Time to stop the “alternative facts” and “fake news” BS!
I started writing this post before Christmas but in light of this week's events in the US the title has become somewhat more emotional and expletive. See if this reminds you of other examples in history. An ego driven leader riles up his followers with a confrontational, sabre-rattling speech after feeding them a steady diet of BS for four years, building on their disaffection and perceived marginalisation, presenting himself as their champion when all he cares about is himself, giving them target groups who are responsible (basically “foreigners” and “liberals” in this case), eroding their trust in conventional national and international institutions, re-writing facts and narratives to suit his purposes. The rhetoric and unsubstantiated claims escalate in the last weeks in a desperate attempt to hold onto power and, hey presto, a deplorable act of violence erupts!
I realise the description of events above could be levelled at any number of movements or causes past and present, and that sometimes history or hindsight is the lens through which we determine whether a particular one was on the side of “right” or “wrong” as viewed by the majority of a particular society at a particular point in time. What we can do better at in real-time is trying to determine how much of the rhetoric that shapes opinions and movements is evidence-based or not.
Please let this be a turning point for the US. Although I may not agree with their politics or values, I hope the Republicans find a saner way to connect with and represent their base, and weed out the conspiracy theory nonsense that has managed to find some kind of legitimacy through the divisive actions and inactions of the Narcissist-In-Chief who has sat in the White House.
Back to my original post now.
Pseudoscience and conspiracy theories
A confession and a disclaimer so my own biases are clear – I have a science PhD and have published multiple peer-reviewed articles. Overall I'm a liberal, and being British, embrace a wider role of the state in the mixed economies that characterise most of the world than many Americans are comfortable with (a topic for another day perhaps). I get that science, the uncertainty of results, and the scientific method isn't always well communicated. I get that. But the sheer amount of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories in the world both appals and fascinates me. I suspect it was always thus but that the internet and social media has given platform to and amplified dangerous rubbish, spreading it far and wide to hosts who are not properly immunised to it.
Like a mutated virus, this disinformation does what it can to increase its infection rate. It wraps itself up in layers of technobabble that sound believable. It can get passed on by trusted sources. It disguises itself as part of counter-culture, railing against “the system” and “the man”, playing to values that strike a chord with its victims. Listen to the “alternative facts”. Conventional media is “fake news”.
A ray of hope is the rise to prominence of Chief Medical Officers and the like who have been doing their best across the world to communicate the changing landscape of facts around Sars-CoV-2 and Covid-19. This is a really difficult thing as data is emerging on a daily basis meaning that theories and advice evolve. It is massively difficult for decision makers and I do not envy their tasks, especially when it leads to cancelled Christmas plans and the like. But through this, the general public has been exposed to the changing face of knowledge, and who they should trust. My hope is that this leads to the net increase of trust in science and experts rather than decrease.
So, let's hope that 2021 brings vaccines to all, and that we weather the worsening of the pandemic before it gets better. Then let's take a deep breath, harness that spirit of global cooperation and innovation and tackle some of the next global challenges. Adapting our societies to a “green”, sustainable future; tackling intra- and inter-societal multiple inequalities etc. etc. Not everyone will agree with me on what the priorities should be but I'm sure there are challenges we can agree on!
...and returning to the post title(s), fingers crossed that 2021 sees the world more successfully fighting the spread of psuedoscience, conspiracy theories and alternative facts. How can we reach out to those suckered into believing the nonsense, address the root causes of why they do so, and bring their voices and concerns into evidence-based debates? There are enough choices and ambiguities in the decisions and actions that should occur based on peer-reviewed, quality controlled facts to keep us all occupied – we don't need to just make s**t up as well!
Entry 51 of my participation in the “100 Days to Offload” challenge – find out more and join in!