Science, alternative facts and fake news

Julkaistu 06.11.2017.

World-renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said in a live TV debate “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe in it or not.” However, recent commentaries on the ‘post-fact society’ suggest that public opinion is increasingly being influenced by feelings as opposed to facts.

The sources from which people get their news and information are contributing to this. For instance, studies suggest that a significant proportion of young people between 18-24 use Facebook as their primary source of news. And then there is the rise of social media which can present news from a potentially very wide variety of sources that differ in quality.

On top of all this, key political figures are challenging the factual accuracy of news – President Trump making accusations about fake news, the White House Press Secretary described as presenting ‘alternative facts’ and British politicians in the lead up to Brexit declaring that we don’t need experts and their reports. If almost any group or individual can do ‘research’ and publish their findings starting with “A study shows that…”, then we need other groups and individuals to be vigilant and take steps to assess and report its credibility.

Whilst both facts and feelings can be manipulated, most people are able to recognize and accept when others are trying to win them over with feelings; very few have the full information to know when facts are not true, and usually don’t have the time or motivation to check. Manipulating feelings can be seen as the quality of smart politics and effective leadership, the manipulation of facts, however, is unethical, dangerous and a direct threat to science.

In response to this, we are witnessing the rapid creation of fact-checking services (e.g.; The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Guardian, to mention a few, have launched their own fact-checking sites, and Google News now categorizes news into ‘fact check’ in addition to ‘opinion’, ‘local source’, ‘trending’ and ‘highly cited’. Following harsh criticism for ‘accidentally’ sponsoring fake news stories last year, Facebook is also looking into fact-checking filters.

Given the potentially high stakes involved and the different interests groups have, we cannot simply rely on key public figures and news providers to report the facts. As members of society, particularly a post-factual one, we need to develop our own personal toolkits for distinguishing science fact from science fiction.

At universities, we teach students about critical thinking and the importance of the scientific method – the slow, arduous pursuit of the truth. Some students mistakenly assume that this just concerns the conduct of their own research for their thesis. It doesn’t. It concerns – be it in the scientific, political or business sphere – identifying and evaluating argumentation, understanding how to handle biases which distort what we see and don’t see, evaluating the reliability of sources, and to consider alternative explanations not alternative facts.

Adam Smale


Päivitetty 06.11.2017 - Verkkotoimitus