The term “post-truth” was recently named Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. This was in part thanks to the political movements fueled by strong emotions and sentiments, most notably in the UK and the US, but also possibly across Europe as many countries will face their own upcoming elections early in 2017. “Post-truth” isn’t a new concept, as authors and journalists in 2004 highlighted the actions of the Bush administration in a post-9/11 America. Just as last week we started our series with an overview of journalism, this week we’ll start by answering a simple question, given the fiery discussions surrounding the word truth: What is truth, anyways?
In journalism, truth is defined as the best obtainable version of the facts available at a given time, where facts must be consistent with the material available at that point in time. True statements should be based on facts and substantive claims, with verification and double-checking of facts a crucial step of telling any story. As the news-writing adage goes (and still stuck in my head from high school journalism class almost fifteen years ago now), “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” But from this perspective, truth is also changeable. Truth is based on the knowledge you have at the time, and truth can change when new material comes to light.
Scientists have a similar means of coming to the truth. We use the scientific method to conduct experiments and generate data that tells us if our idea of how the world works could be possible or not. If it’s not possible, we move on to another hypothesis; if we’re right, we continue to blaze down that trail to learn more about the system we’re studying. And like the journalistic definition of truth, scientific truth is also changeable. We have to shift our idea of how things work if enough support comes in that refutes our original hypothesis or theory. In reality, good science and good journalism is all conducted in a “post-truth” manner, in the sense that the fields must embrace the best version of truth at the time while discarding any inconsistent theories they encounter as they progress through a story or through a series of experiments.
Unlike scientists who tell stories with data, journalists have to retrieve information leading to the truth in other ways. This can include attending events such as press conferences or sporting competitions or by reading official documents, papers, or books. Journalists also rely on other people to help provide stories and perspectives, which generally involves interviewing and cross-checking against other sources to provide support for statements (more on interviews in next week’s post). Truth-finding for journalists involves 1) gathering information and views/perspectives, 2) checking if statements can be supported by facts, 3) evaluating the relevance of new facts for telling a story, 4) helping the audience know what the truth means, and 5) telling the story accurately and clearly.
In order to tell the truth in an effective way, a journalist must be open-minded, especially when it comes to evaluating the relevance of facts for a story. Part of being involved in a post-truth world comes from cherry-picking results or statements that fulfill a central idea that we have already. Science is also guilty of cherry-picking facts in order to tell a story from a specific perspective, so making active considerations for any biases is crucial for telling any story, be it for news or for science. News also must be engaging; it can’t simply be presented as a list of facts. You have to explain the context, the meaning, and the significance. Scientists should also recognize that data and scientific evidence is more effective when provided within context, as tables and bar charts will only get you so far when trying to convince someone that your version of the truth is the best one out there.
While telling a story that’s a reflection of the truth, it’s crucial for both scientists and journalists to be impartial about the subject at hand. A writer (or scientist) is unbiased when he or she does not take sides when both researching and presenting new material and when the results of the work are a detached assessment of the facts uncovered. Achieving impartiality generally involves working towards the following goals: 1) accuracy, 2) fairness (presenting the subject in a way that deals with it proportionately), 3) balance (rather than presenting two sides equally, balance should be obtained by weighting things by the amount of evidence), 4) having no conflict of interest in the outcome of the story, 5) being open minded, and 6) telling the story with appropriate context.
We might envision journalists as being pressured to sell a story or to skew the facts that make a news piece more click-worthy, but can scientists say that they aren’t guilty of the same? Do we not also have our own favorite proteins or algorithms that we want to see succeed and become crucial pieces of some large scientific puzzle? Professional scientists should also recognize the importance of impartiality in doing good science and to avoid the pitfalls of becoming too enamored with a favorite technique, protein, or algorithm.
Our words and our papers have power to them, regardless of the impact factor of the journal or how many citations we get. Our work will inevitably be built upon by someone else, and our words that we use to tell our scientific stories should reflect our work in an accurate way. Every word we use contributes to the picture and supports our ideas—and being impartial also means we should choose our words accurately and fairly, words which are congruent with what we’re actually showing. In a “post-truth” world, it is our duty as scientists to strive for a truth that is not comprised but rather enhanced by our desire to share our science.
Next week in our series, we’ll discuss interviewing and working with other people to get facts—another step towards becoming a citizen science journalist. Until then, only 7 days left of #AcWriMo!!