These days, feelings matter more than facts, despite Hans Roslings’ plea for ‘factfulness’. It is not the reasonableness of the argument or the evidence presented that matters, but whether the facts or evidence conform to a specific bias or opinion about the world.
Social media has been the main enabler of the rise of feelings mediating the form of reason- and evidence-based decision-making that policymakers have to confront on a daily basis. In a polarised society like South Africa, for example, how people feel about the way they are treated is bound to take precedence over fact.
The more there is unresolved friction, the more feelings take over reason or reasonableness. Social media enables feelings to triumph over reason.
Globally, though the replacement of factfulness with feeling is not an occurrence that came about suddenly, it has been aided and abetted by the growing trust deficit in the centre, or institutions that held – if you want – the central ground and voice on matters of science and public policy.
Today, trust in this centre has been eroded – I would argue largely because of the incestuous and often corrupt relationship between market forces, independent scientific institutions and regulatory bodies.
Some great scholarly work has been done by academics like Noami Oreske. Her findings led to the production of a famous documentary called Merchants of Doubt, showing how corporate interests have come to weigh on important public policy issues, such as the harmful effects of tobacco, opioids and Exxon’s suppression of scientific evidence – from its own researchers – that global warming is linked to increased emissions. There are many other examples that do not readily come to mind that illustrate the main point one is trying to make here.
Recently, there have been numerous class action suits that have been won by ordinary citizens against biotechnology and agricultural inputs company Monsanto. Monsanto was found to have abused corporate power by obfuscating, denying or simply discrediting any evidence that showed its herbicides were the cause of numerous cases of cancer in instances where the herbicide Roundup was actively used. It took vigorous civil action and legal measures to force the truth out.
This state of affairs, which is one of the causes of public mistrust, has seen the products of reason shift from the centre to more decentralised authorised or unauthorised agencies largely driven by the availability of information and scientific material on the Internet. Pseudoscience and often fringe science cohabit in this cyberworld and are there for whoever wants to use them to mount an attack on any form of scientific authority. The growing loss of legitimacy of the centre, and the vacuum this is creating, is being filled by both good and bad causes.
It is a good thing that scientific knowledge is more available but this also has an untamable side effect: anybody can proffer sought-after facts that conform to their own bias or cast doubt on the truths of established institutions, creating a cacophony of doubtfulness and distrust – even if this is solid evidence from sources we have long regarded as credible.
Where the centre no longer mediates, is no longer trusted or has lost authority over truth, a certain world of multiple truths/truthmakers compete with one another, which makes decision-making a much tougher process. Who does one believe with so much contestation and constant disorientation?
It is a good thing that information and knowledge are more and more decentralised – because we can see what citizen science has done to help the people of Flint, in a town in Michigan, in the US, where water supply was being poisoned, to defeat the claims of the Flint local authority, which said nothing was wrong with the water.
According to their tests and experts, everything was okay. This case is yet another example of a corrupt authority using selective scientific evidence as a weapon against the public interest. In response, citizens gathered their own facts and systematically confronted authorised central bodies that for so long had held sway and mediated scientific opinion and policymaking.
It is a bad thing if we take, for instance, the observations by Global Monitor of the alarming rise, with parents in advanced economies (primarily France, where close to a third of parents do not believe in vaccination) not wanting to vaccinate their children, which has led to a rise in measles cases in Europe, as these parents are contesting established authority, which has it that vaccines are safe and not the cause of autism and other disorders.
Again, the perceived collusion or incestuous relationship between pharmaceuticals companies and health authorities is one of the causes of mistrust that interferes with the ability of public authorities to implement health programmes meant to serve the long-term interests of the general public. We have had our own history in South Africa of the confrontation between mainstream science and heterodox views around the question of whether HIV causes Aids or not. There is no need to go into this sorry saga here because the confrontation is well-documented.
Policymakers are confronted with crowdsourcing and swarming effects of the new ways to manufacture science or at least use science that fits your bias to inform public policy, if one may lift from Noam Chomsky’s book, Manufacturing Consent, in that the pretence of evidence under the label of science is beside the point.
We have to consider new innovations in institutions and policymaking to confront this challenge of established institutional science versus street science.