Anyone paying attention to the 2016 US Presidential election knows that there was more heat than light. This was reflective of a deep problem within the culture: a degrading of respect for evidence and the truth. In light of this problem, Oxford Dictionaries declared Post-Truth” as 2016’s “Word of the Year.” Oxford defines Post-Truth as “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief (Oxforddictionaries.com).
Before we begin let’s look at what the media was like historically and how it is today. Historically, the news was disseminated through newspapers, radio and TV. These media outlets had editors and had competitors with different points of view. Today, a majority of people obtain their news from secondary sources online without editing. Due to a lack of editing and vetting of information we have been led to the ‘Fake News’ problem on social media (note the Facebook controversy). Efforts to fight “Fake News” are good and should be pursued, however, why not concentrate on understanding the underlying problems, and then teach critical thinking and skepticism?
We all have the tendency to take the easy way through information and accept it without much questioning or analysis. It is important to look deeper into what the media, our friends and neighbors are exposing us to. There are many causes leading to the acceptance of “fake news.” Again, we all have the strong tendency to protect the opinions we have against challenges to them. Here are the biggest challenges.
Gullibility: Ability to be easily deceived or tricked, and too willing to believe everything that other people say (Dictionary.com). Ideological opinions, in themselves, are not necessarily bad. However, keep in mind that, psychologically, the stronger one’s set of opinions and worldview are, the more resistant to change they tend to be and hence the risk to being gullible.
Confirmation Bias: A type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs (Skepdic.com). A great example of confirmation bias is getting news from highly biased one-sided sources such as only conservative news or only liberal news rather than looking at both sides.
Ideology: The body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group (Dictionary.com). While an ideology may have at least some evidential support, it tends to be resistant to counter-evidence.
Logical Fallacies, or faulty use of logic, are very common generally. The more we attempt to defend our opinions, the easier it is to fall back on them. Two of the most common of these are the Argument from Authority and the Argument from Ignorance.
Argument from Authority Fallacy: An authority is cited on a topic outside their area of expertise or when the authority cited is not a true expert (Wikipedia) (Note: even experts must support claims with evidence). An example of this would be having an Economist speak as an expert on climate science or a politician speak on the genetic sciences of GMO’s. Neither is qualified to be an expert in these fields.
Argument from Ignorance Fallacy: An assertion that a proposition is true because it has not yet been proved false (or vice versa) (Wikipedia). An example of this would be that something is safe or dangerous because there isn’t evidence for either. Keep in mind that the one making the claim has the burden of providing support for it.
What are the solutions to the “Post-Truth” Problem? The main tool is the development and maintenance of critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence (Dictionary.com). HOW you think, not what you think, is most important.
Skepticism is the mindset undergirding critical thinking. Skepticism is defined as a questioning attitude or some degree of doubt regarding claims that are elsewhere taken for granted. Usually meaning those who follow the evidence, versus those who are “skeptical” of the evidence (see Denier) (Wikipedia). Those who do not accept strong scientific consensus on a topic tend to call themselves skeptics. However, they really are deniers, for example, evolution or climate change deniers. Please note, skepticism is not cynicism, which is believing that people are generally selfish and dishonest. As a skeptic who uses critical thinking, it is important to have structure when analyzing any claim, and to respectfully challenge the claimant with questions like: “How do you know that is true?” “How do you objectively verify it?” “Why is it not the result of faulty brain function?”
Another important tool is Fact-Checking. Fact-Checking uses a systematic process of finding several trusted sources to verify or refute a claim. A proper fact check will always list sources and use direct quotes without misrepresentation. Anybody can be a fact-checker simply by using Google and looking for least biased sources who use neutral wording and source their information. MBFC News has an excellent list of the ten best fact checking sites found here: Top 10 Fact Checking Sites.
I next want to spend a good amount of time on helping you to really understand science, which is the knowledge base supporting critical thinking and skepticism.
First it is important to define science. It is a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws. It is also systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation or systematized knowledge in general (Dictionary.com).
Note that the word KNOWLEDGE appears frequently when talking about science. The word “science” is from the Latin for knowledge. At its base, science is no more or less than knowledge. Yes, sometimes the information in scientific fields is detailed and complicated. However, the basic process is simple: honestly looking for knowledge about reality. Let’s break down this word knowledge.
Knowledge: A common definition is justified true belief (Philosophy-index.com).
Justified: To prove or show to be just, right, or reasonable (Merriam-Webster.com).
True: Consistent with fact or reality; not false or erroneous (Freedictionary.com).
Belief: Conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence (Merriam-webster.com).
Let’s look at this word “evidence.” Many ideologues like to use the term loosely. In the context of science, it has a firm, objective meaning, more consistent with the second definition here: That which tends to prove or disprove something; ground for belief; proof. A visible sign of something (Merriam-webster.com).
Now let’s take a deeper look at science and its processes. Acceptance of claims should be proportional to evidence. Science does not “disprove” something, it shows that the likelihood of a claim is either true or false based on evidence, and probability. We all use scientific methods in most daily activities.
An example of science in daily life is as follows: I turn on my TV. I’m met with a blank screen. What to do? I come up with some theories. Set got unplugged. I’m pressing the wrong button on the remote control. I’m holding the wrong remote. TV is broken. Power is off. If any of these hypotheses is correct, my prediction is that dealing with the problem will cause the TV to turn on. So I start experimenting. And observe what happens. Through this process I will hopefully solve the problem and determine why my TV won’t turn on. This process of testing and observation is done daily by all of us.
“Truth” is another word that can be misused by ideologues. Let’s take a look:
Objective Truth: Science looks for objective truth, which is external from the individual and may be seen by others. In other word there is evidence for this truth.
Subjective “Truth”: Personal experience from consciousness. It is real to the individual, but not to people outside of the individual. Science has no role in subjective “truth.” Subjective “truth” is subject to the documented failure of the individual mind to reliably perceive reality. An example of this is when a person says I once saw “xyz” therefore it is true, even though no one else may have seen it.
Subjective vs. Objective Truth: If you cannot show me the evidence that supports a claim, then I can’t accept it as objective truth.
Depending on the scientific discipline, each can be generally placed in one of two categories of science; Hard or Soft.
Hard vs. Soft Sciences: The natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology and medicine, have been colloquially termed the “hard” sciences, as they are perceived as being more scientific, rigid and accurate. Soft Sciences refer to: The social sciences, such as anthropology, archaeology, history, sociology, economics and political science, that may use methods resembling those of the natural sciences, however, they are perceived as being less scientific, rigid and accurate. Note the underlining of economics and political science under the Soft category. It is for this reason that economic and political ideologues should be less certain and humble regarding what they accept as truth.
Let’s sum up this Hard vs Soft science difference. From an analysis of the differences in acceptance of results within these two broad branches of science, a case can be made that there is a greater consensus of expert opinion regarding the issues addressed by the natural sciences as compared to the amount of consensus within the social sciences.
What Does All This Mean? The bottom line is that science is the best tool to understand reality. There is no other way of “knowing.”
So, what can we conclude regarding a solution to the “Post-Truth” Problem ? Is there an approach to political action that can tap into the shared values of most people in our constitutionally secular democratic republic? By the way, “Constitutionally Secular” basically means that the US government is officially neutral regarding the topic of religion: there is freedom OF and FROM Religion.
The answer to this is “Yes”: a Science-Based Worldview that informs wisdom, reason and humanism. This is a 4-legged worldview within reality that maximizes well-being for individuals and society.
It is important to look at and understand these three words: Wisdom, Reason, Humanism.
Wisdom: The quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight (Dictionary.com).
Reason: The mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences (Dictionary.com).
Humanism: Any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate (Dictionary.com).
Through the use of all of the elements mentioned above, one can see through fake news. They give you the power to be informed and to not fall into the traps of pseudoscience, conspiracies and general deceptions by the fake news media.
Thank you! For further information regarding my worldview and contact information:
About Tom Rafferty
Understand Reality Through Science is the personal blog of Author Tom Rafferty, who wrote the book “Making Stuff Up is Unwise: An Introduction to Reason, Skepticism and Science.” The blog writes original content as well as curated and hand selected science news from a diverse range of scientific topics. Tom specializes in debunking pseudoscience and myth.