Are facts really facts – post-truth and fake news

Paul Gibbons post-truth blog

This is a snippet from the introduction to the Truth Wars book… make sure you sign up for release information. 

First casualty in the truth wars – facts

The truth ought not to be something you can fight over.  Facts are facts, science is science, reality is real, so you might think.

Facts are facts. The simplest of those are countable or measurable: it is 22 degrees outside, and 153,231 people live in my town. Yet we find a way to fight over how many people voted for whom, how many people attended a rally, what temperature the planet is, how many people are poor, how many die from gun violence, and how many terrorists or immigrants commit acts of violence.

Science tells us cause and effect, that is, the laws of nature, or the way the world works.   We need to know when we do X, whether Y happens, that is, when we take a drug, it makes us better, or when we emit carbon dioxide, it warms the planet, or not.  Science is science, and science’s truths are more uncertain than simple counting or measurement.  Nevertheless, we get very close to truth in some areas.  Despite that, even in the 21st century, we fight over science that is very nearly settled: whether vaccines work, whether sugar is harmful, whether we cause warming of the planet, whether fluoride is essential or harmful, what levels of pollutants burning various fuels generates, whether GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are dangerous, and whether alternative medicine works.

Social science, the laws of humankind if you will, is even less certain in its predictions of cause and effect because human beings are, well, very human.  Therefore, we find it even easier to fight over whether charter schools make smarter kids, whether longer jail sentences lower crime, whether gun ownership causes or prevents crime, whether unemployment insurance hinders people getting back to work, and whether low interest rates, lower taxes, or government spending help the economy.

One mistake that many people make is to take the two true statements, that a) science is, by nature, uncertain, and b) science is constantly being revised, and deduce (cynically) from those that science is no better than gut feel, or personal experience, or ancient dogma. (For example, “Yeah, well they used to say that eating fat was bad for you.  So obviously science is a bunch of baloney.”)   That cynicism about science, and the continued propagation of pseudoscience is one feature of the post-truth world.  When it comes to understanding how the world works, the laws of nature, and of cause and effect, there is nothing better than science.

Finally, reality ought to be reality. It happened or it did not.  Tragically, we even find a way to fight over reality, whether Hitler really killed 6 million Jews, whether a president’s birth certificate really proves where he was born, whether we really landed on the moon,  whether 9-11 and the Newtown massacre really happened, and whether dinosaurs really lived four thousand years ago.

Agreeing on values, what the goals of society should be, and what matters most is difficult enough.  However, we should be able to agree how the world is.  Unfortunately, conversations about how the world is are confused with and perverted by conversations about how we want the world to be.  Ideology colors our descriptions of the world, and not just our prescriptions for the world.

Make sure you sign up for release information on Truth Wars – Surviving post-truth, fake news, and the war on science

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