A New Yorker satirical article published last year titled “Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-resistant Humans” has proven correct in 2016 elections across the globe. Citizens and politicians have been shocked by the emergence of a “Post-factual era” where emotions trump facts (pun sadly intended). For environmental issues, this attitude contributed to the mindsets of climate change skeptics, who base their beliefs off of what they can see and feel: “It’s not too hot today, it’s actually cold! Global warming doesn’t exist!”Looking back at history, this “post-factual era” may not be an era but a part of human DNA.
Resistance as Human Nature?
This phenomenon stretches back to WWII—when politicians led the public through emotions and fear instead of facts. Other historical examples probably stretch through political campaigns of other leaders (or more specifically, dictators).
Outside of politics, this behavior can be seen in everyday activities. People are moved to buy food products from a commercial showing families together or people elated with joy, even if facts show them that the food contributes to poor health.
The New Yorker article states that the more facts are available, the more fact-resistant humans become. Sadly this has also proven to be true for environmental science in addition to social justice issues. The more facts scientists find, the more people resist and question them. Similarly, the more data collected on police violence, the more some people find offense and fight these numbers.
People have a right to question information and be skeptical, especially for new or unusual information. Information sources should be analyzed for biases, but it must go both ways. What sources are climate change deniers using for their information? Are they challenging these sources the same way they challenge other sources?
Additionally, this resistance to new information reflects more about the human condition: the innate fear of change. If something is unusual and may mean change for the status quo, we are naturally resistant. Change is hard and inconvenient. This fear of change is especially poignant if the reason for change indicates fault. We don’t like feeling guilty! Whether the problem is directly our fault (driving a gas-guzzling car; saying something racist) or indirectly our fault (supporting gas guzzlers; supporting racist policies), we are hesitant to take responsibility for wrongdoings.
So what is the way forward? If humans are innately resistant to facts and can only act on emotion, should we try to evoke emotion through information sources on the environment? Previous movements have used photographs which serve as an emotive type of information source bridging fact and emotion. Acting out of fear doesn’t have to be a bad thing–fearing the planet may be flooded can motivate action to prevent it. But it’s important to know what the fear is from –facts or fiction?
Fighting Against Fake News and False Information
Now some politicians and news outlets are actively fighting to help facts prevail. After Breitbart News published an article denouncing the reality of Climate Change, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology retweeted the article, which sparked Sen. Bernie Sanders to tweet, “Where’d you get your PhD? Trump University?” The Weather Channel, with slightly less sass, also reacted to the news article with its own video breaking down the science of climate change. At the end of the video, the broadcaster states, “To all my fellow scientists out there, let’s make the facts louder than the opinions.” The video was posted with the comment, “Note to Breitbart: Earth is not cooling, climate change is real and please stop using our video to mislead Americans.” Scientists have even begun backing up their climate data on independent servers fearing that the new Trump administration may demolish their findings.
The House Committee’s retweet of the false article represents the greater problem of presenting (confusing) climate change information to governing bodies, particularly ones that already have a “flippant disregard for what constitutes fact vs. fiction.” Rick Perry’s appointment to lead the Department of Energy, which he once wished to eradicate, in addition to the appointments of other fossil fuel proponents like Scott Pruitt, appointed to lead the EPA, have led to concern among environmental scientists on how to move forward with their new environmental leaders. Pruitt once stated, “Reasonable minds can disagree about the science behind global warming, and disagree they do.”
China, Environment and Internet Ethics
Conversely, as stated in previous blog posts, China has already moved past this debate into policies and technologies to mitigate the effects of climate change and help communities adapt. China has its troubles with information transparency online, particularly in regards to health and safety. The government seems to be taking advantage of social media and technology to provide more transparent data on air quality, with a decrease in censorship on health and safety topics from 2015 to 2016. The government recently created a campaign “Black and Stinky Rivers” (黑臭河), in which citizens can use an app to monitor hourly air and water pollution from factories, as well as report rivers that need to be cleaned. Research from Freedom House predicts censorship will tighten further in China, and that journalists, technologists, and the international community will have to create new ways to produce and disseminate information.
A recent New York Times podcast explored the ethical role Internet companies play in this digital information age. Some westerners fear Facebook’s move into China with censorship technologies will decrease transparency. However, China would not be the first country in which Facebook has changed its censorship parameters. Facebook has cracked down on hate speech in Europe, and in the States, pictures deemed inappropriate have been blocked and certain activists’ posts have been deleted. If citizens want social media sites to weed out fake news or harmful statements, they must also realize that this would give a large moral responsibility to the sites to decide what is “okay” and what is not “okay.” The podcast hosts ask, “Why is the morality of the world suddenly being entrusted to legions of developers” most of whom are white, male and American? What is the moral duty of these companies in how they handle information? What duty is on Internet consumers? And, ultimately, how do Internet companies that control information find a moral core?
Social media can be a force for good, with celebrities, like Leonardo DiCaprio, promoting awareness for important issues, but it can also distract from the truth, some claiming these celebrities are merely a smokescreen for the true political horrors occurring. As social media facilitates proliferation of fake news to the public, the challenge for environmental scientists and social activists will be to distinguish their facts from fiction and present them in a way that the public will believe, and more importantly, a way the public will act on. In addition, the public should take some responsibility to parse out the fact from fiction.