'Alternative facts' are cons

June 19, 2022

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'Alternative facts' are cons

As a scientist, I have a vested interest in the truth, facts, and genuine science. Those that would ply us with “alternative facts” merely want to control us to, in the words of a brilliant and controversial thought piece, “con” us.

An important paper by two philosophers comes out forcefully on the side of real science. They argue, for example, that journalists need not cover both sides of an argument when one side is advancing what experts widely regard as a falsehood.

What the researchers say: “We wanted to write an article that addressed a lot of challenges that reporters had in reported news,” the lead author said. “Reporters would say, ‘without evidence’—they would never say, ‘This is an audacious lie,’ or ‘Science doesn’t support this, so we’re not going to support it by repeating false views or giving them a public forum.’ Con artists are so successful because they exploit people’s well-documented overconfidence to induce them to argue about whether there is human-caused climate change, whether ‘creation science’ is a science, or whether the use of tobacco products causes cancer.”

The philosophers note that these are often very technical topics in fields that require Ph.D.-level training to make informed judgments and claims. When more than one opinion is shared in the news, or when “both sides” of the story are told, it communicates to the public that there must be doubt or controversy. This fuels the spreading of misinformation.

“If you make people feel comfortable, you can make them forget that they don’t have the training to know what they are talking about, and they will feel it is harmless to express beliefs they haven’t earned,” they say. “But to people who are familiar with the science, they know there isn’t any question about settled science. Our solution is distinctly unphilosophical in a way. Our solution is to insist that once you already rely on the best science of the time, you should not engage in disputes about it. You either are an expert, or you defer to them. Epistemic humility requires it.”

Their paper highlights the concept of “settled science” as well as what they call “magic bullet arguments”—arguments based on a single fact that attempt to dismantle beliefs around “settled science.”

“‘Settled science’ is applied to those areas of science that are no longer considered unsettled science, controversial, or in doubt,” the co-author said. “It only matters what the science says and that there’s monolithic consensus among the experts. Scientific claims are typically tested diversely—they’re tested by a diversity of methods and against a variety of evidence, and so it’s very difficult for a single claim to bring them down. They’re very robust and resist the kind of wild conspiracy theories so current today. For example, inhaling or chewing tobacco products causes cancer. End of story. This is settled science. You can’t deny that without denying most of what we know in the related areas of biology and chemistry.”

They cite the example of United States Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) presenting an unseasonal snowball to Congress in 2015—a lighthearted attempt at a “magic bullet argument” against the settled science of climate change.

“It’s meant in a kind of ironic way,” the lead author said of the “magic bullet argument” term. “They basically bring up one fact—they’ll say something like, ‘This portion of the world has seen regular cooling over the last five years, so how can global warming be true?’ They are meant to be persuasive by appealing to something that’s familiar to people, however mistaken. Scientific claims, like the claim that the heating of the planet is caused by humans, that claim is based on many facts and would be impossible to overturn by one magic bullet fact.”

The standard processes behind the development of vaccines also represent settled areas of science and can be treated as such by journalists, the authors explained.

“It’s a very straightforward process and takes some time and ingenuity to test a vaccine, but at a certain point it can be concluded that a vaccine is both safe and effective,” they said. “It is a very damaging thing to allow people to believe that it is legitimate to think otherwise. Now, how you enforce that is a separate question, but [in our paper] we were appealing to norms that reporters would voluntarily adopt, not something that would be imposed on people. We were saying, instead of asserting, ‘We’re reporting on different sides,’ why not look at the scientific consensus? And if you disagree with the scientific consensus, we’re not really on speaking terms. Media outlets are under no obligation to give voice to the defiantly and proudly uninformed.”

The risk reporters run in reporting on both sides, the lead author said, when one side is based on established science and the other is based on a “magic bullet” claim, is that “you’re doing the con artist’s job by agreeing to play at all.”

“That’s exactly what we see in this new world of alternative facts,” he continued. “We saw it in the 1950s and 1960s when tobacco companies invested millions to create pseudoscientific alternative boards whose real purpose was to prolong tobacco industry profits by delaying reaction to the known cancerous effects of tobacco, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway point out in their wonderful book, ‘Merchants of Doubt.’ All of these misinformation campaigns—anti-vaxxing, climate change skepticism, and so on—produce multitudes of excess, unnecessary deaths.”

Journalists wield tremendous power in their ability to help control the broader narrative, and the authors say they should be more careful with how they use it.

“The new norm in reporting has to be that once it’s reported what the best science of the time says, there’s no presentation of an alternative point of view,” he says. “It is hard enough to live with the consequences of damagingly false views. We don’t have to give them oxygen.”

So, what? I love it. As a scientist, however, I have a slight problem.

For millennia it was “settled science” that the Earth was flat and that the sun and the stars rotated about the Earth which was the center of the universe. The view that the sun was the center of the solar system was only publicly held by a few scholars, most famously the Alexandrian astronomy Ptolomy, the Polish astronomer, polymath, and cleric Copernicus, and the Italian Galileo.

The danger of “settled science” is that it sometimes becomes dogma and may be defended by my fellow scientists even when it becomes clear that it is patently untrue. The reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution is a great case in point.

Science is often wrong—but that’s the beauty of science. Ideally, we should be constantly testing our theories. We should be prepared to be wrong because that’s what separates real scientists from misinformation-peddling con artists on the internet or in Congress.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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