Fighting Against the End of Facts
Remember when this was a funny introduction to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update?
“I’m Norm Macdonald, and now the fake news”
Not so funny today.
There are two different things today: the fake news isn’t funny, and a lot of people (apparently, at times, including the President-elect) don’t know it is the fake news. Consider a Trump surrogate’s statement that “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” Or BuzzFeed’s analysis indicating that more fake news than real news was passing through Facebook prior to the election. Or the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology tweeting forward a Briebart story claiming that global temperatures have plunged. Strong indications of foreigners creating and amplifying false news with an intent to do damage are worrying.
Part of this is the fracturing of news sources. There is no successor to Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America.” The blurring between news and entertainment long ago has led to the embarrassing situation where viewers of a comedy show might be better informed than those watching a news channel. People often can’t figure out who is telling the truth, so they give up and just listen to the voices that say what they want to hear.
As a scientist, this is terribly distressing. There are indeed facts, many of which are crucial to understanding and choosing between different policy choices. Now some of what we are seeing is a return to what we had more than a century ago, when yellow journalism distorted or fabricated the news; such behavior was capable of driving the nation to war, an outcome fatal to many soldiers in the past but potentially fatal to civilization today. “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” was said more than 300 years ago by Jonathon Swift and variants of “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on” has made the rounds for more than 150 years. But, you know, there were facts and there were lies, and now we are being asked to accept that neither really exist anymore.
This is pure crap.
This mindset is so contrary to science, so contrary to the creation and execution of any plans, whether they be business plans, holiday plans, or government initiatives, that it corrupts anything it touches and must be fought. So, some suggestions, though GG guesses readers of this blog hardly need them. Feel free to pass them on.
Subscribe (meaning paying money) to some news organizations that practice actual journalism (you know, the one where there is checking on multiple sources, etc.). Dead tree or virtual, makes no difference. You can pick from left-leaning and right-leaning publications, from local news organizations to international ones, from specialty journals to general news outlets. If the money isn’t there, real journalism won’t happen. You can also support sites like factcheck.org and politifact.com. (Factcheck has a special science check section). Yes, GG pays for three daily newspapers (local, regional, national), two weekly newsmagazines and two monthly specialty magazines.
Challenge your representative(s) in government when they are promoting lies and misinformation. Demand that they support the freedom of the press. Congratulate them when they do stand up for facts.
Avoid forwarding click-bait stories or email rumors without checking them out yourself. Snopes.com is one excellent place to check on these. Don’t succumb to the “I will educate myself through Twitter (or Facebook)” notion advanced by a Trump voter in Boulder; social media is great for learning about friends’ activities but an ill-considered source for actual news. If you can verify that the information somebody has sent you is wrong, send back a polite note with the links to information showing how the meme is incorrect.
Read real journalism that challenges your world view. Be curious while remaining skeptical.
We stand on a pair of precipices. Nuclear war, while distant now from minds accustomed to a post-Cold War globe, can end civilization in minutes. Mindless nationalism has fueled avoidable conflicts between countries before. Global warming might or might not cripple civilization, but it is hard to see how increasing droughts, increasing extinctions, ocean acidification and rising sea level will not provoke conflict. The denial of facts makes it easier to assert a cause for war or a denial of any need to change behavior or incentives. Denial of facts, in essence, prevents intelligent reaction to the world we all inhabit. You know, that world the fake news tries to hide from.