The War Against Facts

On November 30, 2016, Scottie Nell Hughes, in an appearance on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR, stated “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.”  She was appearing as a surrogate for President-Elect Donald J. Trump and discussing his tweets claiming massive voter fraud robbing him of a popular vote victory in the election just past.  Her statement came across more as an announcement of strategy than as an observation, a strategy boosted by the proliferation of media outlets that replace the New York Times’ old mantra of “All the news that’s fit to print” with “All the news that fits your preconceived notions.”  Indeed, nearly six months into the Trump presidency, the war against facts appears to be the central, perhaps the only, strategic theme of this Administration.

This war against facts is not a novel approach.  It is a standard propagandistic technique of autocratic regimes that value control of the narrative and maintenance of power above promoting the greater public good.  But when propaganda flourishes, democracy withers.  Flooding the market with “alternative facts” creates a fog of war that stands in the way of reaching democratic consensus.

The U.S. intelligence agencies and investigative journalists are so far keeping up their end of the bargain on navigating through this fog to some approximation of truth.  We are launching this blog instead to focus on combating the war against scientific facts being waged by systematic science deniers who have been emboldened by the Trump strategy and rewarded with collaborative roles in the making of public policy.  An essential part of this combat centers on fostering the education of future generations of young people, training them in critical thinking and the ability to distinguish fact from bullshit.

Currently widespread doubts about scientific results do not so much reflect a mistrust of scientists, but rather adherence to worldviews with which the science may conflict.  Scientists’ worldviews are often centered on the validity and robustness of the scientific method, a time-tested and self-correcting approach to determining facts.  But for non-scientists, worldviews are more often centered on religious or political identification, or on economic self-interest.

In some cases, the conflict is obvious.  For example, cosmology tells us quite definitively that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old, while a strict reading of the Bible sets the age at just under 6000 years.  But in other cases, it takes decisive action on the part of affected parties and their funders to promote a sense of conflict where none need exist.  This is prominently the case today with climate science, where the technical issues have been counter-productively elevated to aspects of political identification.  Science denial is prevalent on many issues, from the origins and evolution of the universe and life within it, to human effects on Earth’s climate and environment, to the efficacy and dangers of vaccines.

To be sure, there are honest scientific skeptics — the scientific method relies on them and provides an approach to identify, debate and eventually resolve scientific disagreements.  But make no mistake, there is also a small industry of deniers, who cherry-pick, misrepresent or doctor data, in order to sow doubt, while insisting they be called skeptics rather than deniers.  The difference between the two will be elaborated in the next blog entry, but is pithily summarized in the quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson featured in the footer on this page.

In the face of manufactured doubt about science, how is an informed public to navigate through the fog of war against facts?  How are science teachers to handle the honing of critical thinking in young minds, in the face of science denial manifestos and politically driven mandates with which they are being bombarded?  In upcoming blog entries, we will explain the difference between scientific disagreements and science denial, and we will present the standard tools used repeatedly by science deniers, across a wide variety of issues.  We will illustrate elements of this standard toolbox in discussions of climate science, of ozone depletion, of Big Bang cosmology, of macro-evolution, of vaccinations against common diseases, among other questions, both old and new.  The goal is not to stifle debate about skeptics’ questions, but to recognize and call out dishonest points and foregone conclusions.