Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Post-Truth and the Rejection of Science

By Leigh Ackland

In an age of "alternative facts", it may not be feasible to expect people to understand the details of scientific studies, but it is crucial that they respect the importance of evidence-based information underpinning scientific analysis.

We are surrounded by science, more than at any other age in human history. Despite this, in the current political environment, science is often dismissed and scientists are ignored. This is not a situation without precedent. Historically, scientists and their ideas came into conflict with the beliefs of the time, particularly religious beliefs.

The latest threat to science is “post-truth”. The Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” as the 2016 “Word of the Year”. Post-truth is a scenario where public opinion is solicited by appealing to people’s emotions and personal beliefs rather than by the presentation of evidence-based facts. There is also “Alternative Facts” where people select the information to promote their case, regardless of whether it is true and even “Fake News”, where items are fabricated to gain attention. Donald Trump has claimed that climate change is a hoax, vaccines trigger autism, and compact fluorescent light bulbs cause cancer - views that are totally contrary to scientific evidence. However, the fact that this has not influenced his standing amongst many Americans is testament to the radical shift in society away from rationality and evidenced-based information.

Given that science has been so successful, the appearance of post-truth seems to be a paradox. There are a number of reasons that could explain the popularity of post-truth. Today, with the huge amount of information available to the public and the proliferation of social media, anyone can publicly express their opinions on issues that were previously the domain of experts. Thus unsubstantiated opinions and prejudices can be conveyed as facts. The selective or misuse of facts can have a huge impact on influencing political decisions. An example of this is “clean coal”, which is an oxymoron because utilisation of coal involves the combustion of carbon to produce carbon dioxide, as described by a basic chemical equation.

A factor that contributes to the susceptibility of individuals to post truth is confusion due to the many complex issues such as environmental and health problems, that currently confront humans. These issues are not readily understood by a person who has little expert knowledge. Take the example of climate change. The evidence for this is complex. Non-scientists have to rely on the opinions of others whereas a scientist has the expertise to access the massive amount of experimental data that provide the primary evidence supporting climate change.

Post-truth has gained popularity because people have difficulty in accepting that many issues are not black and white. This is in contrast to science which builds on an existing body of knowledge that is continuously upgraded, often in the light of new technologies. Scientists appreciate that many issues are not definite because what appeared “true” at one time, may later prove to be not the case. Scientific theories are often found to be partially correct or incorrect due to limited or misinterpreted data and the presence of confounding variables. This can be very confusing for non-scientists who are looking for an absolute explanation. The rapidly changing nature of science means it can disrupt existing paradigms so people who benefit from the status quo feel threatened when new technologies are developed, even if they are beneficial in the long term.

Aspects of our current social environment promote post-truth, including the way the press communicate with the public. We now see many anecdotal news items, such as stories of individuals whose situations are uncommon and do not represent circumstances that can be generalised to the public. The use of anecdotes makes it is easier for journalists to focus on drama rather than informing but is at odds with a scientific approach. This means that the general public may be presented with skewed or non-representative ideas on issues.

Politics has a role in promoting post-truth. The role of science in politics has been downgraded over time by changes in the way governments function. Previously the public service contained bodies of experts with detailed knowledge and scientific expertise who had a crucial role in providing unbiased information to governments of any political persuasion. The public service has been eroded over time. Politicians now rely on their own advisers, many of whom are content-free in relation to discipline knowledge. Thus politicians are often unable to grasp the significance of scientific information and fail to make rational decisions based on evidence.

Many politicians in Australia have a background in law, economics, finance or commerce. There is a two-way flow between politics and big business, both of which control our society to a great extent, with financial wealth being the main currency of politics. Unfortunately, scientists play a small role in politics and in society generally. The consequence of a lack of scientists in politics is that science and scientific issues may be misunderstood or overlooked. In the absence of scientific understanding, the use of post-truth/alternative facts is considered as an alternative political tool.

Paradoxically, science may be contributing to our downfall. Humans evolved with a struggle for existence. Hardship and disease claimed many lives prematurely, especially around birth. Now, to a considerable extent, we have defeated these obstacles. However, in doing so we have become more isolated from nature. Our success in dominating the earth has created in us an arrogance and a sense of entitlement, and the idea that we are the superior species on the planet. Many people consider humans to be invincible, but science tells us that 99% of all species that have ever existed are extinct and so we too most likely going to meet this fate.

An understanding of the nature of science is absolutely fundamental to combat post-truth, which is the antithesis of science. While it is not feasible to expect people to understand the details of scientific studies, it is crucial that the importance of evidence-based information that underpins scientific analyses is clear. Improved understanding of the principles of science could be achieved in a number of ways: by better school education, by scientists taking on leadership roles in society and connecting more effectively with people, by a greater advocacy for science and scientists and by the promotion of the fact that science is required for the survival of the planet in the future.

Professor Leigh Acland is Director of the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology and Deputy Director of the Molecular and Medical Research SRC in Deakin University's School of Life and Environmental Sciences.