Editorials Christmas 2016

Evidence, expertise, and facts in a “post-truth” society

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i6467 (Published 09 December 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6467
  1. Tracey Brown, director
  1. Sense about Science, London EC1R 0DP, UK
  1. Tbrown{at}senseaboutscience.org

The Oxford English Dictionary may have made post-truth its word of the year, but the events of 2016 were not a rejection of knowledge

Are we now living in a post-truth, post-factual society? Is 2016 set to become known as the year when experts, and the evidence they wield, were sent packing?

Admittedly it looks that way. The UK’s former justice secretary Michael Gove attempted to play the crowd in the last days of June’s EU referendum campaigning, with the retort that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” His contention was widely challenged, as were the misleading claims about an extra £350m (€410m; $440m) a week for the NHS that would be saved by exiting the EU, and the wave of immigration that would be prompted by Turkey’s fictitious EU membership plan. Then the proponents of these statements triumphed in the referendum. And in December 2015, Donald Trump won the US fact-checking organisation Politifact’s Lie of the Year, cited among other things for claiming “whites killed by blacks–81%” (it’s 16%)1; less than a year later he won the presidential election.

Cue much handwringing and demoralisation among people who advocate for better use of evidence in public life. They fear that we’ve entered a world where everyone has their own reality, the truth has little purchase, and demagogues and soundbite writers rule.

But horrifying as it may be to witness the appeal of people who trade in prejudices and make things up, to see lies and misinformation exposed but still seemingly embraced, it is wrong to conclude that the public doesn’t care for truth. We should not rush to this diagnosis for three reasons.

In the first place, the place of expertise and evidence in recent events was limited— too small a part of the picture to conclude that people have rejected them. Elections and referendums are just one aspect of how people interact with evidence, and a politically loaded one. (And could it be argued that the campaigning US fact checkers and the economists offering post-Brexit income predictions were extending the definition of evidence to its weakest edge?)

Indeed, a recent poll by the Institute for Government found plenty of support for the idea, in principle, that the government should consult experts (85%) and use objective evidence when making difficult decisions (83%).2 But this does not mean that the decisions we take, for ourselves and in public life, are reducible to setting out the facts. Many people in public life have learnt this year what clinicians have long appreciated: that facts can be close to useless if you don’t engage with context and lived experiences, whether to challenge them or to appreciate them, or both.

Which brings us to the second reason why evidence advocates should not be packing their bags. In so far as experts and evidence have played a role in these debates, it has looked like an alternative to engaging with people. It seemed in the UK, for example, that pro-Europe politicians, fearing they couldn’t manage a sensible discussion about the realities of immigration and the best ways to handle it, instead produced expert statements about trade.

Certainly, we need public discussion to account for the facts, for evidence, even for expert opinion when it’s not over-reaching, and we should insist on it. If tax breaks won’t deliver benefits as promised, call that out.

But we should respect the space for contrary experiences and work out how facts and evidence interact with them. Instead, that space has looked like a place of ridicule rather than argument. Come with my facts or go with stupid. Small wonder that some people have chosen to reassert themselves in the privacy of the polling booth. Don’t think, however, that this is a rejection of truthfulness.

So here is the third and vital reason. Evidence, expertise, truthfulness, facts, knowledge… these are public goods. We should not forget that other events this year have been defined by the public’s quest for truth and a hearing for evidence. These include the inquests into the 96 deaths of Liverpool fans at Hillsborough stadium after a 27 year campaign,3 the Scottish inquiry into the abuse of children in care,4 thousands of patients joining the international campaign to see clinical trial evidence reported,5 and the amassing of evidence of Baltimore Police Department’s racial abuses.6

The danger of accepting a post-truth characterisation is that we abandon this empowering side of the evidence movement just as it’s winning through. Evidence and expertise have too often looked like counsel to the knowing, rather than what we could be making them: the means by which the less powerful can call the world to account.

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that Sense about Science is a registered charity that promotes understanding and use of evidence in public life, including running the AllTrials campaign, and which is in receipt of public subscriptions and grants from trusts and foundations, publishers, and educational bodies towards its core aims and projects.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed

References

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