How to Deal with Post-truthism

The Oxford Dictionaries proclaimed “post-truth” as its 2016 word of the year. It defines post-truth as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” According to the editors, use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000 percent in 2016 compared to 2015, largely in relation to Brexit—the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union—and the United States presidential election.

Logical thinking, i.e. correctly analyzing well-grounded (verifiable) facts, is generally the high road to solving problems or capitalizing on opportunities. But the definition of post-truth implies rejecting fact-based logic in general, and science in particular. Everyone, not just those involved with computers and all other scientific and intellectual disciplines, should be keenly concerned about the resurgence of the post-truth society. I say “resurgence” because the phenomenon is not new. Mankind has been prone to reject verifiable facts in favor of perceived or desired “truths” virtually since the dawn of time. Since post-truth implies some kind of modernity, some might argue a better term would be “truthiness,” a term popularized (but not coined) by American television comedian and satirist Stephen Colbert in 2005, and consecrated as its word of the year by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2006.

We probably all agree that defining a problem is generally the first step toward resolving it. But how do you resolve a problem that seems impervious to logic and reason? In his July 10, 2016 commencement address to students at Caltech (California Institute of Technology), Dr. Atul Gawande pondered this dilemma and offered some useful suggestions.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon, public health researcher, and a professor in surgery and public health at Harvard University. He is also a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine.

The title of his Caltech address was “The Mistrust of Science.” His opening remarks instantly put a finger on one of the roots, if not the principal root, of the problem. He said:

If this place has done its job—and I suspect it has—you’re all scientists now. Sorry, English and history graduates, even you are, too. Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation.

We who venerate logic in general, and science in particular, should keep this notion uppermost in mind.

Many post-truthers seem to believe science is someone else’s business, not theirs. Thus, the scientist’s concern to be methodical and tenacious in the pursuit of truth is not their concern. Dr. Gawande was exhorting his audience to adopt this practice of science, even if they are not practicing scientists.

He then quickly put his finger on another key aspect of the post-truth problem:

(Scientific thinking) isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counter-intuitive. It has to be learned . . . Common sense once told us that the sun moved across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.

Many years ago I taught secondary school mathematics and physics. I can attest from experience that most of my students did not fully recognize that science is not a normal way of thinking and therefore had to be learned. They felt people who understood and were enamored of science were somehow different, meaning “weird.”

It was hardly their fault. Apparently in lower grades they had never really been taught that science is open to everyone, even though it has to be learned. The idea may have been occasionally mentioned, but it was never systematically reinforced.

As their teacher, it was my impression that those students who intuitively more or less knew this were getting good grades, while those for whom scientific thinking was alien and mysterious were not. Unfortunately, the majority of students seemed to fall into the second category. I cannot help but suppose many of them probably grew up to be post-truthers, with all the unfortunate consequences this misconception would bring.

During the 2016 United States presidential election, many mainstream news media joyously “fact-checked” the two principal candidates. Overall, they concluded Hillary Clinton could be accused of making erroneous or misleading statements roughly 30 percent of the time, while Donald Trump chimed in at a hefty 70 percent. However, to fervent post-truth voters these discrepancies simply didn’t seem to matter.

The willful suspension of desire to know the “truth” (claims based on well-grounded facts) holds sway not only of politics. To some degree, it rules virtually every aspect of life.

What makes post-truthism especially menacing today is that we are all so interdependent. When humans lived in small groups, or even in countries that had little contact with other countries, the harm done by ungrounded misconceptions was limited to a small community. Today’s world is different; the harm one country’s misconceptions can do to another country is much more egregious. For example, despite all the evidence to the contrary, rejection of the reality of global warming by one powerful country can have grievous repercussions for the whole world. In short, borders are less and less barriers.

The need to bring post-truthers back to reality is evident and urgent. So surely we must step up our efforts to debunk bad argumentation in order to replace it with good argumentation. This seems only logical; unfortunately, it is not psychological because it does not take account of the human tendency to act on emotions. As Dr. Gawande pointed out:

People are prone to resist scientific claims when they clash with intuitive beliefs. They don’t see measles or mumps around anymore. They do see children with autism. And they see a mom who says, “My child was perfectly fine until he got a vaccine and became autistic.” You can tell them that correlation is not causation. You can say that children get a vaccine every two to three months for the first couple years of their life, so the onset of any illness is bound to follow vaccination for many kids. You can say that the science shows no connection. But once an idea has got embedded and become widespread, it becomes very difficult to dig it out of people’s brains.

In short, in many instances trying to debunk false ideas is likely to have little effect. Worse, it may have a reinforcing effect.

Describing facts that contradict an unscientific belief actually spreads familiarity with the belief and strengthens the conviction of believers. That’s just the way the brain operates. Misinformation sticks, in part because it gets incorporated into a person’s mental model of how the world works. Stripping out the misinformation therefore fails, because it threatens to leave a painful gap in that mental model—or no model at all.

If rebutting bad science is likely to be ineffective, what is a believer in science (rational, critical thinking) to do? One possibility is to reverse the tactic.

Rebutting bad science may not be effective, but asserting the true facts of good science is. And including the narrative that explains them is even better.

You don’t focus on what’s wrong with the vaccine myths, for instance. Instead, you point out that giving children vaccines has proved far safer than not. How do we know? Because of a massive body of evidence, including the fact that we’ve tried the alternate experiment before. Between 1989 and 1991, vaccination among poor urban children in the U.S. dropped. And the result was 55,000 cases of measles and 120 deaths.

For me, a more telling example is infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis). I am of an age to remember when summer signaled the end of school, the start of summer fun—and the ever-present threat of becoming infected by polio and crippled for life. With the advent of polio vaccines in the mid-1950s, this threat rapidly disappeared. Today, polio is on the brink of going the way of smallpox. Due to vaccination, the last reported case of smallpox anywhere in the world occurred in 1977. Today, the ravages of this unspeakable disease have largely vanished from mankind’s collective memory.

I usually pull out this example when confronting hardcore anti-vaxers. Rather than being skeptical about particular vaccines, these people are firmly convinced that all vaccines are inherently harmful. They therefore refuse to have themselves vaccinated or let their children be vaccinated. While measles might be dismissed as a normal childhood disease of little consequences (a justification for not vaccinating), polio cannot.

According to WHO (World Health Organization), reported cases of the disease, which used to be numbered in the hundreds of thousands every year, by 2015 had fallen to just 74 cases worldwide. Pointing this out to anti-vaxers is usually greeted by a sheepish, somewhat puzzled expression across their face, but no counterargument. Whether using the polio example has actually changed any minds is hard to tell. What is clear is that this undeniably positive information sowed the seeds of doubt, which is already a major step forward.

Finding a positive example to counteract a post-truther’s prejudice is not always easy; sometimes it may even be impossible. However, it is always worth the effort. Why? Because as Dr. Gawande points out, telling a dedicated post-truther “the facts say you are wrong” could be interpreted as a personal attack, which is only likely to strengthen the prejudice rather than weakening it. However, providing a positive counter-example gives the post-truther the opportunity to come to the conclusion himself that he is wrong, which would be significantly less embarrassing.

Another important bit of advice from Dr. Gawande is to expose the bad science tactics that are being used to mislead people.

Bad science has a pattern, and helping people recognize the pattern arms them to come to more scientific beliefs themselves . . . (Science) now advances knowledge in almost every realm of existence—even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time . . . Having a scientific understanding of the world is fundamentally about how you judge which information to trust.

True, but difficult to achieve, particularly in the short-term. Post-truthers generally seem ready to acknowledge how science continues to improve daily life, while nevertheless rejecting science when it conflicts with any of their fundamental religious, moral, or political beliefs. This parlous and inconsistent misuse of one’s gray matter is aptly summed up in the apocryphal quotation: “I know what I know. Stop trying to confuse me with the facts.”

We should not deceive ourselves by believing the tendency to tenaciously hold on to “obviously erroneous ideas” occurs only among the lesser educated and the lesser mentally endowed.

A friend of mine who teaches doctoral candidates at a prestigious university once complained about the lamentable writing skills displayed by some of his students: “They are obviously very intelligent; otherwise they wouldn’t be in line for a Ph.D. Nevertheless, when writing their dissertations, a disturbing number of them cannot seem to distinguish between fact and opinion. It’s as if they believe that saying something strongly enough, and often enough, makes it so.”

Even trained scientists can fall victim to making claims without adequate grounding. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) provides a celebrated example. Believing the universe had to be steady state (neither expanding nor contracting), he famously added a “cosmological constant” to his relativity equations to make them come out “correct.” When mounting evidence convinced him the universe is not steady state but is in fact expanding, he later recanted and expunged the constant, as any true scientist would.

If post-truthism cannot be effectively counteracted in the short-term, can it be achieved in the longer term? I believe it can. However, it will probably take a fundamental rethink of how we educate our children. A key to this is to teach logical thinking to all students.

Logical thinking is the basis of virtually everything else school has to offer. Learning the elements of logical thinking should be as common as learning the multiplication table.

Logical thinking has nothing to do with being intelligent or stupid, but with being human. True, some errors of logic depend on not knowing how to handle certain types of information; however, many more have to do with not knowing how to handle emotions. If we are unaware to what extent how we feel about something can seriously affect how we think about it, then errors are inevitable. For example: “Six weeks ago I was nearly killed as a passenger in a blue-colored car. Yesterday, it happened again. I will never again get into a blue car. They are dangerous; they should be banned from the roads.”

Most people would immediately recognize this argument to be fallacious. But some would not, particularly if their judgment has been emotionally colored by having had a similar traumatic experience.

I have long advocated that teaching the concepts and techniques of logical thinking (both formal and emotional) should be the backbone of any educational system worthy of the name. This should be done not only in formal classes and refresher courses on logical thinking throughout one’s academic career, but should be repeated and reinforced in all other academic subjects, e.g. art, civics, economics, history, philosophy, social studies, sports, etc.

I have been away from academia for more than half a century, so perhaps this idea has already been adopted and is being implemented. However, listening to many interviews with voters during the 2016 Brexit referendum in the U.K. and the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., I saw little sign of it. What was obvious was exactly the opposite.

Making logical thinking the indispensable and constantly reinforced leitmotiv of education of course would not be a panacea. Educators seem to disagree about what constitutes logical thinking and therefore cannot easily tell when someone is “being logical” or not. Moreover, the persuasive power of logical thinking depends on one’s confidence in the facts on which arguments are based. Scientists who come down on different sides of the vaccines debate all believe they are being logical. And most are. Where they differ is the weight they give to how important each available fact is to supporting the weight they give to how important each available fact is to supporting the claim.

In addition to logical thinking, what also seems to be needed is for everyone to learn the skill of distinguishing between comfortable, self-serving claims, and reliable, well-grounded claims. And then make a balanced judgment. Thus, a conscientious parent might legitimately eschew measles vaccination out of fear of autism, dismissing measles as a normal childhood disease of little consequence compared to the dramatic consequences of the autism they believe it might engender. On the other hand, hardcore anti-vaxers (who reject all vaccination as unacceptably risky) haven’t a leg to stand on.

In his prescient and eloquent conclusion to his commencement address to these newly minted Caltech graduates, Dr. Gawande succinctly summed up the current situation and threw a beam of light on the way forward

The mistake, then, is to believe that the educational credentials you get today give you any special authority on truth. What you have gained is far more important: An understanding of what real truth-seeking looks like. It is the effort not of a single person but of a group of people—the bigger the better—pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline. As scientists, in other words.

Even more than what you think, how you think matters. The stakes for understanding this could not be higher than they are today because we are not just battling for what it means to be scientists. We are battling for what it means to be citizens.