November 21, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich
Science communication in a hyper-real world
I recently asked myself the question: Is there still a point in doing or thinking about ‘science communication‘ in a world where facts have become indistinguishable from fiction and where experts and scientists are regarded with suspicion. This question struck me again quite forcefully when listening to the Now Show on Saturday 19 November, a BBC radio comedy show that provides some of the best insights into our post-satirical world. At the end of the show Pippa Evans sang a song with the strap-line “I have got an opinion”, a song that deals with echo-chamber communication. Listen to it here (26.50 minutes in)! Pippa sang her song at the very end of the show, that is, just before the ‘real’ one-o’clock news, and just after the Now Show had discussed the rise of false or fake news).
As highlighted during a previous episode of the Now Show (and elsewhere), we now live in a hyper-real, even surreal, world, where satire seems to be no longer possible, as reality has itself become satire. However, the Now Show still manages to do its stuff: Inform, entertain and satirise. So, I thought, if satire is still possible and even funny in a post-satirical world, science communication should still be possible in an arguably post-science, post-expert, post-fact, post-truth, post-real, hyper-real world. But is it? What are the obstacles to real science communication in a hyper-real world?
Frames and mirrors
When thinking about all this I found a post by Aaron Huertas on Science Communication Media which, like Pippa Evans in her song, reflects on the issue of echo-chambers and says: “We live in increasingly cloistered information bubbles thanks to the algorithmic mirror of social media and demographic sorting. That makes it easier for conspiracy theories to spread and for serial fabricators like president-elect Trump to lie without political consequence. Social scientists, science communicators, social media companies, and mainstream media fact checkers must dedicate themselves to figuring out how they can debunk and prevent the spread of conspiracy theories in the future, lest they take permanent hold as a basis for governance.”
This is difficult. As George Lakoff pointed out in 2004 in Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: “we know from cognitive science that people…think in frames. … To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off. …”.
Advances in science and technology (interestingly those used and appreciated by billions of people every day) have turned communication, especially on social media, into a dance inside closed cabinets of algorithmic mirrors. Once trapped inside, it is very difficult to escape. It is also very difficult to get into them if your are not invited, if you are not the in-group.
How can ‘science communication’, as a communal and democratic project, work in these circumstances? Do facts and reality still stand a chance? This is now, we have to remember, a world where NPR’s senior VP of news, Michael Oreskes, had to remind listeners that: “Our first principle is that facts exist and that they matter.”
Facts bounce off frames. Facts are shaped by algorithmic mirrors. Facts are almost indistinguishable from fakes. Facts are under threat.
Facts, yes facts
We live in a world of echo-chambers, fake news, algorithmic mirrors and ‘frames’, where we are all entitled ‘to have an opinion’ but where it becomes increasingly difficult to share and discuss ‘facts’ together and to find common ground. The situation is not entirely new. We once lived in a world of ‘spin’. At that time experts in science communication recommended that ‘factual reporting‘ was one way of empowering people to see through the spin. There was hope that this would enable people to engage in healthy dialogue and informed decision making.
Is that still possible, is that still something to aspire to in a hyper-real world? It might be much more difficult but I think there is nothing else for it: We have to stand up for reality, for hard-earned facts, for evidence, for science, for hard-working experts and scientists, even for truth. But above all we have to be clear why we care about these things, why they matter and why they are not only a matter for the few but for the many.
As Alice Bell once said (quoted here): “We pool our resources to allow a few people to cut themselves off and become experts in particular subjects. We do this so that they might feed back their knowledge and we can, collectively, try to make a better world.”
We should not apologise for science, culture, philosophy and education, but continue to promote and share them as widely as possible. We should not be afraid of using words like ‘fact’. Facts matter, now more than ever. Some will bounce off frames; some will get distorted by algorithmic mirrors; but some may stick and be shared.