Do Facts Matter?

This blog was first published on 6 September 2010 to mark ten years since a series of science communications projects were launched after the risk crises of the 1990s. Image source.

This autumn marks the tenth anniversary of an idea many in the risk world once shared and tried to implement. We had hoped that this idea would improve public policy and governance, protect global health and environment systems, restore public confidence in science and allow researchers to transparently plan long-term projects for the benefit of society. With ten years of hindsight, I can only conclude that we were sadly wrong and hopelessly naive.

The idea was founded on the belief that facts mattered. That policymakers must use factual evidence to make their decisions, relying on expert advice and agreed upon scientific information. We believed that if the science could be clearly communicated (on say a chemical we use, a food additive, a mobile phone mast or a GMO), then the public fear would be reduced, policy-makers could legislate more effectively and research would be able to move forward faster in providing solutions to our pressing challenges. We isolated the problem that the science was too complex for non-scientists to understand and in any case, the scientists were dreadful communicators who did not help their corner when they gave interviews to the media.

We supposed that we just needed to find the right tools and people to communicate the facts to non-scientists.

  • Some of us were involved in science and society projects; we tried to make science accessible to non-specialists;
  • others tried to train journalists how to report on risk issues;
  • or train scientists on how to speak in front of a microphone;
  • many tried stakeholder dialogue using science as a common ground;
  • and there were among us those that went straight to policy-makers, demanding controls to ensure that policy decisions were evidence based.

Over the last decade, I had been involved in all of these efforts at one time or another and I write now as a failed, defeated man as I admit that, in EU policy-making, facts indeed do not seem to matter.

The bigger the lie …

Joseph Goebbels was able to demonstrate that even the most outrageous information, when properly and consistently communicated could affect public perception, policy and behaviour. Goebbels is alive and well today in the manipulation of facts we see in the environmental-health arena. NGOs are continuing to hammer away at evidence with political views and dogma. As a food crisis is mounting, I read a letter in the FT this morning (6 September 2010) from a group of campaign organisations including Friends of the Earth urging that the answer to the coming crisis must be less intensive farming, not more. Where is the evidence or the facts here? None needed – we must stop producing meat and dairy, point! How many will die if policy-makers accept these views? These same people call to stop all use of crop protection materials even though the evidence shows there are more carcinogens in a single cup of coffee than in a year of fruit and vegetable consumption with pesticide residues.

I am still stunned that Sanco rammed through the Pesticides Directive without bothering to conduct an impact assessment. NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth also argue that developing countries must also not be allowed to benefit from green biotech research (based on the “fact” that these organisations don’t trust scientists or industry).

NGO organisations are gathering disaffected scientists or second tier college professors to counter the prevailing scientific opinion on certain matters of political importance. During REACH, we saw groups like Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth spend budgets by the bucket on biomonitoring tests and glossy reports to show that trace chemical elements were present in our blood (in the part per trillion range). Anyone with a science diploma who expressed concern became a touted expert in the communications machinery of these organisations. Chris Rose applauded himself by saying that the real damage to industry was the walking wounded who had learned of the chemicals in their blood. It did not matter that the findings were insignificant (and that most scientists laughed at the circus that was going on), a media-savvy Commissioner broke into tears at a press conference for having at one time poisoned her children with her breast milk. From that moment, REACH was then transformed from legislation to ensure the safe use of chemicals to one of a campaign to remove chemicals that are of concern and substitute them with others on which we have far less information (facts).

How to turn water into whine

How can these activist organisations get away with this? Back to Goebbels, when an organisation can turn out well-polished communications campaigns and mobilise religiously inspired armies onto the streets, any message consistently propagated will have influence. If the organisation can work within a network of other groups all feeding off of each other, like the Green 10, they can present a louder voice feigning a wider representation. When their message is cloaked in the assumption that they are representing a moral or social common good, we tolerate half-truths as simply excessive exuberance. Accountability, facts and credibility are not necessary for public trust or influence (assumedly good intentions and innocence absolve activists from any scrutiny).

For safe measure, there should be enough smoke created by expressing outrage that industry lobbying is going on. This way, more people would feel that civil society needs an even greater voice and influence. Stakeholder dialogue demands that these NGOs take a seat at the table and that a consensus is formed (regardless of the facts) that all parties can sign on to.

But fact-free political campaigns are not restricted to the NGO community or the EU. The recent shenanigans of IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri show that even in the highest echelons of UN science-based organisations, facts do not really matter. Rather than addressing the gaps in factual information at the IPCC or the politicisation of the organisation; rather than resigning for his part in the destruction of trust in the IPCC, Pachauri is planning to unleash a new level of activism (on equity) in the fifth assessment report. If only facts did matter.

Should facts matter? Of course. In the EU policy world, where stakeholder dialogue and engagement are combined with emerging low-cost communications tools – do facts have the chance of seeing the light of day? Not really. The Citizens’ Initiative provision in the Lisbon Treaty is even Brussels’ way of acknowledging an institutional role for the non-factual.

In my next blog I shall try to position policy in a world where facts don’t matter. Is it an age of ignorance or of social enlightenment, or both? I believe that the knowledge-based society has died and we find ourselves now in the influence-based society.

More to come.

Comments from the original BlogActiv submission

Dave says: I believe that the knowledge-based society has died and we find ourselves now in the influence-based society.Not sure what anyone can do to counter-act the corrosive influence of spin especially given human sensibilities.When feeling totally hacked off with the world wonder whether we´re heading into a new dark age!Best we can do is muddle through?

Having been involved in too many “stakeholder dialogues” can agree that they can be difficult – but then isn´t that always the way. But surely the alternative is dictatorship? Not sure that´s any better.

Sometimes, I can just leave it with thinking we´re pan narrans rather than homo sapiens – and that the stories we tell will change over time as they collapse under the weight of their contradictions. But look how long it took us to overturn Aristotelian errors.

Not sure it´s died, yet but definitely on the critical list. With contentious issues can always find “facts” to provide evidence for both sides. How to judge between different analyses?

patrick says:This happens when societies have their belly full and have too time much time to spend thinking (for example on the right size and shape of bananas, so much for biodiversity there), if they woke up in the morning at 5 and went back after a whole day working the soil, wishing for your next crop to give you food, they wouldn’t be so factless. But thank God it is just a few roads fown to the supermarket.
The problem is not only in our society but the message they send to developing or underdeveloped countries: it is always our Western fault for everything, and do not work for we are obliged to provide for you.
At the beginning it was colonisation, then it was the rich and the poor, now it’s climate change, next I think Goebbels might give us more ideas on the plague for which we are responsible.
I sadly agree with you

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