“Mendacity!” Big Daddy repeatedly exclaims in Tennessee Williams’s
classic drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “Do you know what that is?” he
continues in his deep Southern drawl. “It’s lies and liars!” Big Daddy
was talking about hidden family secrets, but he might just as well
have been talking about anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, or
other purveyors of public disinformation. The discounting and outright dismissal of facts has become big business of late.
The process of finding and confidently ascertaining facts is central to science. But also outside of science. For example, investigative
journalists probe current events, often seeking newsworthy information that certain interests try to hide from public view. Military intelligence experts seek credible testimony and evidence about national
security risks. Grand juries hear from witnesses and assess evidence
in pursuit of criminal justice. They all rely on the same methods as
science – to justify claims with reliable material evidence and indirect
testimony about that evidence.
Ordinary persons rely on facts, too. As consumers, they confront
claims about energy-saving appliances or “tested” remedies for
arthritic pain, memory loss, or wrinkling skin. As citizens, they participate in discussions about social policy. Are needle-swap programs effective in limiting the spread of HIV and hepatitis among
drug users? Are GMO crops safe to eat? Does teaching about abstinence significantly lower teen pregnancy? What factors foster gun
violence? Ironically, in these four cases, policymakers have disregarded or peripheralized the facts from scientific studies. Everyone
has a stake in understanding how to distinguish facts from lies.
Worse, perhaps, some claims now purport to be bolstered by science when they are not. One encounters suspect claims about diets,
remarkable health treatments, or supposedly eco-friendly products.
Political leaders issue false or misleading pronouncements about climate
change – even as they pretend to defend good science (Sacred Bovines,
April 2015). The same applies to other factual claims, whether about
automobile fuel economy or economic statistics. We have entered a disturbing Era of Mendacity – of fake news and alternative facts.
Fake news has real consequences. Consider the case of two
friends returning from a day’s visit to a waterfall in India. Fake
news that they were child kidnappers spread on instant messaging,
and in the next village they were stopped and brutally beaten to
death by a mob. That was not an isolated case. Over a two-month
period in northeast India this year, viral rumors have contributed to
the lynchings of more than 20 people, variously alleged to be
involved in organ harvesting or child trafficking. In one case, a
rumor-buster was himself killed with bricks and bamboo sticks
(France-Presse, 2018; Gowen, 2018). In a similar way, sketchy military intelligence can have major implications for international relations, even war. Bad science has even made its way into dozens of
decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, distorting justice. Everyone
has a stake in reported facts and their trustworthiness. How does
one discern fact from fiction, fact from fallacy, fact from fake news?
Teaching about information con-artists and the methods used by
scientists to ascertain facts seems more important than ever.
The Speed of Lies
Many people believe that the truth ultimately prevails. William
Shakespeare originated a now common phrase in the Merchant of
Venice, in a scene where a clownish servant teases his blind father
(Act II, Sc. 2):
truth will come
to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son
may, but at the length truth will out.
That is, there is a general unexamined assumption (this month’s
Sacred Bovine) that the “truth will out.” Yet, as the cases of lynchings
in India demonstrate, sometimes lies travel faster than truth. The
time lag opens a window to significant short-term consequences.
Indeed, what is the speed of truth? One might approach the
question scientifically, just as one might measure the speed of light
or the speed of sound. Recently, a team at MIT examined the diffusion of over 100,000 stories on Twitter, both true and false, between
2006 and 2017 (Vosoughi et al., 2018). They quantified the depth,
breadth, size, and virality of the rumor cascades. Their findings? Lies
travel faster. Lies reached 1500 people six times faster than truth.
Lies also travel farther (through more retweeting). Lies travel more
broadly (to a wider array of end users). And in sheer numbers, lies
reach more people. Truth diffused to 1000 persons, at most. Lies
reached up to 100,000 persons. In addition, more people retweeted
lies than the truth. Lies had a 70% greater chance of being passed on.
Under such conditions, truth does not seem guaranteed.
The study also considered factors that contributed to the diffusion of lies versus truth. One key feature was novelty. Socially, people value being “informed.” Surprising news triggers resharing. “Can
you believe…?!!” The answer is: probably not. With Twitter, one
might suspect the influence of automated bots. Indeed, they do seem
to accelerate the spread of news. But analysis shows that they affect
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 80, No. 8, pp. 631–633, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2018 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/https:// doi.org/10.1525/abt.2018.80.8.631.
THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER SACRED BOVINES
ALTERNATIVE FACTS & FAKE NEWS
DOUGLAS ALLCHIN, DEPARTMENTAL EDITOR