post-truth and science: a battle already lost

This precarious world we live in. cc-by-nd licensed image by "Send me adrift":
This precarious world we live in. cc-by-nd licensed image by "Send me adrift":

yes, it’s my yearly rant about the state of society, please feel free to skip if you’re interested in small-angle scattering. It is essentially a poorly researched opinion piece, which may or may not resonate. Normal programming continues next week.

During my visit to GfZ two weeks ago, the lunchtime discussion touched upon the subject of the “post-truth world”, most easily paralleled to “mob justice”. In this world, scientists play a lesser role, since the alternative truths are simply what the mouthpieces find convenient. I suspect, however, that we scientists may be partially culpable to this development.

This precarious world we live in. cc-by-nd licensed image by "Send me adrift":
This precarious world we live in. cc-by-nd licensed image “wanderlust” by “Send me adrift”:

One core problem seems to be that any discussion in the media, which is supposed to be discussed with tools of logic and knowledge, all too quickly descends into a poo-flinging contest. In this contest, the weight of the poo from either participant is not affected by experience, knowledge, or degrees of learning. This aspect is driven home by pitting the learned fellow against woo-peddlers, shouty politicians, and armies of half-interested parties, ostensibly with equal weight. This can be on equal ground afforded by the television studio or the even more level ground of online discussion forums and comment sections.

The poo arguments themselves appear to be highly affected by logical fallacies. It is as if we have collectively forgotten the enlightened tools required to bring an argument to a sensible conclusion, or, perhaps, it is the active avoidance of conclusions that enables the logical fallacies to surface. Let’s check out some of these fallacies you will find:

  1. The argumentum ad crumenam: they who has or earns the most money must be right. Turned around: “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you earning more”. Historically, when science was a hobby only afforded to the rich, they at least had this fallacy on their side. We’ve shot ourselves in our collective scientific feet, by allowing ourselves to earn relatively little in comparison to bankers, managers, administrators. Not only that, but we’ve also soured the academic environment to such a degree that it isn’t even offering any stable job anymore. Face it, our job prospects suck massively in comparison to others, so tell me again how smart we are? This fallacy extends to screen-time as well: if we’re so right, why aren’t we being given more time in the media compared to fascist puppet presidents again?   …      The answer is, of course, that screen time, money and job prospects aren’t related to who is right or wrong. But we’re not fighting that truth, we’re fighting the public perception, where the above fallacy has been nurtured by television, hollywood scientists, and even money prizes (Nobel, for example, equating monetary value to being right). Indeed, it’s a particularly tough fallacy to combat in an increasingly capitalist world. Hollywood scientists, therefore, are now depicted with obscene amounts of wealth to add weight and validity to their movie personae.
  2. The argumentum ad numeram in modern terms translates as: the person with the most followers wins. This is the one tool of the populist, appealing to the emotions of the public to gain an army. Truth plays a lesser role in gaining the army, but a well-chosen and well-timed (ad populam) statement can be amplified greatly, simultaneously strengthening the army. And be warned, that army will fight for what they are led to believe. After all, how can millions of followers be wrong?
  3. Every argument has equal weight. As mentioned above, both the media and us have stopped valuing knowledge and experience in name of equality: the words of an imbecilic president on climate change are valued as much as the life-long researcher (often done for poorly understood objectivity reasons). Even in our own circles, we’re valuing research more which has been cited much, regardless of content. Likewise, we listen to researchers who have collected many grants, regardless of efficiency or frugality.
  4. Every discussion is worth fighting. This is a more recent argumentative fallacy, which came to the fore with examples like the Gish Gallop, clarified here, here, and here. Not every discussion or point raised has merit, most merely waste valuable time. Perhaps we need impartial discussion moderators again, who can filter arguments on their merits. Such moderators will require people to up their standards, discussion-wise. Finding, organising, and paying truly impartial scientific moderators, however, would be damn near impossible.
  5. You should never lose an argument. This seems to be equated with loss of face, rather than proper discussion technique. If no side is capable of losing, no-one is going to be converted, convinced, or any the wiser. They will do anything in their fallacy library to “win”, and if they can’t, run away before the outcome can be called. In real life, however, people (and scientists) make mistakes. The sooner we accept our fallibility, the sooner we can learn.
  6. Unobtainable perfection: This is a fallacy you see on twitter a lot. For example: someone makes a statement they’re against LGBTQ discrimination, but their opinion gets downplayed as they weren’t as vocal during e.g. the #blacklivesmatter campaign. If you haven’t built up a perfect, criticism-free online persona, your (perhaps completely valid) opinion isn’t accepted.
  7. Argumentum ad verecundiam: This is related to #1, 2 and 3, and is the appeal to false authority. Since we don’t seem to value actual topically relevant scientists, we turn instead to the (online) stars. However, just because Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a good actor, doesn’t mean he necessarily knows much about, say, fixing the government. The likelihood of him opining correctly on that topic, therefore, should be weighed against his knowledge and experience on that. Likewise, if a stuck-up hotelier tells you that he thinks climate change isn’t real, please consider his credentials.
  8. Then there are the fallacies of composition and division, combined with bifurcation. These attribute aspects of individuals to a group, and aspects of the group to individuals, amidst a (possibly false) black-and-white dichotomy. Let me exemplify with women and men in the workplace: Yes, the vast majority of women are discriminated against in the workplace, which is something we’re fighting against. However, that does not automatically mean that every man in the workplace is to blame — a subset of dicks has proven to be quite sufficient. Resolving sexism in the workplace, therefore, may be achieved by like-minded people of all sexes banding together to weed out the concepts of genetic inequalities. In other words: no whole (genetic) class of people is ever your enemy, and no whole (genetic) class of people is ever your friend. Beware of those who claim they are.

These are but some of the fallacies you’ll encounter in spades online. So what does this have to do with science? Well, somewhere along the line, we lost the battle for truth in this online noise. We lost the public understanding of what it is we do and the tools of logic we use in the process (as well as the process of repeated failing, and being ok with that). We lost the ability to argue and discuss without falling into fallacies ourselves.

We laugh about the “post-truth” world, we do not take it seriously, but we meanwhile have lost the battle towards a one, “true” world. In aiming for vacuous managerial goals of scientific efficiency and impact, we’ve turned against each other and turned our backs on the world. We’ve been so busy fighting amongst ourselves for citations, prestige and the few remaining scraps of grants, that we didn’t notice that the world meanwhile passed us by with faster soundbites and faster “truths”. And those who look up see a world completely askew.

For once, I have no idea how to solve any of this. Unless we can convince the public that (open) knowledge is power, that searching for truth is noble, that the other side may have a point, and that opinions can be departed from, we will be stagnant as a species. If all we care about is flinging unresearched clickbait at each other in yet another political limelight season, then perhaps it is time to build my asylum.


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