Climate communications fellow John Cook has published a disturbing assessment of the impacts of alternative facts (1). He suggests persons confused by contradictory alleged facts may end up simply accepting neither. Cook illustrates the impact by invoking an analogy of matter colliding with anti-matter; for some people the presence of competing alternative facts annihilates any chance of resolving questions. Scientists seeking to influence public opinion may have erred in believing controversies could be settled by simply amassing enough data and facts.
The good news is there might be a way to counter alternative fact annihilation schemes. Cook describes research suggesting it is possible to weaken the impact of nefarious alternative facts by including them in discussions and pointing out explicitly where and how people are being misled. For example, do alternative facts promoters have hidden conflicts of interest? Have data been taken out of context or unfairly selected to bolster a false claim? People shown how they are being manipulated tend to be less susceptible to misinformation.
Public discourse has lurched into a difficult post-truth phase in which it has become easy to disparage opposing information as fake news. Information now comes in many forms and not all of them are equally reliable. Accordingly, all of us will be wise to examine news reports and other information sources critically. Steve Inskeep has published some guidelines (2) to help consumers evaluate publications, including blogs.
We are in contentious times. Hopefully, as we navigate through the many competing narratives lying ahead we will become more sophisticated information consumers and more skilled in discussing what we find.
(1) John Cook. How to Counter Alternative Facts. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 13 March 2017. http://thebulletin.org/how-counter-alternative-facts10612
(2) Steve Inskeep. 2016. A Finder’s Guide to Facts. NPR, 11 December 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/12/11/505154631/a-finders-guide-to-facts