facts. There is very good evidence that arguing from evidence does not work.’
This echoed a point made in the introduction to the IMAX event by Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, who stressed the need to find the right way to engage with a broad audience: ‘It isn’t dumbing down, it is finding the narrative to discuss complex science with everyone.’