What does it mean when scientists disagree?

Free speech

Patrick Gensing

To person

is the editor of the "Tagesschau" editorial team and heads the "ARD fact finder". In 2019 his book "Facts versus Fake News" was published.

The term "post-factual" has preoccupied the public for several years. In the English-speaking world there is talk of "post-factual" or "post-truth politics". In the wake of the 2016 US presidential campaign and the UK Leave campaign, the Oxford Dictionaries made the term "post-truth" the word of the year in 2016. It denotes circumstances in which objective facts have less influence on public opinion as appeals to emotions and personal convictions. [1]

In Germany, "post-factual" was also named word of the year in 2016. The Society for German Language stated that the term was in the context of profound political change. The made-up term refers to "that it is increasingly about emotions instead of facts in political and social discussions. In their aversion to 'those up there', ever larger sections of the population are ready to ignore facts and even willingly accept obvious lies. Not the claim to truth, but rather speaking out the 'perceived truth' leads to the post-factual age to success. "[2]

The jury also cited the election campaign against UK remaining in the EU as an example of post-factual politics. Some of the supporters of "Brexit" had stoked public displeasure with targeted misinformation. [3] "The word formation post factual", so the jury further," could appear strange at first sight, since it means, literally translated from Latin, "after-factual" or "after, behind the facts". One could rather expect an education like in the given meaning of the word counterfactual ('Contradicting the facts, opposite') or, in a mixture of Greek and Latin languages, antifactual. However, it is based on the idea of ​​a new epoch, similar to postmodernism or poststructuralism. "[4]

The columnist Sascha Lobo had already written in 2012 about the concept of a truth-independent politics, in which opinions and facts are blurred, and commented "Everyone has the right to their own opinion, but nobody has the right to their own facts." [5] And Hannah Arendt had stated: "Freedom of expression is a farce if information about the facts is not guaranteed." [6]

But what is fact, what is opinion? Where is the border? And who determines this? This question concerns, among other things, courts, which have to decide whether a statement is an assessment covered by freedom of expression or possibly a false assertion of fact. [7] In the following I will describe some of the phenomena of the "post-factual age" and investigate how the problems associated with it can be addressed.

Refinement of opinion

Generally speaking, it can be stated that an assertion of fact can be verified, while an opinion cannot be classified as clearly right or wrong. This raises not only the question of what is a permissible subjective assessment, i.e. a statement covered by freedom of expression, but sometimes also where freedom of expression ends; namely in the case of insults or defamation. This differentiation is sensitive because it affects the fundamental right of freedom of expression enshrined in Article 5 of the Basic Law.

In political debates, the demarcation between opinion and assertion of fact plays an important role, which requires certain skills in understanding the text. The ability to distinguish between opinion and fact can, but is only a prerequisite for a well-founded discourse; to do this, there must be a willingness to differentiate at all want. And that is precisely what is often lacking in debates. Because the mixing of opinion and fact is a popular propagandistic sleight of hand: one's own opinion is simply sold as a fact and should thus be immunized against arguments and criticism. Numerous publicists who pursue a clear political agenda describe themselves as objective, neutral or non-ideological. They claim for themselves to look at things completely objectively and stage themselves as independent authorities.

Such behavior can also be observed in the German Bundestag - not only with the arrival of the AfD (representatives of other parties have also shown this enough), but the quality has changed since then: the line between facts and opinions is deliberately softened more and more aggressively. For example, the AfD MP Dirk Spaniel spoke on January 17, 2020 in a Bundestag debate on transport policy. He expressed his views on cycling in cities, but tried to present these opinions as facts: "Objectively speaking, promoting child transport on bicycles in the city is negligent treatment of the health of those in need of protection." [8] This interpretation is based on numbers the traffic statistics is anything but objective, but a highly subjective assessment. Siegfried Brockmann, head of accident research at the insurer, emphasizes, for example, that fatal bicycle accidents are mostly caused by cars. Statistics confirm this statement. [9] If one argues like the AfD MP, one could also claim that it is - allegedly viewed objectively - negligent to walk through the city.

The MP Spaniel used the trick of selling one's own worldview as a fact several times; he stated that bicycles were "highly impractical and dangerous" - if you look at the matter "soberly". A formulation that is intended to give this opinion a factual coating. But the question of whether a bicycle is practical or not cannot be answered with right or wrong across the board. For many people, bicycles are extremely useful; others find them unsuitable for their own use. The question of whether bicycles are practical is a purely subjective assessment that can be argued about, but it is also not a fact. Spaniel also claimed in his speech that the "objectively most effective method" to increase safety in city traffic is to "expand parking spaces so that unnecessary searches for a parking space are no longer necessary". However, this assessment is also far from an objective fact, because it can be assumed that a larger number of parking spaces could attract even more traffic - and therefore not the most effective method for reducing traffic. In addition, there are other factors, such as the limited space in cities, so that bike and footpaths for parking spaces would have to be removed. The claim is therefore not only questionable in terms of the effect, but also under-complex, since the following problems are hidden.

Demotion of facts

The trick also works the other way around: in debates on climate protection, not only are opinions or unsubstantiated claims made into facts, but scientifically recognized findings that allegedly could not be verified are also degraded to opinions. The claim that there is no scientific evidence of climate change has been made time and again by US President Donald Trump, as well as by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and other politicians. In this worldview, climate change is not a fact, but an opinion. In public, this creates the impression that there are simply several opposing opinions, from which you can choose the one that suits you best. The result: If it is first necessary to argue about the factual basis, the actual task of politics, i.e. the negotiation of practical and effective measures, the structuring, takes a back seat.

The view that climate change is mere opinion can now also be found in the Bundestag. When, for example, the SPD MP Klaus Mindrup said in his speech in the plenary debate in January 2020, "We are seeing that climate change is taking place. That has been proven and proven", the AfD MP Karsten Hilse responded with an interjection: "So That's nonsense! That has just not been proven! "[10] During his own speaking time, Hilse then stated, among other things:" The basic idea, the climate in general, is about a reduction in CO2Being able to significantly influence emissions is absurd and is being rejected by more and more independent scientists. "[11] By referring to" independent scientists ", Hilse constructed a contrast to supposedly dependent researchers who allegedly only provided politically opportune results Allusions can culminate in conspiracy myths in which all international research is discredited and described as controlled.

The specialist journalist and book author Toralf Staud, who works as an editor at the science portal Klimafakten.de, describes this as "one of the most common strategies of disinformation campaigns: You appeal to alleged experts who are then often called 'independent scientists'. But if you look at it more precisely, which people appear there as key witnesses, then most of them have no specialist expertise in matters of climate research. " Staud knows the attempts to invalidate scientific findings: "Astrophysicists, general practitioners or mechanical engineers, for example, come up and claim that they have more competence than proven climate scientists. But often (and also by journalists) the expertise of such people is not examined more closely - which is completely unusual in other areas of life: if, for example, I have severe toothache, and nine trained and experienced dentists advise me to have a quick operation by consensus - then I will hardly listen to any astrophysicist or economist who tells me that the procedure is completely unnecessary. " Another typical strategy is the dissemination of conspiracy theories: "If scientific findings are inconvenient, then the researchers are quickly assumed that they are only trying to sneak funding through their results. Hardly anywhere is this idea as absurd as in climate research. Because if a scientist today actually found valid evidence that climate change is not man-made after all and that tens of thousands of researchers worldwide have been completely wrong for decades - it would be world famous in one fell swoop, and many governments or companies would surely overwhelm it with research funds. "[12]

Something similar was once seen in campaigns by tobacco companies: Scientific findings that showed verified evidence of the enormous health risks caused by cigarette consumption were targeted. The goal: either to attack the findings as questionable, to dismiss them as an "opinion" of many - or to discredit the researchers as untrustworthy or simply cause confusion. [13] Because the scientific findings on climate change cannot be fundamentally refuted, researchers become the enemy of actors who deny climate change or the influence of humans. They are not only accused of either working incorrectly or deliberately manipulating, but they are portrayed as part of an alleged elite that conspired against "the people".

Against the establishment and science

The trick of mixing up opinion and fact is often combined with other populist communication strategies. This includes, above all, agitating against supposed elites or "the establishment" while presenting oneself as "the advocate of the common man", "voice of the people" or "common sense". This motive was central both in Donald Trump's first election campaign and in the British Leave campaign, but the AfD also uses it. [14] What is remarkable is that many of the actors mentioned can themselves be described as elite: They have often been active in business and politics for years and are part of what is colloquially referred to as the establishment.

The anti-elite motive is also directed against science. The President of the German Research Association, Peter Strohschneider, complained in 2017 of increasing anti-science and populist anti-intellectualism. Be it the denial of man-made climate change or the fear of vaccination: "Delusion and lies, vulgar cynicism, naked power calculation and irresponsible simplification prove once again their historical power - also in relation to the freedom of science. (...) Populist simplifications and autocratic ideologies promise that That is why they make objective discourse just as contemptuous as the methodical search for truth and the need to justify validity claims alternative facts. "[15] At the same time, however, Strohschneider restricted: Evidence gained through research cannot and should not replace politics; rather, science only provides politics with the knowledge on the basis of which decisions are made.

The assumption that there is an unequivocal and irrefutable scientific truth is just as harmful as the populist concept of slandering scientific work through unfounded and ideologically motivated attacks and doubts. In Strohschneider's words: "Our knowledge is subject to revision - only then we have to think about progress in knowledge"; in addition, an "attitude of open honesty" is necessary, as is the "ability to distance oneself from oneself, ie not to regard one's own expertise as the whole of science, the methodological reliability of scientific knowledge not with something like absolute certainty to be confused ". [16] But it is precisely this strength of science, namely to question one's own results with skepticism, is turned into a weakness by blanket doubts and populist attacks.

This has consequences: In the USA, scientists researching climate change are in the crossfire of criticism. The Union of Concerned Scientists has been documenting attacks since 2017, for example against the environmental agency EPA or the weather agency NOAA. [17] The attacks by the Trump administration on science have now taken on so many forms that the US government is damaging scientific progress and thus the health and safety of the general public. [18]

Clarification through fact checks?

Disinformation and propaganda campaigns are by no means new. The effectiveness of such techniques has been proven many times in history - often with catastrophic consequences. But why are these techniques experiencing such a renaissance? The digitization of political communication and news consumption is likely to be a decisive cause. The mechanisms of social media networks tempt you to react immediately to any news: be it approval, rejection, amusement, anger or sadness. Scientific knowledge, facts or facts are extremely poorly suited for such emotional reactions: They are characterized by complexity and ambiguity. Mere expressions of opinion, especially polarizing ones, and the logic of social networks, on the other hand, complement each other dynamically: They simplify, sharpen and are easy to understand. With assertions and opinions, people can be reached more easily and, above all, faster. And the speed of reporting and news consumption has multiplied, so that the reporting can in turn affect the event itself, for example when it comes to false reports of attacks or disasters that can cause panic. Wars like in Ukraine or Syria are also accompanied by propaganda battles. [19]

For fact checkers, the digitized world of communication therefore holds several challenges in store. Because the often under-complex, simplified assertions that are disguised as facts and thrown on the "market of opinions" must first be put into context in order to be able to check them at all. This means that the factual basis of an expression of opinion must be worked out, because a pure expression of opinion cannot be classified as true or false, only its arguments, including above all verifiable facts.

But who are these fact checks aimed at anyway? On the one hand, the often angry reactions of those who are convicted of disinformation show that the examinations definitely reach those who cause and spread targeted false reports. They respond with attempts to denigrate the respective journalists or media as a whole as corrupt, incompetent or untrustworthy. These are strategies that scientists also face.But anyone who thinks that a fact check can simply convince such people is overestimating the possibilities of this journalistic form of presentation. If people even quickly brush away the results of international scientific research as false or conspiracy, they will hardly be convinced by a fact check.

In this context, it should not be underestimated that the propaganda described above has one function: it is a construction of demarcation and identity, which is why images of the enemy such as "the establishment" also play such a central role. The cultural scientist Michael Seemann diagnosed hundreds of thousands of tweets on their mutual relationships in a data journalistic project and came to the conclusion that the creators of the short messages are not stuck in filter bubbles, but rather find themselves in "tribal societies". The argument no longer functions as a contribution to a debate, but serves to establish identity. [20] The blogger David Roberts described this phenomenon as "tribal epistemology": "Information is not judged on the basis of criteria such as scientific standards of evidence or even the ability to connect to the general understanding of the world, but solely on the basis of whether it corresponds to the values ​​and goals of the tribe 'Good for our side' and 'true' begin to become one. "[21]

Fact checkers will not eliminate the problem of disinformation and propaganda techniques, but they can weaken their effects and limit them to certain milieus. They can refute false reports, explain the difference between opinion and fact and, using practical examples, explain the mechanisms to help people who are confronted with disinformation - be it with friends or at work, be it online or offline - argumentatively. Fact checks are an offer and a guide.

In her essay "Truth and Politics", Hannah Arendt wrote that the exchange and conflict of opinions is the essence of all political life. This dispute is threatened by disinformation and propaganda techniques. Arendt: "Wherever lies are principally and not just occasionally, the one who simply says what is has already started to act, even if he did not intend to." [22] This also applies to journalists: if in public If lies and opinions and facts are mixed up and free speech threatens to become a farce, simply ignoring it cannot be an option.