Among my weekend reads was Tim Harford’s Financial Times piece “The Problem with Facts“.
We’re big Harford fans around these parts, not just for his podcast More or Less but also his book Messy, which I’ve been inflicting on various colleagues and friends around Australia.
In the FT piece, Harford takes us back from the fake news and false claims of political debate in the age of Trump and Brexit to the history of “doubt manufacture” in the 20th century, and the tobacco industry’s attempts to blur the links between smoking and cancer.
He examines the limits of fact-checking as a response or a rebuke to those who cloud public discourse with lies.
He tells us that scientific literacy is not necessarily the answer, that it “can actually widen the gap between different political tribes on issues such as climate change — that is, well-informed liberals and well-informed conservatives are further apart in their views than liberals and conservatives who know little about the science.”
Harford goes on to outline a paper “Scientific Curiosity and Political Information Processing” by Dan Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.
Those authors argue that it is worth exploring further whether a person’s curiosity about science can counteract our tendency to view the world through the lens of political bias.
Their initial findings prompt them to explore whether
individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected—do not turn this feature of their personality off when they engage political information but rather indulge it in that setting as well, exposing themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations about facts on contested issues. The result is that these citizens, unlike their less curious counterparts, react more open mindedly and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available evidence.
As Harford puts it, “Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.”
All of this is great news for those of us working at the odd intersection of knowledge and culture, where communities meet institutions like galleries, museums, libraries, universities, and healthcare providers.
I’ve been worrying for a while now, even with events as warm and cuddly as the annual Fun Palace celebrations of art and science, about the times we choose to take scientific claims on faith.
I worry too about what part libraries have to play in the battle against fake news and egregiously false claims in the media. Is the library a trusted dispenser of facts and information? A repository of the truth? Or, rather, a safe place for you to indulge your curiosity, to wander as you see fit through all the contested claims and different visions of human knowledge and culture?
Harford’s take on that research paper returns us to the notion of each individual’s curiosity and exploration as the basis of scientific endeavour and the quest for truth. It returns us not to blind faith in science or reliance on fact checkers, but a sense that we must always actively challenge and revise our beliefs.
It reminds me why, in the last few years, we’ve allowed kids to sketch time-travelling creepy crawlies from a steampunk world to encourage scientific observation; why we spent last week in the Aussie town of Bundaberg to help rural writers speculate about the future of society; why we’ve been training health professionals using far-fetched and fantastic case studies like the Immortal Sock Monkey. It’s because these activities each became a matter of curiosity and wonder, rather than a mere transfer of facts from a person in authority. Curiosity and wonder might just be the best antiseptic for the spread of fake news.
If the formal research into scientific curiosity proves fruitful, it could guide and nuance our attempts to encourage a world where people are free to learn, explore, create, and play as they wish to, not just in accordance with curriculums and constraints.
It wouldn’t just be about science, either. For isn’t art, too, a matter of curiosity about materials, expression, and representation? And don’t those of us who find ourselves on colonised lands need, as Columbia anthropologist Beth Povinelli has been arguing, to become more curious, too, about Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding the world?
This is a difficult moment for those of us who value the truth in public life and wish to push back against those who maliciously sow doubt and deliberate misinformation. But Tim Harford’s article reminds us that there are ways forward for those of us unwilling to embrace a post-truth world – and that, wonderfully, those ways might even be incredibly exciting, incredibly adventurous, and incredibly good fun.