Sharing Science in a Post-Fact World

Jesse T. Trushenski | AFS President

In Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen describes the growing disconnection between American life and objective reality (Andersen 2017). He explores the concepts of “post‐truth” and “post‐factual” and how these nonsensical terms have gained meaning in today’s society. Both terms trace their origins to a common linguistic forebear, the seemingly harmless “truthiness.” Coined by Stephen Colbert, truthiness is “the belief in what you feel to be true rather than what the facts will support.” Colbert’s satirical shorthand captured the emerging distrust among American political factions and the rise of media platforms that made it possible for the public to consume information according to their own ideological leanings. Truthiness was recognized as the 2006 “Word of the Year” by Merriam‐Webster Dictionary; 10 years later, post‐truth was similarly honored by Oxford Dictionaries. In the post‐truth world, “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

So how do we communicate fisheries science in this new, post‐truth era? Nearly all scientific truths are complicated—Rube Goldberg‐esque assemblages of facts and figures mostly, sometimes only understood by a few scientific sages. How do fisheries professionals clearly, convincingly communicate complex, sometimes unpleasant realities when the distinctions between fact and opinion are considered increasingly irrelevant and passé? In their recent article, Torres and Pruim (2019) describe a means of addressing this quandary, using anecdotes to communicate science. Their open‐access article (available: https​://doi.org/10.1080/17404​622.2017.1400679) is intended for science communication teachers and outlines a lesson plan for instructing students in the power of anecdotes and how to develop them. It is a valuable read for those training the next generation of scientists, but I also found working my way through Torres and Pruim’s lesson plan to be a personally edifying exercise.

Unlike longer narratives, anecdotes are short, memorable vignettes that quickly engage listeners and get to the point without indulging in unessential details. An anecdote has four parts (Cohen 2011):

The setting: Time and place to which speakers transport their listeners

The characters: One or two individuals who animate the setting and make the situation come to life

The plot: The incident that takes place with the proper context

The moral: The lesson learned or the solution to the identified problem

Together, these four parts form a “picture frame”—a mental snapshot that captures the essence of the anecdote and makes it real and meaningful to listeners. For many of us, the biggest challenge is likely to be boiling the setting and characters down to their most elemental aspects, but this is essential. It is better to lose some detail, some nuance in the telling of the anecdote, than to lose the audience altogether.

Torres and Pruim argue that the moral is the most important part of the anecdote; this is the take‐home, “so what?” message you are trying to convey, after all. However, I would argue that the plot is where many would‐be narrators are likely to stumble and that it is equally, if not more important to get this part right. Note that this part of the anecdote framework is called “the plot” and not “the story.” In his famous treatise on fiction writing, Aspects of the Novel (1927), famed author Edward Morgan Forster illustrates the difference between the two: “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. But ‘the king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” The basic facts are the same in both cases, but knowing the cause of the queen’s demise provides a much richer context and stirs an emotional reaction to both deaths. It is not enough for an anecdote to relay facts; it must convey meaning. For too long, scientists have labored fruitlessly under the “deficit model,” believing that if only people understood the scientific method better and knew the facts about, say climate change, public views of science and the need to reduce carbon emissions would change. Of course, this is laughably (if lamentably) false. This is the difference between story and plot: if you speak to someone’s heart or appeal to their gut, they do not need to know the facts to believe; but if you fail to connect with them at a visceral level, all the facts in the world will not convince them. As scientists, we have been talking about two dead monarchs, when we should have been telling listeners about the grief‐stricken queen’s broken heart.

In his final thoughts on the way forward in a post‐factual fantasyland, Andersen offered a few recommendations:

“What is to be done? I don’t have an actionable agenda…But I think we can slow the flood, repair the levees, and maybe stop things from getting any worse…We must call out the dangerously untrue and unreal…Fight the good fight in your private life. You needn’t get into an argument with [a] stranger,…but do not give acquaintances and friends and family members free passes…And fight the good fight in the public sphere…Progress is not inevitable, but it’s not impossible, either” (Andersen, 2017).

Waves of misinformation wash over the public consciousness, but fisheries professionals are not powerless against the rising tides of do‐it‐yourself, post‐truth reality. We have mourned the old ways of sharing our science long enough; it is time to move on and find more productive ways to cope. I challenge myself and those reading these words to develop anecdotes to describe our work, seek out other science communication techniques, and keep fighting the good fight.