Science in a New World of “Alternative Facts”

If you are an American, or have followed the brutal 2016 campaign season and election, it may not be a stretch to believe that we are coming into a new era: the post-truth era.

Today’s Buzzword // Post-truth

“It is no longer a positive attribute to seek out truth, determine biases, evaluate facts, or share knowledge… Under agnotology 2.0, scientific thinking itself is under attack. In a post-fact and post-truth era, we could very well become post-science.”

The above quote, written by researchers in France at the Grenoble École de Management (GEM) for The Conversation, is an alarming reality to researchers. What will become of my job in a post-truth era? What will become of science?

Before attempting to address these questions, it is first important to understand where we are, and how we got here. What is the post-truth era?

The most concrete evidence, at least that I have seen, for the post-truth era, came from an interview with senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway this weekend with Chuck Todd:

“Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.” The post-truth era describes the period we are seemingly in now, where opinion and feeling matters more than fact. Words and rhetoric are more important than truth. The idea is that, if you say a falsehood enough times, with what seems like authority, it doesn’t matter if that flies in the face of cold, hard facts.

We, as the general public, are inundated with an overwhelming amount of information. Twenty-four hour news on television, newspaper and blog websites updated every every second of the day, Twitter and Facebook allowing anyone to join in on the conversation. With so much information, it can be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. There is simply not enough time to verify the degree of truth in the news that we read or hear, so when an argument sounds convincing, when someone speaks words that feel true, it can be tempting to accept those words at face value. To that end, I have been pondering several questions in these past few months:

What is the role of science in a post-truth world?

What is the role of a scientist in a post-truth world?

While I do not feel that my career as a scientist is threatened (at least not yet), I do think that there is a profound shift in the role of science in the realm of the public and public perception. There have been public campaigns against vaccine science and climate science, two fields that have a wealth of reliable and peer-reviewed data to back them up, along with a consensus among scientists. Yet a celebrity stating that she or he believes vaccines to be harmful and therefore will not use them on her or his child is more convincing than a scientist presenting data that overwhelming states the safety of vaccines.

I am not suggesting (or even hoping) that scientists will rise to the level of celebrity, but I do think that today’s world requires a scientist to be an advocate as well as a researcher. We must be sure to accurately report our science to other scientists by publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and we must honestly communicate our science to the public.

This is my goal with ScienceDailyDose. I will do my best to accurately and honestly present science news, not only in terms of the research result, but also to place the research in a broader context. Why is this research important? Why should we care?

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