The word of the year for 2016 is officially “post-truth.” It seems a lot of folks just don’t care very much for facts. Instead, they form beliefs based on subjective feelings about what kind of experts are trustworthy and what kinds of stories fit their existing worldview. Fake news is rampant. It thrives under a secular version of Poe’s law: when politics has been fractured into extremes, any tale about the opposition sounds plausible. We are at an impasse. If showing people the data is not good enough, what is?
For science educators, this is nothing new. The most dispiriting and challenging aspect of science outreach isn’t ignorance, it’s willful denial. Folks who have heard about climate change, evolution, the effectiveness of vaccines, or the safety of GMOs, but simply refuse to believe it. It’s frustrating. How do objective scientists reach out to the illogical masses?
We can start by not framing it as such a duality. Everyone operates on subjective belief. We’re not so different from each other.
During Hillary Clinton’s nomination speech in July, she stressed that she believes in science. I of course agree with her, while lamenting the need for politician to even have to say that. Her statement was political, and was meant to appeal to a particular cultural subset of America. Still, some science fans protested: science isn’t about belief. Science is about facts, they argued, and you don’t get to pick and choose your facts. But a fact can also be a belief. It has to be, if it’s going to do any good, since we all make decisions based on beliefs. We mostly get these beliefs not from pouring over the evidence but from the zeitgeist of our cultural tribe. Take climate change. I’m not a climate scientist, and I haven’t studied the data supporting anthropogenic global warming. I’ve seen plenty of charts and figures, the kind that are shared in the popular press, but those have been filtered through a distillery of expertise, assumptions, theory, algorithms, and the peer-review process. There is no doubt in my mind that humans are heating the planet. But in the end this is still a belief. I have faith in the process of science, faith in the good intentions and competence of scientists, and faith that so many people couldn’t possibly maintain a conspiracy to dupe us all. I know, largely from personal interactions, that scientists are generally trustworthy. If someone’s life experiences have been different, raw numbers won’t mean much to them.
So can we all just believe whatever we want to believe? If I believe in climate change, and you don’t, are both views equally valid? No. Here’s another example to clarify why.
Something else I believe in is Australia. I believe in Australia with all my heart. I would get on a plane and trust my life to the existence of Australia, knowing full well that I will die in the depths of the sea if I am wrong. Now, I’ve never been to Australia. I have no direct evidence that it exists. I’ve seen pictures. I’ve heard stories from travelers who claim to have been there. I’ve seen animals and plants that I’ve been told originated there. But none of that is proof. Maybe I should be skeptical. It’s awfully suspicious how koala, wallaby, wallaroo, and kangaroo all sound like different combination of the same words, ala Taco Bell’s Enchirito. What are they hiding? Obviously, it would be ludicrous for me to think Australia isn’t real, implying some sort of vast pointless cover-up. And yet, what can you call my conviction that koalas have a homeland, if not a belief? It’s a belief in the same way that a Christian may have a belief that Jesus rose from the dead. The Christian and I both have reasons for our beliefs. For the most part, we accept what we have been told by people we respect and trust. The difference is that if we make an honest effort to examine all the data, there is overwhelming evidence for the existence of Australia, but not for the Resurrection. Our beliefs are still beliefs. But some beliefs are better supported than others. And climate change is more like Australia than like the Gospels.
We build a false dichotomy between blind faith and empirical fact. In reality, almost everything anyone thinks is true has some sort of justification, but some rationales are better than others. You don’t get anywhere condemning “post-truth” simpletons, because nobody thinks of themselves as “post-truth”. Fundamentalists also consider their beliefs to be facts. Simply asserting that you are talking about facts, not beliefs, usually isn’t sufficient. Instead, try explaining why you believe what you believe. What are your reasons? What is the evidence? What would have to be true to explain your observations if you are wrong? And then listen to why the other person believes what they believe. Try to get them to explain their evidence. Then you have a mutually respectful dialog going. Then people begin to see that you are trustworthy. That’s when beliefs can start to change.