A sign of the times

By Benno Hansen from Copenhagen (Science Trumps Alternative Facts) (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Fighting back against ‘alternative facts’: Experts share their secrets

AUSTINDays after President Donald Trump took office, his spokesperson Kellyanne Conway coined a term that ricocheted around the world. Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, confronted her about an overinflated White House estimate of the crowd size at the president’s inauguration. “Don't be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” she shot back. “You're saying it's a falsehood. [But] Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts.” 

The exchange became fodder for 1000 late-night TV monologues, and it seemed to launch a new era of degraded public discourse, in which falsehoods become “alternative truths,” and unwelcome news for politicians becomes “fake news.” At a lively brainstorming session here yesterday at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science, approximately five dozen researchers, teachers, journalists, students, and science advocates brainstormed ways to push back.

Session leader Mark Bayer, an Arlington, Virginia–based consultant and former longtime aide to Senator Edward Markey (D–MA), opened up with some cold water for the crowd. “Facts were never enough” to make a convincing case to people, he said, “so let’s just get over that.” Even Aristotle, in his classic Rhetoric, writes about the need to persuade the audience that you’re credible (ethos) and appeal to their emotions (pathos), as well as using logical arguments (logos), Bayer said.

When he asked attendees why they’d turned up, he got an earful. “I’m appalled that we see people at the president’s level peddling alternative facts, and I want to know what the hell we can do about it,” a Texas college professor said. “I’d like to understand how to have these conversations without getting emotional,” said a counterpart from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “I’m looking for fresh ideas in this space,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. “I was assigned to this session to break up any fights,” added Lee Anne Willson, an emerita professor of physics and astronomy at Iowa State University in Ames, and a member of AAAS’s program committee for the conference.

Although current debates about climate change, evolution, and vaccines may suggest otherwise, trust in science has remained relatively constant over the decades, pointed out Yves Gingras, a historian and sociologist of science from the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada. So why is it so hard to change people’s minds about “alternative facts” that are demonstrably false?

Alternative facts are not facts at all, but socially sanctioned beliefs, said Bayer, who has studied the scientific literature of persuasion enough to call himself a “persuasion nerd.” But there are ways to change minds, he said:

  • Appeal to the 60%. On any given issue, a group of people will contain 20% at each end of the spectrum who are so deeply dug in they’ll never be convinced. Forget them, Bayer said, and appeal to those who are persuadable.
  • Appeal to shared social values. Bayer and others pointed to the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian who makes inroads with fellow evangelicals through their shared worldview. In conversations, we can find things to connect about. “Politicians do that all the time,” Bayer said. They might say, “I’m just like you—I take the train.” 
  • Appeal to the “golden child” of a group—the most admired and respected member of the group. “Every family has one,” Bayer said.
  • Tell stories, and help people relate to them. In 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Markey, then a member of the U.S House of Representatives, persuaded his colleagues to pass a bill mandating that iPhones and other consumer electronics be accessible to the handicapped. To convince them, he called in a veteran who was blinded while serving in the Iraq War. The bill passed. “It wasn’t a fair fight,” Bayer said. 
  • Ask for incremental change, rather than wholesale change, then do it again. For example, Bayer asked an audience member for a pad of paper to pass around to collect emails. Then he followed quickly, “Can you get me a glass of water?” 

These tactics don’t just work with strangers—they work at Thanksgiving dinner as well. And they can help smooth out the rough tenor of today’s discourse, Bayer said. “We’ve seen this movie before—but now it’s in HD. I’m not pessimistic.”

Check out all of our coverage of AAAS 2018.