Share |

When facts lose influence

Experts at the Earth Day Conference tackle the "post-truth" phenomenon

Fall 2017 | By Jenny Peek

Post-truth was named Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year, defined as “relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The human tendency to put emotions or values ahead of facts, compounded with an increasingly divisive political climate, has become fodder for science communication research in an attempt to understand how to reach people with objective truth.

A panel of UW-Madison experts came together at the Nelson Institute’s 2017 Earth Day Conference, Hope and Renewal in the Age of Apocalypse, to discuss the roles of science, values, knowledge and belief in shaping public opinion and confronting environmental challenges. Below are excerpts from their presentations.

DOMINIQUE BROSSARD, professor and chair, Life Sciences Communication

dominique brossardSo-called fake news has existed for a long time, but the problem, when we think about science news, is that the line between fake news and bad reporting is quite murky.

When people look for science information, they’re using search engines like Google or Facebook. There is a new media environment that uses headlines to entice us to click and share. It’s not that people do not trust science; they’re just using science that supports their worldviews.

For issues such as climate change, a lot of our worldviews come to color how we perceive the world. It’s normal as human beings to take shortcuts, but we have to reconnect – talking to others, sharing stories, finding common values, and understanding where we’re coming from. With that, I believe that the problems of post-truth will be solved with our help.


LUCAS GRAVES, assistant professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication

lucas gravesI take issue with the idea that we’ve entered a post-fact or post-truth era. I appreciate that it draws our attention directly to the question of truth in public discourse, but, one, I don’t appreciate any framing that suggests that facts don’t matter anymore. And two, it seems to suggest that [previously] all voters were rational and all politicians were honest. We know that neither of those things is true.

In some ways, this is actually a golden age for facts, which is not to say that we don’t encounter a lot of deceptive statements, but the best journalism and political discourse today is more sophisticated, more informed by research, and more thoughtful than ever.

Part of the reason for this is the effort over the last decade to promote political fact checking as a professional movement in American journalism. This is based on an explicit critique of “he said, she said” reporting. Having these kinds of professional standards has positioned fact checkers to act as a new kind of resource in the fight against so-called fake news.


KATHERINE CRAMER, director, Morgridge Center for Public Service; professor, Political Science

katherine cramerHow is it that two people can walk away from the same news story with two very different interpretations of that news? Political and social scientists have told us that the thing that intervenes is perspectives. We all have perspectives of how the world works, rooted in our social identities – our sense of who we are in the world. These identities influence what we pay attention to, what we read, whom we consider to be opinion leaders, and how we interpret information.

When we’re trying to convey facts to other people, it’s often helpful – maybe especially in the realm of sustainability and climate science – to recognize that a one-way model of communication is not as effective as a relational model of communication. As the saying goes: People won’t care what you know until they know that you care.

We live in a time of intense skepticism toward institutions and elites. If we’re trying to convey information to people who fundamentally don’t believe that those information sources respect them, know them or care about them, they’re not likely to hear what we have to say.

Sustainability and our concern about the environment is a policy area in which facts and science are important, but in which people’s values are in the mix too. It is absolutely essential that we try to understand where other people are coming from and recognize that their personal experience is essential to making decisions.


CAL DEWITT, professor emeritus, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

cal dewittIrrespective of our worldviews or our understanding of science, we all accept and embrace two indisputabletruths: That Earth is everyone’s common home and that Earth is remarkably habitable.

But we’ve muted these truths at the press of a button, encasing ourselves invirtual cocoons. Many people today are missing the testimony of sunrise and sunset, the day’s reception of the song of birds, meadows and waterfronts, and, if a silent spring would occur, we might not even notice, because our worlds have been made by ourselves, for ourselves.

Professor and writer Tom Nichols recently penned an article titled “How America Lost Faith in Expertise: And Why that’s a Giant Problem.” He states that experts are people who know considerably more about a given subject than the rest of us and to whom we used to turn for education. But Americans have become childlike in their refusal to learn enough to guide the policies that affect their lives. This is a collapse of functional citizenship and, in such an environment, anything and everything becomes possible.


SHARON DUNWOODY, Evjue-Bascom Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication

sharon dunwoodyA recent article in Inside Climate News mentioned that 90-100 percent of climate scientists agree that the planet is warming due to human activity … yet a recent Pew Research Center survey noted that the majority of Americans appear skeptical of climate scientists. In fact, no more than a third of the public gives scientists high marks for their understanding of climate change. Even fewer say climate scientists understand the best ways to address the problem. So what is going on here?

One thing we know is that partisanship plays a big role. The climate is warming and that process is being driven by human activity, yet people with the power to set policy feel comfortable publicly challenging the science behind climate change.

We as researchers must continue to explore the increasing permeability of the notion of a fact, why people accept as fact some things that aren’t, and what society can do about this increasing polarization about what is true.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Facebook logo   Twitter logo   Make a donation