How to Communicate in a Post-Truth World

“No, you’re a snowflake!” Two Men in Conversation by Hans Schliessmann. Public domain, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fake news is not new. For years I have rolled my eyes and scrolled by quack health and science stories, links from the satirical Borowitz Report shared credulously, and other incorrect information in my Facebook feed. I have often written well-researched, thoughtful comments challenging those posts and deleted them before posting. What’s the use? Is it worth being a spoilsport and telling my friend that no, she probably doesn’t have an extra type of cone that allows her to see more colors than most of us mere mortals? During and since the past election cycle, though, fake news has felt urgent. It is a problem that has launched a thousand thinkpieces, and I’m naturally suspicious of all of them.

I am both a mathematician and a science writer. My first instinct is to fact-check. But ever since starting my career as a science writer I have been reading and processing pushback to the “throw facts at it” strategy. Sometimes called the “deficit model” of science communication, the idea that we can change people’s beliefs and what they do about them by filling their heads with facts is both appealing and wrong. There are studies suggesting that telling people they are wrong about emotional issues such as climate change or vaccination not only doesn’t help, it can further entrench them into their beliefs. Great. I believe that the deficit model doesn’t work, that throwing facts at a problem doesn’t help. Doing nothing certainly doesn’t correct anything. So what should a math or science communicator or concerned friend and citizen do in the face of “alternative facts”?

People arguing against the deficit model often seem short on practical solutions for communicating more effectively. And that’s fair. Just because you know something isn’t right doesn’t mean you have a better solution. I can (and do) reject the dozens of crank proofs people send me about P vs. NP or the Riemann Hypothesis without solving the problems myself.

But a few articles I’ve read in the past month have offered more concrete suggestions and even made me a little hopeful that I’m not shouting into a void. Rachel Gross wrote an article for Undark about the shortcomings of the deficit model and the need for science writers to acknowledge their own preconceptions and recognize that science is not the only source of truth and meaning for anyone, including the people who read our articles or Facebook comments.

Even more optimistic is an Atlantic article by Olga Khazan that covers recent research suggesting that people who are scientifically curious do sometimes change their minds.

But, surprisingly, the science-curious among them didn’t harbor the same knee-jerk biases. They were more likely than the non-curious to read a news story that clashed with their political affiliation. The liberals, for example, opted to read a newspaper article headlined, “Scientists Report Surprising Evidence: Ice Increasing in Antarctic, Not Currently Contributing To Sea-Level Rise.” They craved novelty, even when they knew they wouldn’t agree with it.

In other words, curiosity seems to be the pin that bursts our partisan bubbles, allowing new and sometimes uncomfortable information to trickle in. Nothing else works like curiosity does, the authors point out—not being reflective, or good at math, or even well-educated.

With the usual caveat that this is preliminary research, it does make me wonder if there are ways to challenge people’s beliefs by piquing curiosity rather than telling people they’re wrong at the outset. That is, can we plant some of that curiosity, or will we only ever be able to reach people who are naturally more scientifically curious?

Finally, I appreciated Brooke Borel’s thoughtful blog post How to Talk to Your Facebook Friends about Fake News for The Open Notebook. Borel is a journalist, author, and fact-checker who recently literally wrote the book on fact-checking, and she says in another recent article for 538 that “fact checking will not save us from fake news.” Her Open Notebook post centers not fact-checking but empathy and engaging “the person, not the content” by finding common ground. This advice gets a little tricky because it feels like it could be a tone-policing suggestion. But I am taking it as a suggestion for people who are not actively marginalized or hurt by the item being discussed. People never have an obligation to disagree politely, especially when they are being hurt, but for people in a position of relative privilege in a particular conversation, it is one way to make it more likely for another privileged person to listen to the argument instead of disengaging immediately.

Borel’s post ends with a sobering dose of reality. These suggestions might be a good way to have conversations that don’t devolve into calling each other snowflakes, but they might not actually change people’s minds. “Whether any of these tactics will actually work is unclear….So, should you try to enter the fray of the Facebook fake-news fights? And if you do, will it make any difference? The answer is: It depends. But if you do try to change hearts and minds on social media, come with your facts, but also your empathy.”

Borel’s post is the first story in The Open Notebook’s series “Six Tools for an Uncertain Era.” The Open Notebook is an excellent website for anyone who is interested in math and science communication. They publish Q&A’s with great science writers like Erica Klarreich, one of my math communication role models, along with many other helpful resources for those who want to hone their communication skills. In the past few months, mathematicians have been more openly politically active—for example, by getting involved in gerrymandering research and trials and opposing the executive order on immigration. Knowing how to reach a wide variety of people as effectively as possible will be an important skill for all of us moving forward, whether it’s just talking with our friends on Facebook or getting ready to testify in court about why that legislative district looks so funny.

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2 Responses to How to Communicate in a Post-Truth World

  1. Paul Campbell says:

    Sound psychology, and useful advice! Nevertheless, let’s start calling “fake news” by its traditional name: propaganda.

  2. Adriana Miller says:

    Hello, I’m doing a project for school about the factors resulting in fake news distributed by the media. I created a basic policy outlining a solution to this epidemic, since the first amendment keeps the government from being able to control the news, I proposed that a contract is to be made with major news sources.
    This would include an agreement about rewarding and/or penalizing a buisness with government perks depending on the reliability of the news. Maybe using taxes? Andway do you have any opinions on this?
    Also do you have any other opinions on this topic, or other solutions? I need a few sources from other people and this would really help, thank you.

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