Zuckerberg at F8 Conference AFP/Stringer

A Scientific Outlook for a Post-Factual World

In a climate of fear, the rules of public discourse become obsolete, and the open horizon of possible futures is narrowed to a single escape route that fear-mongers have decided is the only way forward. This is a poor way to cope with uncertainty, and it stands in striking contrast to the methods of science and free inquiry.

VIENNA – We have entered a disturbing new era. The sheer volume of false utterances and outright lies spewed during the United States’ presidential election campaign implies a growing disdain for factual knowledge, as does the proliferation of fake news disseminated without journalistic filters on social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

By the time of the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum in June, experts had already been deemed dispensable. With elites everywhere being accused of neglecting “real” people, frustration and anger are now trumping fact-based deliberation. In a climate of anxiety, confusion, and nostalgia for a fantastical past, raw emotion prevails. The rules of public discourse become obsolete, and the open horizon of possible futures is narrowed to a single escape route that fear-mongers portray as the only way forward.

This is a poor way to cope with uncertainty, and it stands in striking contrast to the methods of science and free inquiry. In science, uncertainty is a powerful incentive for acquiring knowledge; indeed, it is the primary motivation for research, which is inherently uncertain.

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