Lies Hurt. Facts Matter. And So Does Resistance.

December 12, 2016
Duncan Hull
Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

Any observer of truth will tell you that 2016 is a lie-soaked lost cause. Will 2017 see a pro-truth resistance? We’d better see to it.

We, the people, can be forgiven for some angst over the free-falling role of truth in our democracy.

We all took civics in school. We know democracy depends on reason and truth. So when your president-elect peddles conspiracy theories and continues to promote lies just weeks before his inauguration, you break a sweat. When he taps a climate denier to be the head of the agency tasked with solving climate change, you try not to panic. And when he taps the CEO of the world’s largest oil company to be our nation’s leading diplomat amidst the global climate crisis, you try not to break things.

But the truth, for all the abuse it’s taking, isn’t going anywhere soon.

Not only does reality function on facts, but a broad pushback against disinformation and outright lies is starting to take shape, driven by people from across American life who value reason and truth too much to put up with the foolishness. The madness, really.

It gives me hope that we can resist this descent and turn it around.

But to do so we need to collectively stay on it, push facts to the fore, and drive fact-free politics back to the wild-eyed fringes.

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Credit: Cause Collective, In Search Of The Truth.

There’s wrong and there’s wrong

One way of being “wrong” has to do with justice—the breach of law and of fairness across race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, and on. It’s a founding principle of this nation; we hold justice dear. But rhetoric during the presidential campaign and hateful actions in the weeks since the election show that this kind of wrong is now spreading.

Thankfully, a social movement is starting to take shape in the wake of the election. (So many early examples, like this and this and this.) Its very formation is to resist this kind of wrong. As in, we see what you’re doing, it’s wrong, and we will work to stop you.

The other way of being “wrong” is simpler. It’s the loud gameshow-buzz “wrong.” It’s just: No. You are factually incorrect. This wrong just requires rejection. As in, we see what you’re doing, you’re wrong, and we call BS.

In a better world, all moral folks would show up to right the first wrong. And all thinking folks would instinctively reject the second. But “post-truth” became Oxford’s word of the year because of the pervasiveness of truth-distortion, outright lying, and wild fabrication in the 2016 election cycle, and the unwillingness of enough people to call BS.

This election cycle showed that you can be flat-out wrong and not face the consequences because others don’t know better or don’t care.

Take for example Trump’s nominee, as of last week, to head the Environmental Protection Agency: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. Pruitt has repeatedly distorted the truth about climate change—and now he’s nominated to lead the very agency most responsible for dealing with it.

Take also Trump’s pick, as of this weekend, to serve as Secretary of State: ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Tillerson has played a central role at ExxonMobil for years, a corporation called out by groups like mine for a decades-long disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about sound climate science. And now he’s nominated to serve as our nation’s chief diplomat in a time of climate crisis.

Between false statements, distortions of truth, support of junk science, and questionable motives, these two deserve our rejection. And that of the Senate.

The facts aren’t going anywhere….

The president-elect has shown a confounding disregard for facts, and his surrogates have now famously spoken of facts simply not mattering anymore. But that is of course nonsense. Would you purchase a home without the key facts in hand? Can you pay your bills without verifiable funds in your account?

For that matter, is the Fed poised to raise interest rates in the absence of evidence of the need? Are our water resources managed by what’s measurably in the reservoir, or whether we feel that glass is half full or half empty? Did the US Department of Defense develop a climate change strategy based on whimsy, or on data and analysis?

Yes, bias can be introduced when values come in to play, and this can be a good thing (e.g., when society decides to recognize the intrinsic value of species or landscapes, or intangibles like well-being) or a bad thing (e.g., when we only value what certain messengers have to say and devalue all others).

But even when they are obscured, the facts, like the physics of climate change, are unchanged.

To paraphrase members of the climate community: belief in climate change is perfectly optional; participation is compulsory. The facts will eventually overwhelm all efforts to deny them.

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Credit: izquotes.com

… but they do need some tending.

Our challenge is to beat back a mindset that’s infusing American political discourse. Not because truth is dead. But because the worry is justified in this sense: democracy depends on objectivity, evidence, and truth to inform the political process, and in our current political discourse, those things are being actively abused. When they are abused, informed progress is thwarted. And from a climate change standpoint, as from a public health standpoint, an equity and justice standpoint, a nuclear security standpoint, a you-name-it standpoint, we have no time for going backwards or veering off in uninformed directions.

What’s more, lies hurt. At the moment, we see ordinary people speaking truth to power and being threatened and vilified. And we see the incoming administration seeking names of federal employees who have worked to develop climate policy. As George Orwell said “the further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it.” But as he also said “freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

I don’t see us becoming an Orwellian post-truth society. (I do a little, usually around 3 a.m.) But the place of truth in a society—its role in informing reasoned choice and thus shaping and sustaining a sane and livable world—can be eroded if we fail to uphold and safeguard its value.

So, the facts need us.

And certain facts need us urgently

We should have no illusions. Based on available evidence, we should brace for a full-on assault against sound climate science and sensible clean energy policy. Climate deniers and their fossil fuel allies (and funders) are emboldened by Trump’s win.

The same people who peddled climate disinformation in the past—the chief reason we are decades behind in averting climate crisis—may draw on this playbook again. Defunding climate science, attacking climate scientists, and sowing confusion among the public—and this time, driving the country off of its clean energy path and back toward fossil-fuel dependence and massive corporate profits.

The millions of Americans who have, through reason and evidence, come to terms with the fact that the climate is changing, with real risks for people, and that human actions are largely to blame? Everybody needs to buckle up and hold tight to our powers of reason. The disinformation machine is roaring to life again.

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Credit: UCS

A resistance is mustering

So, where the hell are the grownups? Starting to show up, I think. Today, actors from many walks of life seem to be awake to the post-truth threat—and many are pushing back. Here are just a few of my favorite recent examples from the science and climate change front.

  • In response to a range of signals about the role of established science in the next administration, more than 2,300 scientists signed an open letter to President-elect Trump, calling on him to ensure that science “continues to play a strong role in protecting public health and well-being.”
  • Subsequently, many hundreds of scientists have signed a letter pointedly calling on Trump to: “Publicly acknowledge that climate change is a real, human-caused, and urgent threat. If not, you will become the only government leader in the world to deny climate science. Your position will be at odds with virtually all climate scientists, most economists, military experts, fossil fuel companies and other business leaders, and the two-thirds of Americans worried about this issue.”
  • While Trump staffs up with climate deniers and proponents of US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, this pushback comes from the business world.
  • In response to the latest false Breitbart piece on global warming, the Weather Channel released this sharp video refutation with the title “Note to Breitbart: Earth Is Not Cooling, Climate Change Is Real and Please Stop Using Our Video to Mislead Americans.”
  • In response to the House Science Committee (which oversees vital agencies like the EPA and NOAA) tweeting Breitbart’s false story, many in the science community took to social media to reject both the original story and the misuse of what should be a trusted source for science—the Science Committee’s platform.
  • And in response to the nomination of Scott Pruitt, a “green and blue” coalition pushback is underway.

And this is just recently, nationally, in the climate arena. In response to the exploding practice of spreading lies and insisting they are true, world leaders, from President Obama, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to Pope Francis, have denounced those responsible. There are many other examples, large and small. Consider adding yours below—I’d love to hear.

Ways to push back

To defend science, UCS will be working in the months ahead to organize our more than 17,000-member (and rapidly growing, join us!) science network to help with science watchdogging efforts. From exposing attacks in the media, communicating to policy makers, and informing the public, there will be a lot of opportunities to stand up for science. Other groups and coalitions are roaring into action too.

So, how does each of us get in on the resistance, whether in defense of scientific facts or just everyday truth? I don’t have THE answers, just some thoughts. Please add yours.

First, we stop the spread: We need to know fake news when we see it. There are suddenly lots of helpful resources to consult, like this one. Consult a list of fake news sites. Call out its disseminators. And be as kind as circumstances permit to the real people circulating this stuff: no one likes to be seen as foolish, and civility in general can use a boost.

Spot lies and fact check: If a claim seems dodgy, poke at it. These are odd times, it may be true, but it’s not too hard to check. Dozens of fact-checking organizations have signed on to an international code of fact-checking conduct. Here are just a few of the groups we can consult:

There is also a new, vetted resource for fact-checking climate change stories, specifically. Very excited about this entry.

Call BS: If we hear elected officials distort the truth, we need to find ways to call them on it. For now, we can call their office and complain; we can call their local paper; we can encourage others to on social media and give them the contact information they need.

When media outlets spread falsehoods (the egregious kind, not the inadvertent errors that can arise in the reporting process), we can call them out in similar ways. And we can help restore the truth in the public’s eye by, for example, writing a fact-based letter to the editor, or providing a fact-based comment on a fact-distorting post. (And if this gets uncivil, as it too often does, we must walk away from said comments and not look back.) I’m not suggesting this will be pleasant. But if we value honesty and truth, we need to start demanding it.

Pick our fights: The ideological fringe from which fake news originated may never be convinced that, e.g., Hillary Clinton is not running a child sex ring out of a pizzeria. The facts, in their world view, are often just part of the cover up. It’s important for us to save our energy and let it go when someone is unreachable.

Support good journalism: Knowing the internet to be a firehose of information, let’s choose our sources of news and commentary with care. When we see brave work, demanding and ferreting out the truth, let’s praise it and share it. And when we know our sources are good, let’s subscribe, pay, and support their work. As one Senator recently lamented, “It’s the biggest crisis facing our democracy, the failing business model of real journalism.” May the fake news infection drive many of us back to the remaining bastions of quality reporting, and to new ones stepping up to fill the void, with cash in hand. As more of us do this, a reasoned, informed political discourse can be restored.

Speak our truth: And each of us has watch the world closely, draw our best, reasoned conclusions about what’s right and true, and speak our truth to power.

To an honest New Year

Let’s let go the handwringing. In many ways, it was bound to come to this.

Long-standing and growing trends—the debasing of legitimate journalism, the rise of hyper-partisan cable news outlets, the success of a fake-news business model that thrives on the ever-expanding reach of social media—have now helped give us an unapologetically ill-informed and injudicious new opinion-leader in Donald Trump. The scenario is complete.

But now, we Americans who value evidence, trust in science, and want the truth,

who fear the undermining of social and environmental progress and reject the groundless, irrational, and shortsighted reasons given,

and who frankly, just don’t like being made the fool,

we need to stand and be counted for the objective truth and the cold hard facts on which it stands.