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Universities Must Counter 'Post-Truths' With Credibility, Warns Academic

It's not just politicians who come up with 'post-truths' and it is the duty of scientists and universities to face down such fallacies, says the SA Journal of Science.

05/02/2017 18:58 SAST | Updated 05/02/2017 19:07 SAST
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Watch out for those "post-truths", warns the South African Journal of Science. Here's an example: when Donald Trump (left) was still challenging Barack Obama (right) for the U.S. presidency, Trump claimed that Obama wasn't a citizen of the U.S. and thus wasn't eligible to be president. The claim was rubbished and in September he finally withdraw it.

In the face of an increasing use of "post-truths", universities must ensure they have credibility.

"For universities, and their academics, to counter post-truth they must have credibility, which makes the challenge a double one: to have trustworthiness, and to provide the hard data that call the lie to emotion-based beliefs," said John Butler-Adam, the editor-in-chief of the South African Journal of Science.

When "post-truths" are disseminated and asserted, they become widely accepted. "They also become the basis for action," said Butler-Adam, referring to the assertions that Iran had a vast store of weapons of mass destruction. "So, for example, Barack Obama is not a citizen of the USA, the South African Public Protector does not have legal authority, or the President of South Sudan is a man innocent of war crimes," he said, calling these "clearly deniable assertions".

He also warned against the dangers of ignoring "economic fallacies implied in fee-free higher education", while not trivialising the problem.

Butler-Adam, who is based in the Office of the Vice Principal: Research and Graduate Education, University of Pretoria, wrote this in the editorial of the January/February issue of the journal, warning of the dangers of "post-truths".

"Higher education institutions are attacked and threatened even in countries that have a democratic system and the risk is even greater in countries that do not have democratic systems," he wrote.

Butler-Adam said that universities have to re-establish respect for objective truth and convincing arguments.

"Perhaps one of the most essential parts of the task would include respect for the process of the rigorous review of research findings in order to weed out potential deceits and dishonesties that serve to cast doubts on the academic project. But the task needs more than that. It will have to include academics being seriously engaged in public outreach and debates, and a willingness to present proven realities to counter 'post-factual' positions," he said.

"An example of this is the challenge that scientists will face in order to take a stand against the views of Donald Trump's Secretary for the Environment who scoffs at the evidence for anthropogenic global warming — an undertaking that will face, additionally, the united efforts of the powerful fossil fuel industries. Closer to home, hard evidence about the dangers of fracking, and of the inappropriateness of a multibillion rand nuclear solution to our electric power needs, will be required. Facing — and facing down — positions grounded on emotion-based fallacies is not an easy stance to assume, and will, in all likelihood, become more difficult in an increasingly populist world. Yet it is a duty that universities and their scientists cannot afford to neglect."