Post-truth

Oxford Dictionaries has named its word of the year for 2016 as post-truth: an adjective meaning ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. It was chosen due to the huge increase in the word’s use this year in response to both Brexit and the US Elections, where apparently people didn’t seem to care about the integrity of what either side was saying or about what were real hard facts and what were quite simply made up when making their electoral choices.

Without looking into it in too much depth (I don’t really fancy a whole political article) I’m not quite sure how people’s psychology works: were some people genuinely swayed by false facts and claims or, as Michael Gove claimed, had people simply ‘had enough of experts’ and just voted with their emotions? If only the truth had been told and/or people in general cared about the truth, then perhaps those political results might have been different. On the other hand, they might have been the same. That doesn’t really matter to me or any of us now, after all apparently Brexit means Brexit.

As a scientist, it can be a little hard to deal with people not listening to facts or at least not questioning the facts in the correct way (for example how might these results be biassed or a statistical artefact – outright denial of facts with no grounding won’t help scientific progress). Worse still is when clearly personally or politically-invested people blatantly lie to cause confusion and counter a scientific point, but that’s another issue… However, if post-truth is an important aspect of people’s decision making process then I feel I might have to change my tack in my PhD slightly.

Until now I had thought of science-art crossover work as a quirky curiosity. ‘It engages a different audience in new ways’ I had been told by enthusiastic hippies like myself. ‘Sure it does…’, I thought, not quite convinced but happy to let people justify it to themselves. I have done a bit of dabbling and it was quite fun, but I didn’t quite see how it was really furthering science (I had no graphs, numbers or statistics to prove it) more than conventional, ‘real’ science with graphs, numbers and statistics. However, in becoming aware of the post-truth world I now see a real, clear purpose in doing science-art crossover work.

Firstly, I do not want to just lie to people’s faces and tell them what they want to hear or to stimulate the emotional response that would lead them to make the scientifically logical choice with their lifestyle, vote etc. For a start, I still hold onto the seeds of morality that were sown when I was a child: ‘do not lie’. I never really saw what the big deal with lying was compared to, for example, ‘do not murder’, but now more than ever I am aware that it can be very powerful. Additionally (and probably more importantly), I’m awful at lying so no one would believe me anyway. Therefore, if I am going to present information in a less factual way that is not just a bare-faced lie then why not try doing it through artistic means? If you believe what the other science-art hippies say, there might even be tiny chance that people engage with it.

Secondly, since a lot of people don’t care about facts, what is the point in only working to make statistics more rigorous and drawing more robust scientific conclusions? Life is short. Art, music and poetry are fun. Why waste time only crunching numbers that no one will listen to? Wouldn’t it make more sense to write a song that no one will listen to, but have fun going out and playing it at a bar anyway? Don’t get me wrong, I still plan on finishing my PhD and I plan to do it using numbers, graphs, statistics and other tools that help prove a scientific point. I will do this because I want to understand the world and I care about the truth, and I know a few other people do too. I will probably keep doing this later in life too. However, I have a realistic sense that not many people will really care that much about the hard numbers in my thesis besides me, my supervisors and the examiners. Therefore I am going to do some art because its fun and relaxing. Paint brushes don’t crash and need debugging and re-compiling. Scientific computer models do, unfortunately.

They say a picture can tell a thousand words. I’ll settle for a picture that can tell one number that’s factually correct and scientifically robust, if people think about it for at least a moment before returning to the Daily Mail. That’s not too much to ask, surely…

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