The lies were nothing less than an attempted coup by an incumbent to hold on to power. Now begins the political project to take back truth – the ultimate in scientific endeavour.
After too many days of doom scrolling social media, the US election result is in. Donald Trump has been voted out of office.
That he is refusing to concede is totally consistent with the man who brought a project to undermine the very meaning of what is true to the US presidency.
His continued attempts to make what is untrue true, with claims of illegal votes and stolen elections, were perhaps expected, but still shocking.
The political analyst and author Ezra Klein called it nothing less than an attempted coup by an incumbent to hold on to power.
What tools help us determine what is true or false in day-to-day life? Click here to comment.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, once able to claim the win, came straight out of the blocks with their plans for the new administration. Near the top was the list of the “leading scientists and experts” to help form and enact a Covid-19 plan on the first day in office.
For those of us who watched with horror as legitimate science and those who advocate for it were undermined, ridiculed and outright rejected by Trump and his supporters over the last years, this was important.
But will Trump’s ousting be enough to reverse the effects of the story that he was the lead narrator of? The story that sought to undermine the very idea of truth? The short answer is no.
The longer answer is it will take more than a call to expertise and “the science” by people in government and scientific institutions to rebuild a shared understanding in what is true.
What is true and how we establish what is true has been up-ended
Science is by definition a never-ending endeavour of knowing and understanding. No one owns the concept of “science”. Rather there are key features of the scientific endeavour across cultures: it starts often with a curiosity and a query from an observation, a deep examination and understanding of what is already known, an informed guess at what is true (a hypothesis), the testing of that guess through the collection of data, the examination of that data, and the drawing of conclusions about what it means.
Where no information or source of information can be trusted as holding to what is true and what is not, and where the very process to determine what is true or false (scientific query itself) has been delegitimised, then people like Trump, strong men, people with autocratic motivations can trick their way into power and then hold it by any means.
Then those conclusions are tested with respected others, peers, who have undertaken similar queries. All of this is infused with humility that this is likely only to be another step in the long knowledge journey. And through this process we discover there are many things we still do not know, or only partially know. But also that there are things that are true and things that are false.
What Trump, those in media, in industry, in politics and others up to their necks in the project of disinformation (false information with the intent to mislead and undermine the very idea of truth for their own malicious purpose) have done is, not just upend our shared understandings of what is true and what is not, but also the consensus over the process we use to establish that.
Where no information or source of information can be trusted as holding to what is true and what is not, and where the very process to determine what is true or false (scientific query itself) has been delegitimised, then people like Trump, strong men, people with autocratic motivations can trick their way into power and then hold it by any means. What it means is that while it is necessary to restate what is true, appealing to expertise and experts is insufficient to get trust in truth and science back. Indeed for some groups it was never present.
Establishing truth and the process of truth seeking is a political project
It will be tempting for those who adhere to scientific processes and agreed truth-seeking processes, to simply restate the facts, to lead with what is true and false and believe, as we often do, that will be sufficient to reveal the truth for people who have been misled. Yet, because the idea of truth and how we establish facts has been so comprehensively undermined (and this was happening way before Trump, he has simply ridden the wave), facts alone won’t work to claim it back.
Instead we must use our knowledge to build new approaches. What we know about how people process information and how they establish trust and credibility in information and organisations. Our understandings and observations of how information technologies work to influence, persuade, and mislead people. This knowledge can be applied to develop new frameworks to convey what is true and false and more importantly how we legitimately do truth-seeking.
Consider expertise and trust. I believe what credentialled experts say (mainly) because they have established themselves as credible and trustworthy to me through my personal experience of the scientific and medical institutions, my training in science and, to a lesser degree, my experiences of following their advice.
The information they convey may be true or it may not be. Regardless, I see them as credible and, therefore, the information they convey as such.
When I use my perception of expertise as a shortcut to establish the truth of information I am no better at knowing that the information is actually true than anyone else. We could, of course, do our own research but most of us don’t have the time for that and studies suggest we may not understand a good scientific process or how our publicly available information sources (like Google and YouTube) are biased.
“Humility instructs us to think harder about how to reframe problems so that their ethical dimensions are brought to light, which new facts to seek and when to resist asking science for clarification. Humility directs us to alleviate known causes of people’s vulnerability to harm, to pay attention to the distribution of risks and benefits…”
– Sheila Jasanoff
Expertise and credibility is about perception and experience not about actual expertise. To reestablish truth and the process of truth will require these messages to come from those who are perceived as experts across our communities, not simply institutional and formal experts. Do all our communities have the resources they need to be part of this project? Are they even seen as partners in this project?
Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich Ecker and John Cook are three cognitive psychologists, who between them have amassed a huge body of research on overcoming false information. In 2017 they wrote an article called “Beyond Misinformation”. In it they outline some of the technological solutions that need to be used that incorporate such psychological knowledge.
It is not simply about structures to convey what is true, it’s also about processes to help us grapple with uncertainty about what is true
I said, we sometimes know what is true and what is not. Very often, as with Covid-19, there are many uncertainties. Establishing credibility and deciding how to act in the face of scientific uncertainty is critical to helping people maintain trust in the scientific process.
Sheila Jasanoff, a scientific philosopher, argues that we need to use processes that help us to better acknowledge this partiality, this grey area of science, and to act together within it. She calls these “technologies of humility” and says of them: “Humility instructs us to think harder about how to reframe problems so that their ethical dimensions are brought to light, which new facts to seek and when to resist asking science for clarification. Humility directs us to alleviate known causes of people’s vulnerability to harm, to pay attention to the distribution of risks and benefits…”
These are, I would note, the technologies that indigenous cultures have applied for generations.
We cannot, for example, know the full extent of how climate change and environmental degradation will play out on our society, on the planet. There is much uncertainty on precisely how and when we will exceed the planet’s natural limits.
However, we cannot wait for more science to establish some absolute truth of “exceeded” as that is far too late. Rather, we can bring to light who is most affected if we do not act now, who benefits from our inaction, and what we value collectively about our environment and our relationship with it.
Knowing when the process to establish “truth or falsehood” will not help and having a robust process to deal with uncertainty are all part of the political project in which we can rebuild trust in truth and the processes that establish truth.
The political project to take back truth must apply all the science, knowledge and research we have across our many systems of knowledge, not simply call to the righteousness of western science. It means new frameworks and new approaches to sharing and collaborating on what is true. That is the ultimate in scientific endeavour.