From the Journals

‘Post-truth era’ hurts COVID-19 response, trust in science


Can you tell which of the following statements are true and which are false?

COVID-19 is not a threat to younger people, and only those who have other medical conditions are dying from it.

The mRNA vaccines developed to prevent the coronavirus alter your genes, can make your body “magnetic,” and are killing more people than the virus itself.

President Joe Biden’s climate change plan calls for a ban on meat consumption to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2020 presidential election was rigged and stolen.

If you guessed that all of these claims are false, you’re right – take a bow. Not a single one of these statements has any factual support, according to scientific research, legal rulings, and legitimate government authorities.

And yet public opinion surveys show millions of Americans, and others around the world, believe some of these falsehoods are true and can’t be convinced otherwise.

Social media, politicians and partisan websites, TV programs, and commentators have widely circulated these and other unfounded claims so frequently that many people say they simply can’t tell what’s objectively true and not anymore.

So much so, the authors of a fascinating new research study have concluded we are living in a “post-truth era,” with baseless beliefs and subjective opinions given a higher priority than verifiable facts.

The new study – The Rise and Fall of Rationality in Language, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – found that facts have become less important in public discourse.

As a result, unsupported beliefs have taken precedent over readily identifiable truths in discussions of health, science, and politics. The upshot: “Feelings trump facts” in social media, news reports, books, and other sources of information.

And here’s the kicker: The trend did not begin with the rise of former President Donald Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the advent of social media; in fact, it has been growing for much longer than you might think.

“While the current ‘post-truth era’ has taken many by surprise, the study shows that over the past 40 years, public interest has undergone an accelerating shift from the collective to the individual, and from rationality towards emotion,” concluded the researchers from Indiana University and Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands.

“Our work suggests that the societal balance between emotion and reason has shifted back to what it used to be around 150 years ago,” says lead researcher Marten Scheffer, PhD, a professor in the department of environmental sciences at WUR. “This implies that scientists, experts, and policymakers will have to think about the best way to respond to that social change.”

Researchers surprised by findings

The findings are based on a very detailed analysis of language from millions of books, newspaper articles, Google searches, TV reports, social media posts, and other sources dating back to 1850.

The researchers analyzed how often the 5,000 most used words appeared over the past 170 years and found that the use of those having to do with facts and reasoning, such as “determine” and “conclusion,” has fallen dramatically since 1980. Meanwhile, the use of words related to human emotion, such as “feel” and “believe,” have skyrocketed.

Dr. Scheffer notes rapid developments in science and technology from 1850 to 1980 had profound social and economic benefits that helped boost the status of the scientific approach. That shift in public attitudes had ripple effects on culture, society, education, politics, and religion – and “the role of spiritualism dwindled” in the modern world, he says.

But since 1980, that trend has seen a major reversal, with beliefs becoming more important than facts to many people, he says. At the same time, trust in science and scientists has fallen.

Dr. Scheffer says the researchers expected to find some evidence of a swing toward more belief-based sentiments during the Trump era but were surprised to discover how strong it is and that the trend has actually been a long time coming.

“The shift in interest from rational to intuitive/emotional is pretty obvious now in the post-truth political and social media discussion,” he says. “However, our work shows that it already started in the 1980s. For me personally, that went under the radar, except perhaps for the rise of alternative (to religion) forms of spirituality.

“We were especially struck by how strong the patterns are and how universal they appear across languages, nonfiction and fiction, and even in The New York Times.”

In the political world, the implications are significant enough – impacting policies and politicians on both sides of the aisle and across the globe. Just look at the deepening political divisions during the Trump presidency.

But for health and science, the spread of misinformation and falsehoods can be matters of life or death, as we have seen in the politically charged debates over how best to combat COVID-19 and global climate change.

“Our public debate seems increasingly driven by what people want to be true rather than what is actually true. As a scientist, that worries me,” says study co-author Johan Bollen, PhD, a professor of informatics at Indiana University.

“As a society, we are now faced with major collective problems that we need to approach from a pragmatic, rational, and objective perspective to be successful,” he says. “After all, global warming doesn’t care about whether you believe in it or not … but we will all suffer as a society if we fail to take adequate measures.”

For WUR co-researcher Ingrid van de Leemput, the trend isn’t merely academic; she’s seen it play out in her personal life.

“I do speak to people that, for instance, think the vaccines are poison,” she says. “I’m also on Twitter, and there, I’m every day surprised about how easily many people form their opinions, based on feelings, on what others say, or on some unfounded source.”

Public health experts say the embrace of personal beliefs over facts is one reason only 63% of Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The result: millions of preventable infections among those who downplay the risks of the virus and reject the strong scientific evidence of vaccine safety and effectiveness.

“None of this really surprises me,” Johns Hopkins University social and behavioral scientist Rupali Limaye, PhD, says of the new study findings. Dr. Limaye coauthored a paper in 2016 in JAMA Pediatrics about how to talk to parents about vaccine hesitancy and the fact that we’re living in what they called “this post-truth era.”

Dr. Limaye says the trend has made it difficult for doctors, scientists, and health authorities to make fact-based arguments for COVID-19 vaccination, mask-wearing, social distancing, and other measures to control the virus.

“It’s been really hard being a scientist to hear people say, ‘Well, that’s not true’ when we say something very basic that I think all of us can agree on – like the grass is green,” she says. “To be honest, I worry that a lot of scientists are going to quit being in science because they’re exhausted.”


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