The battle for evidence-based reason may have to move elsewhere, says Jenny Rohn
Im going to begin this piece by suggesting that its a waste of your time to read it.
Ive been blogging in the Guardian for seven years now, and its been an interesting ride. Like most of my fellow science bloggers, the majority of whom are mild-mannered academics, the most eye-opening thing has been the comments section.
I soon developed a thick skin as the vitriol and personal attacks rolled in, familiar to any writer in these times especially the female of the species who dares to express a reasoned opinion in public. I can honestly say that after a few months, most of the attacks just made me laugh. In fact, I enjoyed enshrining my favourites in the slides of various public talks, such as the troll who called me the Justin Bieber of Science because I had the audacity to sully my credentials communicating with the wider world. (To this anonymous troll: thank you for this gem, which has incited laughter across lecture theatres around the world. I might even have the appellation inscribed on my tombstone.)
But what good has my blogging actually done?
The pen is mightier than the sword, they say. But what do we do when the enemy camp picks up the pen as well, and their words seem to have a far more persuasive effect?
I believe, like many, that we are living through a dangerous era of untruth, one that will be recognised in the history books as a dark blight on our civilisation. Fascists, charlatans and propagandists are as old as time, but never before have they been mobilised with todays powerful tools, which can coalesce forces globally and amplify messages in a flash. Neer-do-wells formerly had their village pub, their back-alley rendezvous, their circus stall an influence confined by geography to a small canker. Newspapers reached more widely, but still they were binned each evening to yellow with irrelevance. Even the terrible dictators of the past who managed large-scale atrocities were constrained by the limitations of an internet-free world.
Now, its a free-for-all, and weve all witnessed the shocking spread of lies and the way their sheer frequency has numbed us into impotence. Any one of Donald Trumps dodgy dealings would have brought down any other president, but the creeping paralysis of untruth-overload has de-sensitised the population to his many scandals as effectively as aversion therapy as when an arachnophobe is thrown into a pit with a thousand spiders and soon cured. Even definitive proof that the Russians have been meddling in the elections of Western states and sowing general discontent via social media has met with a collective shrug from the inured populace while individuals might get riled up, each bit of fake news is just another defused spider to the collected whole.
I think writers like me, who specialise in evidence-based communication, have been deluded as to the power of our pens in the face of this inexorable tide. We write our polite pieces in mainstream outlets and expect to change the world. We brace ourselves for the inevitable trolls in the comments sections and on social media, but we feel cheered and bolstered by the praise and support from like-minded members of the audience. We convince ourselves we are doing good, that we are shining a light no matter how dimly on an accumulation of evil disinformation. We feel smug when we get a thousand retweets until we notice that the anti-vaxxers, the racists and the nutters are getting hundreds of thousands more.
I am now starting to think that none of this makes much difference. When does any of our evidence, no matter how carefully and widely presented, actually sway the opinion of someone whose viewpoint has been long since been seduced by the propagandists?
Im not going to stop fighting, and Im not going to stop writing. But I am starting to believe that the best way to affect the current state of affairs is by influencing those in power, using more private and targeted channels. We might even attempt to revert to old-fashioned media such as the handshake and human voice. I am not quite sure how to go about this, but science communicators have connections and networks, wit and bravery, and perhaps its time we ganged together to try something a little bit different.
The Guardian science blogging network is closing down this week, but we bloggers arent going anywhere, and there is still a lot of work to do off the page as well as on.