Sunday, November 13, 2016

When only truthiness matters

As many others out there I am still trying to process the result of the US elections. I don’t usually write about politics but I think this does have relevance to science. The result brought me flashbacks of the outcome of the Brexit vote. In both occasions I woke up to a result that I found shocking and disheartening. Both times I went to work in a dazed state of denial trying to come to terms with the fact that so many people have viewpoints that are so different from mine. Personally, I find repugnant that both elections were so much about racism and fomenting protectionist and anti-immigration movements. There are many political and social issues around these elections that I am not going to touch on. The important point to science and scientists here is that these elections were won using many false statements and arguments. I know I am biased because these were not the outcomes I was hoping for. Still, I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that the winning sides of both elections used a similar strategy of inventing a suitable reality that they pushed to their advantage. I am used to politicians bending the truth and making promises that they don’t keep but more and more they simply lie. As someone trained to be rational and critical to flaws in argument I live through it in complete disbelief. Trump did this all the time but one particular interview in the US elections really brought this point to home to me:

Newt Gingrich clearly states it here – it does not matter what the truth is, it matters what people feel the truth is. This is what Steven Colbert termed as truthiness, a joke that he should be thinking a lot about these days. The rise of truthiness is a danger to society. To get your way you no longer have to find arguments based on the present reality, you just have to be able to warp reality in your favor.

Filter bubbles and confirmation bias

The internet, with its immediate access to information and its global reach, should be a weapon in favor of reason. Instead it has actually increased our isolation as we sort ourselves by affinity to beliefs. I am this shocked with the results of these elections because I barely interact with those with the same set of beliefs of the winning groups. We live in filter bubbles (book, TED talk) in all the media that we consume and even in the places where we live in. This affinity based social sorting is amoral. The same ease of access that allows scientists to collaborate globally is bringing together any other likeminded group of people. In the book “Here Comes Everybody” Clay Shirky gives examples of groups of bulimics teaching each other techniques to avoid eating and how the internet may help terrorist groups. It is hard to break into these echo chambers because people tend to perceive as true whatever confirms their beliefs. This well-known phenomenon of confirmation bias gets magnified by communal reinforcement within the filter bubbles. Savvy social manipulators don’t have to change the opinions of those in these echo chambers, they can try to connect with and shepherd those within.  

What do we do when truth and reason no longer matter? Scientific findings are no longer facts but just opinions and values. People can be pro or against vaccination for example. This is starting to have very serious and concrete consequences (e.g. global warming) and looks to be increasingly getting worse. Although in both elections the younger generations were less likely to have voted for the winning outcomes, I don’t think that echo chambers and the attack on reason are a generational problem. Maybe scientists should be having a more active role in promoting the importance rational thought or maybe it is a challenge that can only be solved by improving the education system.