Paul Kidd, someone I know through my work in the HIV sector, pointed out on Facebook, that 2016 wasn’t 2001 (September 11th) or 1941 (WW2) or 1914 (WW1) or any of the other years in which momentously awful things happened. Despite this, there seems to have been a general consensus that 2016 was below average in the year scale.
2016: Get Out. (C) The Oatmeal ; via Instagram; believed fair use
Are we just growing more discontent as we get older and grumpier? Is it, as some would have you believe that we are now more locked in our own filter bubble, amplifying outrage via twitter?
For me, 2016 really crystalised something I’ve been thinking about for a while, both in my professional role and outside. When I was in my first year of medical school, I remember the seemingly interminable ethics lectures, on how the medicine of old was “doctor knows best” and that paternalism was being replaced with shared decision making and that we would develop much better therapeutic relationships out of it.
All of this is true for most cases in medicine, but the approach seems to have spilled over into the rest of science, and indeed, the rest of society.
But I’m really sure the decision making has improved.
And more to the point, we seem to be entering a phase where expertise is not only valued, but is actively derided.
This article by Tom Nichols is a cracker, and understanding the rest of this post kind of hinges on it, so go read it. I’ll wait. I was very pleased in the course of researching this post to see that it’s coming out longform as a book in a couple of months.
As someone who was at school and university at the time the internet was transitioning from secret geek business to a resource for everyone, I was once at least somewhat enthusiastic about the prospect of universal access to information improving the lot of people around the world. Access to information would make education simple, science progress more quickly and revolutionise the way we did everything.
“…free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.
– Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (Firaxis Games, 1999)
In the last part of 2016 / early 2017, we had:
- A respected environmental lawyer and vaccine skeptic said to have been appointed to chair a vaccine safety committee by the incoming President of the United States
- A coal mining engineer was elected to the Australian Senate and has been progressing a case against the science of climate change
- The rise of the controversy over “fake news”
- President Trump
Usually, the mention of the Dunning-Kruger Effect indicates either snark on twitter or an impending discussion of logical fallacies – which often seems to be used as a way of shutting an argument down without acknowledging a difference of opinion has any validity at all. Clearly sometimes it doesn’t, but directly challenging these firmly held beliefs may in fact reinforce, rather than remediate these views.
I’ve blogged before at my own blog about science journalism, academic publishing and the nexus of circumstances that results in public misunderstanding of scientific discoveries. As I was putting together this blog post, I found this article at Medium – which is an excellent summary of what I was trying to get at here. It goes along well with Guardian editor Katharine Viner‘s long read on the impact of technology on journalism.
So we have a confluence of factors:
- increasing complexity of life (more case law, more medical knowledge, etc etc)
- increased access to information (of both good and poor quality)
- simultantous increase in the tendancy to get stuck in a filter-bubble
- lack of good external filtering and sorting by the media
- distrust of authority and expertise
- hyper-partisanship (in politics, but also the media)
- the triumph of short-term thinking (24hr news and 3 year election cycles)
When you put it like that, it seems almost inevitable that we’ve ended up in this post-fact apocalypse.
I don’t know that I have any easy answers; it’s certainly not as simple as the democratisation of knowledge like I once thought it was. I do think that better access to information is still key; but we need it to be disseminated better; better journalism, better science communication and a move away from the grant-catching, clickbait-harvesting situation we’re in at the moment.
As for how to move politics away from mainlining short attention span media cycles, I’m open to suggestions. It would seem too simple to suggest that evidence-based policy instead of feelz-based policy (or even worse, policy-based evidence) should be obviously be a good thing. We’ll continue to call out bad ideas when we see them.
What you can do is read widely, approach news with open-minded skepticism, but don’t reject the information by expert out of hand. Support quality journalism, because it seems unlikely that the free stuff will be able to hold back the tide of bullshit by itself.
Write to your local member or senator – it really does make more of a difference than you think it might. Let them know you’re not going to tolerate nonsense any more. And connect with the like-minded; you can achieve much more together. Check out our Future Wise forum for a start.