The Crisis Beyond Fake News: Welcome to the Post-Truth Era

If you guessed this story is about climate change, you are correct. Photo by Alan Wilson, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

As a journalist, I have a saying that I keep close in mind whenever I’m writing for publication. “The text must be unassailable!” I mutter to myself as I pace about the room. It’s applied to both style and substance on any given piece. The story has to be interesting to read and honest in its arguments. If the text is not unassailable, it gets taken out.

This self-editing mantra has served me well over the past several years, but it’s getting harder to live up to for two reasons. First, thanks to the internet, writers and readers now have the ability to interact on a one-to-one level, so my purportedly unassailable text gets attacked anyway, even when the facts I’ve presented are correct.

Second, the proliferation of misinformation—fake news, fake science, fake history—across all mass media platforms is making it increasingly harder to persuade readers who feed off such material and continue to insist, for example, that anthropogenic global warming is a hoax.

I hear the sparrows sharpening their beaks already.

Unfortunately, the situation may be much more grim than I’ve portrayed so far. Since the early 1990s, an increasing number of scholars, scientists, historians, philosophers and political pundits have warned that we’re entering a Post-Truth age.

Now, it appears we may have finally arrived.

Consider the ominously titled article published last month in the Royal Society Open Science academic journal, “Fake Science and the Knowledge Crisis: Ignorance Can Be Fatal.”

“Computers, the Internet and social media enable every individual to be a publisher, communicating true or false information instantly and globally,” the report’s abstract begins. “In the ‘post-truth’ era, deception is commonplace at all levels of contemporary life.”

Willing purveyors of fake information aren’t the only culprits. The article harshly criticizes the entire “publish or perish” scientific peer review system, which has endured numerous scandals across all fields with the advent of sophisticated data manipulation techniques developed during the past two decades.

As a result, the writers found that “Fakery affects science and social information and the two have become highly interactive globally, undermining trust in science and the capacity of individuals and society to make evidence-informed choices, including on life-or-death issues.”

Those life-or-death issues include the ongoing controversy regarding vaccines and autism fueled by social media posts and the continued denial of anthropogenic global warming by high-ranking public officials including President Donald Trump, despite the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists studying the topic agree AGW is occurring and presents a serious threat to the planet.

The writers contend that nothing less is at stake than the trust the civilized world has placed in scientific reason since the Enlightenment. When every fact is refuted by an opposite yet supposedly equal “alternative fact,” nothing is true and “anything goes.”

Anarchy is a defining feature of the Post-Truth era.

Humility Verses Anarchy

This anarchic mass communications environment is making it increasingly difficult for the average person to determine truth from falsehood. University of Connecticut philosopher Michael P. Lynch believes we may be entering an era that could shatter our belief in a common objective reality.

Lynch specializes in epistemology, the study of knowledge and how we acquire it. As he notes in this excellent TED Talk from 2017, “How To See Past Your Own Perspective And Find Truth,” the advent of the internet has been both a blessing and a curse for humankind.

“It’s as if we know more, but understand less,” says Lynch. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can now fact-check a source, a form of what Lynch calls “Google-knowing.” Yet we humans are an opinionated species and tend to select information that confirms our own biases, regardless of its perceived veracity.

In recent popular usage, the term “fake news” originally referred to purposely falsified stories circulated on the internet via social media. Satire such as that produced by the Onion is not fake news; stories that deliberately misinform audiences to serve an agenda are fake news.

But that definition has gone by the wayside. Lynch says “fake news,” as far as many members of the general public are concerned, now means any “news story I don’t like.”

In Lynch’s view, Google-knowing can progress to “bubble-knowing,” where individuals remain ensconced in their own social media echo chambers with other like-minded people. This results in “knowledge polarization,” where every tribe has its own set of facts. Whether the facts are true or not is beside the point.

“You are always right,” says Lynch. Disagreeing with Protagoras’s famous maxim, “man is the measure of all things,” Lynch wonders if we’re sliding downhill toward despotism, where “The Man is the measure of all things,” not previously agreed upon scientific principles.

The philosopher proposes an antidote to knowledge polarization: All of us need to approach the information we encounter with a greater sense of humility. We must understand what we know and what we don’t know and not reject information out-of-hand because it doesn’t confirm our biases.

“We need to believe in truth,” Lynch says. “If not, object reality doesn’t exist.”

Polar bears investigate submarine USS Honolulu inside the Arctic Circle. Photo by Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, courtesy of U.S. Navy.

Climate Change Verses Fake Science

Humility of course is much easier to preach than to put into practice. Each of us is ensconced in our own private filter bubble. Moving beyond the bubble requires time and effort. The current public “debate” about AGW perfectly illustrates the dynamics of this dilemma.

“Debate” is in quotes because there really isn’t a debate about AGW among the thousands of scientists who study the topic. We’ve known that burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases that can lead to warming of the atmosphere since the 19th century. The volumes of research produced since then have confirmed AGW is real and a threat to the planet.

So I almost ran off the road driving home from work last week when right-wing radio talk show host Glenn Beck informed his 3 million nationwide listeners that “climate change is a hoax.”

Beck was introducing his next guest, Vancouver, B.C., zoologist Susan Crockford. She runs Polar Bear Science, a popular climate change denial blog focused on her claim that polar bears are not threatened by AGW.

While Crockford calls herself a polar bear expert, she’s never published a peer-reviewed study on polar bears and climate change in an academic journal. Actual peer-reviewed polar bear scientists have claimed she has zero credibility on the issue.

Crockford was appearing on Beck to promote the latest case of what she calls “animal tragedy porn,” a scene in the second episode of Netflix’s recently released “Our Planet” series in which numerous walruses plunge off the edge of a Siberian cliff to their deaths.

Series creator and narrator David Attenborough, the famed natural historian and broadcaster, attributed the gruesome deaths to AGW and the loss of available sea ice in the walruses’ native habitat.

On Beck’s program, Crockford said all of that was, well, a crock. Scientists have long observed large walrus “haul-outs” on land which can lead to stampedes that kill hundreds of animals, which is true. It’s normal walrus behavior, not a response to AGW, she insisted, which is debatable.

According to her, scientists and mainstream media outlets are using images of starving polar bears and suicidal walruses—animal tragedy porn—to scare the public into accepting their “agenda,” that is, that we must act now to limit greenhouse gas emissions or risk losing the planet.

That this so-called agenda happens to be the truth is of no concern to Crockford.

If you’re a supporter of the AGW scientific consensus, as I am, you might presume Crockford is just another climate change denying crackpot. But she’s been making the media rounds with her latest animal atrocity claim, which has been circulated widely on the internet via dozens of climate change denier websites. As she repeatedly says on her blog, people in power are taking her seriously.

The producers of “Our Planet” were ultimately forced to publicly defend the episode, noting that they had consulted with a “Russian biologist who has experience working on that particular coastline for 35 years and that the scene serves as a warning: walruses are being forced to gather on land due to less ice being available.”

Presuming that’s true, I’m inclined to believe the observations of the Russian biologist who’s spent 35 years studying walruses on that stretch of Siberian coastline over Crockford, just as I’m inclined to believe the peer-reviewed scientists who study polar bears and climate change in the field over her opinion.

As a non-expert in the field of polar bear science, I have to rely on the best evidence available, and the gold standard remains peer-reviewed literature and the scientists who produce it.

All of Crockford’s writing on the topic has been non-peer reviewed and published by organizations such as the Heartland Institute and the Global Warming Policy Foundation, well known anti-AGW think tanks, or in her books or on her blog.

Before the advent of the Post-Truth era, determining validity between claims was simply a matter of deferring to the gold standard, peer-reviewed scientific literature. Clearly, Crockford’s non-peer reviewed research doesn’t meet that standard.

But as mentioned above, one of the Post-Truth era’s first causalities has been scientific literature’s peer-review process, which has been called into serious question during the past two decades.

Indeed, that’s one of Crockford’s frequent refrains on her blog. You can’t trust anyone these days, especially peer-reviewed scientists (with whom she disagrees). Applied to the institution of science as a whole, it’s not a completely baseless claim. The academic article in Royal Society Open Science offered this damning description of the current state of peer review:

“The scale of the fake science problem is becoming increasingly evident. The percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased by an order of magnitude since 2000 and high rates of retraction are seen for the most prestigious journals, illustrating both the extent to which flawed claims are perpetrated by scientists seeking prominence and weaknesses and even fakery in the current practice of peer reviewing.”

To be sure, the Royal Society authors aren’t by any means suggesting that the vast bulk of the science underlying anthropogenic global warming and other fields of study is compromised. They are saying that science may lose the trust of the public if it doesn’t clean up its own publishing houses, and quickly.

The value of that public trust is incalculable. If I summon up some of Lynch’s prescribed humility and put myself in the head of the average Glenn Beck listener, it’s not hard to understand why that listener, after reading this story, might still feel justified agreeing with the host that AGW is a hoax.

The problem with that is it isn’t true. It’s fake science.

BioScience graphs demonstrate profound knowledge polarization between pro-AGW and anti-AGW websites.

Managing the Consensus Gap

According to polling, just 16 percent of Americans know the consensus on AGW among peer-reviewed scientists in the field is above 90 percent. Scientists and other academics call this the consensus gap. Similar gaps in knowledge exist across all intellectual fields, including history, according to public historian Jason Steinhauer, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“History—the analytical interpretation of the past based on critical assessments of evidence—is being transformed by our communications revolution,” Steinhauer said in a 2017 presentation titled “Of Fake News and Fake History.”

“In a world where we receive the majority of our information from visual media such as the web, television, and mobile phones … what passes for history is too often bits of information about the past circulated on the web, stripped of context, devoid of analysis, and intended to advance a political, ideological, financial, or personal agenda.”

To combat this fake information, Steinhauer suggests a multi-pronged approach that includes historians and other scholars proactively engaging the public with new communication technologies.

“Historians must adapt to the seismic shifts in communication and the new ways that people communicate via TV, the web, and mobile devices,” he says.

As Steinhauer points out, some scholars are already proactively engaging new communication media to present their research to the wider public. One poignant example of this includes several of the peer-reviewed polar bear scientists—Jeffrey A. Harvey from the Netherlands and Ian Sterling from Alberta, Canada—whose work has been criticized by Susan Crawford.

The pair collaborated with a dozen other natural and social scientists on the peer-reviewed study,  “Internet Blogs, Polar Bears and Climate-Change Denial By Proxy,” published online in 2017 on BioScience, the website of the American Institute on Biological Sciences.

Using frame analysis, they surveyed 90 websites, 45 identified as pro-AGW and 45 identified as anti-AGW, including Watt’s Up With That, Climate Depot and Junk Science, which collectively boast millions of page-views per month.

The study concluded that all of the pro-AGW websites relied on established, peer-reviewed science to make their arguments, while none of the anti-AGW websites cited the relevant scientific literature. In the case of polar bears, 80 percent of the anti-AGW websites referenced Crockford’s non-peer reviewed work on the subject as their only source.

The study notes that due to their vulnerable status, polar bears have become a poignant public symbol of AGW onset—and postulates that’s why climate change deniers are attacking the existing research on the iconic bears:

“These topics are used as ‘proxies’ for AGW in general; in other words, they represent keystone dominoes that are strategically placed in front of many hundreds of others, each representing a separate line of evidence for AGW,” the study found. “By appearing to knock over the keystone domino, audiences targeted by the communication may assume all other dominoes are toppled in a form of ‘dismissal by association.’”

As the study documents, “a growing labyrinthine network of corporations, conservative foundations, think tanks, and the mainstream media,” are either directly funding this anti-scientific propaganda or willfully disseminating it as evidence that the science of AGW is unsettled.

The science is settled, but these corporations and their interests stand to lose if we shift from fossils fuels to cleaner alternative energy sources, which scientists say is necessary to reduce greenhouse emissions and avoid a worldwide environmental catastrophe. So they’ve manufactured another reality, where the AGW science isn’t settled.

It’s a devastating study. It’s also somewhat unusual, in that it singles out the work of Crawford, who’d previously criticized two of the scientists on the study, for specific rebuke. She characterized the report as “academic rape” and demanded its retraction from BioScience. Welcome to the peer review process, one of the polar bear scientists quipped.

Although the publication made minor edits to statements regarding Crockford’s work for climate change denying think tanks, the article remains online.

That’s not to say Crawford lost the argument, at least in the minds of AGW deniers. She was and still is vigorously defended by the anti-AGW blogosphere. Last week she was the scientist making mainstream media headlines across the globe after accusing Netflix of producing animal tragedy porn. She’s still knocking down those dominoes, doing her part to maintain the public’s AGW consensus gap.

Welcome to the Post-Truth era, where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to detect fact from fiction. As a journalist dedicated to making the text unassailable, I can assure that navigating this anarchic, polarized environment is no easy task.

I believe Lynch and the other academics quoted here are correct. We may not yet be in a Post-Truth era. We all seem to agree that objective reality of some sort exists. But we are at a crisis point in the information age that requires collective action on behalf of scientists, journalists and ordinary citizens.

Science as an institution needs to clean up the peer review process. More academic scholars need to step up and assume the vanished role of public intellectual. Journalists must ensure their work serves scientific truth, not corporate agendas. Consumers of information need to move beyond bubble-thinking and confirmation bias.

None of this is going to be easy. It’s not going to happen overnight. But not acting means truth as we’ve known it may cease to exist, subsequently followed by the human race.

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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