The Oxford English Dictionary recently declared “post-truth” 2016’s word of the year, highlighting the rise of fake news in politics and public discourse.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
For a scientist like myself, who has been trained to use observations and experiments to build objectively verifiable facts about the world, which are open to testing by other scientists, the rise of a post-truth world is deeply troubling.
Many proposals are now being bandied about for how we can transition to a post-post-truth world.
Some argue that the public simply needs to be better trained to identify fake news stories. The Fake News Act of 2017, a bill recently introduced in the California Assembly by Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, calls for “educators to incorporate civic online reasoning into their high school curricula.” In the long run, critical thinking skills are crucial online.
Others blame Facebook, Google and the internet in general for enabling the post-truth world by promoting fake news through the echo chambers of social networks and personalized search. In response, Facebook and Google have laid out plans to call out fake news as “disputed” and prevent purveyors from generating revenue from their ad-selling services.
This may reduce the financial incentive for publishing fake news, but it is unlikely to disrupt circulation of misinformation. It may, in fact, deepen divides. People who want to elevate a story that is labeled “disputed” could simply reframe the label as a badge of honor.
Unfortunately, the post-truth world cannot be overcome by teaching or technology alone. Our post-truth world is a social problem.
Over the past generation, mass communication has shifted from a broadcast model, where journalists broadcast information in print or over the airwaves, to a conversation model, where anyone can generate information online and others can comment on it, share it, add to it and pass it on. In this new landscape, all voices can find their audiences.
Often, the only distinguishing feature among the cacophony of voices to which we’re exposed is whether someone is a member of our “tribe” – that is, someone of similar cultural or ideological views. Social science research has shown that people tend to reject or avoid facts that don’t conform to our own existing belief systems. We gravitate toward voices from our tribes, spreading and repeating key narratives, myths, even falsehoods, that become part of our identities, our truths.
The trouble for scientists is that four out of five Americans do not know any scientists personally. So although scientists are among the most trusted voices for many Americans, they are not likely to be part of most Americans’ tribes and thus not among the voices that shape their truths.
Fortunately, here in California citizens have many avenues for engaging directly with scientists to discuss issues such as climate change through online networks like Cal-Adapt and community-based groups like the Sonoma County Resilience Team. California is also part of Resilience Dialogues, a public-private collaboration I initiated last year while working at the White House that provides opportunities for the public to start conversations with scientists about climate risks in their communities.
California’s scientists, government and civil society have a long history of supporting vibrant public conversations that include scientists and then taking action on science-based facts. We need to expand this model beyond our state borders. If we don’t, many of our fellow Americans will never hear the trusted voices of scientists as they become increasingly isolated in a post-truth world.
Amy Luers is climate director for the Skoll Global Threats Fund. She is former assistant director for climate resilience and information in the White House and former senior environment program manager at Google. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.