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Facts, alternative facts and ‘Plant Facts Week’

For Joe Friday, it was enough to ask for “just the facts, ma’am.”* But do the facts help science communication?

facts on a chalkboard

When the concept of ‘alternative facts’ made its first TV appearance in January 2017, I shouted at the screen. The pure idea that there was such a thing as an ‘alternative fact’ made me gasp in disbelief. Since then, I learnt a lot about facts. As always, things are a lot complex than they initially seemed to scientist-me. I gained a lot of new insights by reading explainers from experts outside of my area – psychologists, social scientists, historians. For example, Ronald W. Pies describes how there are differences between a lie and a falsehood, between actual and perceived reality, and that distortions of reality fall along a continuum from ‘overvalued ideas’ to delusions (‘Alternative facts’: A psychiatrist’s guide to twisted relationships to truth). His interesting piece finishes with the question whether people are drawn to falsehoods. Was Carl Jung right that “people cannot stand too much reality”?

‘Smoking kills’

I just started to watch the first season of ‘Mad Men’ (yes, I know that I’m a bit late to the hype). In the first episode, marketeers and tobacco company owners worry about new scientific evidence, which demonstrated the harmful effects of smoking on people’s health. Tim Harford picks up the ‘smoking kills’ story in his piece on “The problem with facts”. He argues that there are a few reasons why solid, undisputable facts fail to convince minds. True facts can be boring or tedious. False facts might be simpler or stickier’ than true facts; additionally, in trying to debunk a false fact, it is repeated and so becomes even stickier. Facts can appear threatening or evoke strong emotions. In turn, people might push back by rejecting those facts and adapting alternative views. Harford outlines how the tobacco industry used doubt as a strategy to undermine the scientific evidence presented at the time.

Facts and values

This has big implications for science communication. It is not enough to simply place a bunch of facts into the world and quickly step away. The ‘deficit’ model, in which an uninformed public changes its mind after being presented with the facts, has long been disregarded by science communication experts. Incidentally, we scientists hardly ever hear about this, and of course, the deficit model is woven into our education systems.

It is important to distinguish between facts and values, and recognise that humans make decisions based on their value systems. I teach values and personal decision-making in my ethics class. In every seminar, we identify scenarios in which values like loyalty to friends and family, being successful, or being caring come before honesty or academic integrity. Each of these values in isolation is a positive thing. The tension arises when they are pitched against each other in a decision-making situation. Recognising this is important. Karin Kirk looked at reasons why Reddit users initially rejected climate change before changing their minds. Value systems, e.g. from family, society or religion, were the most common reason. Being human also means being controlled by our brain and our cognitive biases (“Why facts don’t change our mind” by Elizabeth Kolbert).

Therefore, Josh King argues that rather than trying to convince someone trough throwing facts at them, we should reach for other communication methods: Telling a story, discussing shared values, or sharing excitement (‘SciComm: Alternative(s) to facts’). Jenny Rohn agrees that scientists should expand their communication toolbox. For example, scientists could join forces with the Humanities to ‘invade’ popular culture, and show that scientists are multi-dimensional humans, not one-dimensional boffins in white lab coats (“Scientists can’t fight ‘alternative facts’ alone”).

Question marks, not full stops

When we first discussed the concept of ‘alternative facts’ in our editorial team, we spontaneously decided to run a special ‘Plant Facts Week’.. We wanted to highlight plant facts that were not commonly known, and that do not receive as much attention in the media as they should. When I edited the contributions from our guest authors, I felt a sudden inspiration to study black-grass, seed production, and the lycopene synthetic pathway. I suggest that good science communication should not aim to answer all the questions, but leave the audience with the urge to go away and find out more. So, when we think about communicating our research, let’s think about how we can end our ‘fact parade’ not with a full stop, but with a question mark.

* Actually he didn’t. This is an alternative fact.

Anne Osterrieder

Anne Osterrieder is a Lecturer in Biology and Science Communication at Oxford Brookes University, UK. A plant cell biologist, she loves the Golgi apparatus, lasers and cats. She has her own blog at Plant Cell Biology.

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