Facts under attack: science policy in the “post-truth” era

“If we are not serious about facts – what’s true and what’s not – and particularly in an age of social media where so many people are getting information in sound bytes and snippets off their phones… If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.” – President Barack Obama, 17 November 2016

President Obama’s words are timely considering that Oxford Dictionaries designated “post-truth” as the word of the year within a few hours of these remarks at a press conference in Germany.

Stand Up For Science rally

Stand Up For Science rally in San Francisco, USA, December 2016. Photo: Peg Hunter. Source: Flickr CC

The advent of the “post-truth” era has inspired a countless array of publications that delve into the psychology of lies and why people sometimes choose against communicating with integrity. One such book, The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, states that “choosing which [truth versus a lie] to tell is largely a matter of convenience.” Thus, the post-truth moniker is rightly earned, as the rhetoric of political candidates in the recent United States election demonstrated that truth is often ignored in order to appease the electorate and uphold ideals that are more politically expedient. A popular political commentator recently stated, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore,” as she discussed the status of facts on a national radio show.

Scientists and science policymakers whose work is heavily dependent upon evidence-based data staunchly reject the post-truth cultural view.  Yet, when their research findings are not being vigorously opposed, they are being outright ignored or neglected. What is clear is that post-truth politics is incongruent with the basic tenets of the scientific method: conducting background research, proposing a hypothesis, performing and repeating experiments to ensure reproducibility, analysing research data, forming conclusions, undergoing rigorous peer review, and communicating results with accuracy and truth.

Despite the United States’ role as a major player in international science policy, the presidential candidates rarely – if at all – discussed their views on science issues during the 2016 election season.  Scientific American collaborated with ScienceDebate.org, a non-profit organisation that facilitates political discourse among political candidates, constituencies, and interest groups, to assess presidential candidates’ views on 20 different scientific issues. These issues include scientific integrity, advancing scientific research, climate change, energy, internet privacy and security, science education, space, and addressing global challenges in science. Candidates’ responses to questions in a reader survey were scored and ranked (0/5=worst; 5/5=best; 100/100 possible over 20 categories). The results? When added across categories, candidate Trump scored 7/100, Clinton 64/100, Johnson 30/100, and Stein 44/100. President-elect Trump must be swiftly briefed by seasoned scientific experts in order to effectively support and implement sound science and technology policy. Should Trump fail to embrace evidence-based science, the United States could jeopardise its position as a leader in scientific innovation – a fate from which it may be difficult to recover in the coming decades.

Could science policy-making now be even more vulnerable to politically-motivated appeals of our post-truth times? Those who hold fast to scientific truth disagree. Still, the post-truth era takes the fight for scientific truth to a new level, entirely. Faced with the possibility of decreased funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Earth Science division in a new Trump administration, an article aptly named, the “Prospect of a New Dark Age,” emphasises that close, patient study of the earth has nothing to do with the passing fashions of political speech in the here and now.” The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It provides historical context on the increased politicisation of science and how it endangers good evidence-based policymaking in other areas, as well. Effective strategies to combat the “post-truth” culture include raising awareness of its threat to good science policy, safeguarding data and its proper communication, engaging in scientific advocacy and grass-roots politics, and bridging the cultural divide with non-scientists by educating stakeholders and the public.

Media and scientific communities must work together to ensure that science reporting is accurate and that fake news does not go unchecked.  Promoting truth in media and science communication is nothing new for scientists, as they have always had to fight misinformation and quackery to protect science and public health interests. How can scientists continue doing so in a hostile post-truth political climate? The government Office of Research Integrity and websites such as “Retraction Watch” are just two entities that help expose questionable science and keep scientists accountable.

Scientists who are not usually involved in the political process are now taking action in the post-truth era. A recent “Future of Research” symposium featuring physicist and former Congressman Rush Holt focused on advocacy skills for scientists.  However, such activity can be difficult as some scientists have faced political opposition. The Alliance for Legal Protection of Science and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund provide support for scientists facing harassment and legal difficulties as a consequence of their work. Many scientists have resorted to copying data that they believe may be vulnerable under a Trump administration. There is strength in numbers, and more than 2,300 scientists have signed an open letter asking the Trump administration to uphold research integrity and support good science. Ultimately, more scientists are needed to serve as policy advisors and political staff. Professional scientific organisations have provided thousands of scientists with  training in policymaking to effectively engage with government. Grass roots political involvement is key, and scientific organisations offer resources for this. “Call out climate change deniers,” an effort launched by the Obama administration, encourages the public to hold elected officials accountable for upholding good science. Political action committees (PACs) support scientists and science advocates who seek elected office, and campaign workshops aid physician political candidates.

Several organisations, including the World Science Festival and Society for Science and the Public, allow scientists to educate and engage citizens in order to bridge the cultural divide, increase understanding, and promote scientific truth. The University of Oxford has devised a “Public Engagement with Research Strategic Plan,” which communicates research priorities and encourages dialogue while promoting increased public involvement in scientific policy. In exchange, citizens provide valuable feedback regarding how scientists can better communicate and serve the community through research.

Scientists must use all reasonable vehicles at their disposal to stand up for scientific truth in an uncertain post-truth political climate. Discourse among scientists, government, and the public must remain open, respectful, and free of post-truth rhetoric, and government leadership must heed and act upon wise scientific counsel. It is a daunting task that will take fortitude, education and continued advocacy. However, evidence-based scientific truth must prevail in the end. Perhaps the scientists at a recent “Stand up for Science Rally” put it best: “Stand up for science. Out of the labs and into the streets!”

Dorkina Myrick is a physician-scientist from the United States of America and an alumna of the Blavatnik School of Government (MPP Class of 2015). She may be found on Twitter.

2 Comments

  1. Out of the labs and into the streets! I could not have said it better… The truth is what separates us (the free world) from dictators and shady states. We must fight for it!

  2. As professional problem solvers, we need facts, data and the best evidence to guide action. Paradoxically, in the discussion of popular science, science education and the use or misuse of facts in “decision making” we have, effectively no research on our dependent variables – what ever they may be.

    Let take the simple statement: “Scientists must use all reasonable vehicles…” How is “reasonable” to be defined and measured? By whom and over what period of time?

    Another example: “There is strength in numbers, and more than 2,300 scientists have signed an open letter” OK, where are the experimental facts to support this claim? What are the dependent variables? How is “strength” measured? These kinds of unsubstantiated claims form the bulk of the conversations on pop science and policy and science ed. Handwaving at it’s worst.

    Further, we have no coherent theories and models of animal behavior, let alone human, let alone humans and technical subjects. We simply do not know how information and action work together.

    Instead we are, predictably, following cultural and ideological presumptions and assumptions about action and the external and informational stimuli and processes that are involved. Currently, the discussion of facts and science and any kind of behavior and action is “faith-based” and based on platitudes. That will just create more obstacles to problem solving.

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