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Persuasion in the Post-Truth Era

in Campus Life by

Note: Information and extracts from

The Washington Post, New York Times and the Guardian

Hundreds of scientists recently gathered in Boston’s Copley Square to rally against what they say is a “direct attack” on research and facts by the new Republican administration. Though specific calls to action were not made clear, neither are the goals and strategies of the new presidency regarding scientific research and funding.

The conference/rally held outside the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Sunday, Feb. 19 meant to highlight the uncertainties facing research in the new era of contagious denial, cherry-picked data, and supposed “alternative facts.”

Concerns among scientists have been expressed since the new administration has settled into Washington. Public perceptions being altered by prominent and highly public figures is a reality of these times, but skeptics and outright deniers of certain areas of research – and its widely acknowledged findings – now hold America’s highest offices, including that of the President.

The appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency is a particularly troubling action of the new administration that concerns researchers. Pruitt, the self-described “Leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” has sued the E.P.A. multiple times in attempts to block the restrictions and regulations placed on the fossil fuel industry by the Obama presidency.

During Pruitt’s time as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, his offices stated their intentions were in “…protecting Oklahoma’s economy from the perilous effects of federal overreach by agencies like the EPA.” Though he accepts that the planet is warming, Pruitt questions human involvement as a factor.

Besides the pressing issue of climate change denial, the science community also worries about a loss of public trust in the legitimacy of real science. In this post-truth, alternate fact paradigm, enthusiasm for the sciences altogether may be waning. “This was not organized by any interest group,” Rush Holt, the chief executive of the AAAS said of the Boston rally. “It’s a spontaneous display of concern about science itself.”

In response to these troubles, even typically apolitical scientists are banding together at a level some say has not been seen since the nuclear proliferation controversies of the 1970s. “It’s the first time in my 50-year career that I have seen people speaking up for science at large,” said Holt. “I’ve seen for or against nuclear power or whatever. This is unusual phenomenon.”

Evidence of the level of these concerns can also be seen in other unconventional actions taken by scientists and science enthusiasts since the change of administration, such as the recent “Hack and save.”

On Saturday, Feb. 11, students, scientists and coders at UC Berkeley tackled the issue of climate data potentially disappearing, prompted in part by the official White House website having been scrubbed clean of any language associated with climate research.

Around 200 of these activists gathered to collect and archive as much data as possible from federal entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA’s Earth Sciences Program, and the Department of Energy. They did encounter several dead-ends but were able to download 8,404 NASA and Department of Energy web pages onto the Internet Archive.

This is a precautionary preservation of over three decade’s worth of collaborative data regarding this planet, its atmosphere, and our role in its protection. The satellite data from NASA and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) alone has been used to aid farming, weather forecasting, and even insurance claims. These climate data “hack-a-thons” have been turning up across the country in response to a government now seemingly focused on nurturing fossil-fuel dependency and eliminating evidence of the harm it continues to produce.

Social Media is also seeing evidence of scientific retalliation.

In mid-January, scientists, and associates of government agencies such as the EPA and departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services confirmed seeing directives to remove web pages and limit the dissemination of information to the public, including the use of social media. As a result of this media silence regarding climate research, some employees and supporters of these and other agencies have created “rogue” twitter accounts borrowing the actual agency names and logos. These rebel accounts have names such as the “alternate National Parks Service” and feature hashtags like “@RogueNASA” and @ungagged EPA, where they post current information in defiance of the unofficial gag order imposed.

Another factor in the current battle for science is simple public understanding and support.

The rapid-fire rate at which the people view and passively accept faulty information that sounds to be scientific is perhaps another by-product of the communication age, leaving most citizens ill-equipped to tell truth from outright fiction.  Critical thinking over what is read and heard may get lost in today’s hustle, and Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detector” guidelines of years ago are forgotten.

When suppression of true information is a trivial matter in politics and popular culture, some are left to wonder how science, in general, will fair in this period of a seemingly unsupportive government. Science, though, like mathematics, is a constant.

It exists independent of politics and the “popular vote.”