Evidence in a Post-Truth World – Global Evidence Summit 2017

I’m currently in Cape Town for the Global Evidence Summit. A few days ago I posted some highlights from one of the plenaries and threaded sessions, and it seemed to be a helpful resource for people who were unable to attend the conference. With that in mind, I thought I’d come back and do another of those types of posts, this time with details of Saturday’s plenary which focussed on ‘Evidence in a Post-Truth World’.

As the title suggests, this plenary encouraged researchers to communicate their science and combat incorrect ‘facts’. It also emphasised the need to collaborate and communicate with people outside of our immediate research fields to create stories from objective facts in order to shape public opinion and steer the direction of the press and media into a more evidence-based environment.

EVIDENCE IN A POST-TRUTH WORLD: The evidence, ethos and pathos. How scientists can engage, and influence the public, press and politicians

The ‘post-truth world’ has been defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016).  The rise of ‘post-truth’ requires us to go beyond the question of how robust the evidence is and how persuasive it is. Notwithstanding the need for robust evidence, what else can scientists do (and with whom do we need to collaborate) to engage and influence public, press and politicians at a time when our own credibility in their eyes is low and falling?  This session will include an academic overview of argumentation theories that have drawn and built on Aristotle’s early work, as well as presentations from a science journalist working in controversial fields and the editor of the African continent’s first independent fact-checking organisation.

The session features talks from Trish Greenhalgh, Anim van Wyk, and Caroline Weinberg – and it was absolutely and completely my highlight of the entire conference; some details on each presentation:

Trish Greenhalgh – Evidence In a Post-Truth World

This talk stunned me. Trish threaded so much information through this talk – she included recommended reading described in such a way that I actually want to read it, she gave examples of post-truths and public views on experts from Michael Gove, Brexit and the like, and she conveyed her message with such passion and enthusiasm. Honestly  felt like a bit of an embarrassing fan-girl when I walked past Trish in the conference hall later on in the day; she’s the kind of researcher we need.

Recently I’ve been speaking to people around me both personally and professionally, and a lot of people have asked when I’m moving out of research and into science journalism and communication. They’ve got the impression from this blog, and my Twitter and Instagram feeds, that I want to leave research behind and focus on scicomm full time. That’s not the case at all. I want to stay in trials methodology research, but I think it’s really, really important that as researchers we improve the way we communicate our work – that goes for both the public and other researchers too. At the moment we seem to be so focussed on papers, publishing, conference presentations etc, that we’re missing the real communication that effectively gets our research out to people. Trish’s talk encouraged me to stay on this path; she’s a hugely successful researcher, she’s a Professor of Primary Care Health Sciences and Fellow of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford, UK. She is an internationally recognised for her academic work, and she also trained as a GP. What’s most important though, is that she’s not sat in her office in Oxford working away in isolation; she’s engaged in two-way communication via social media, in talks and presentations, and she’s encouraging others to do so to.

Anim van Wyk – Pro-truth: How fact-checking journalism helps set the record straight in Africa

Anim is the Editor of Africa Check – a non-profit that aims to improve fact checking and news gathering in Africa. Before the conference I hadn’t heard of Africa Check, but now I know I’ll be following it’s work closely. Not only do the team at Africa Check hold public figures accountable for what they say (Michael Gove/Jeremy Hunt/BoJo et al. take note…), but they train others to do so to – offering training and research services to help others learn to fact check too. What I really liked about Africa Check’s work and Anim’s presentation, was the way that they communicate the reliability of the facts they’re checking. They use terms like ‘unproven’, ‘incorrect’, ‘correct’, and ‘exaggerated’, instead of labeling things as truths as lies. I think the fact that they have removed the value judgement from these terms is really helpful, and it will hopefully encourage more people to use Africa Check as a resource rather than a political tool.

Examples of Africa Check reports:

Caroline Weinberg – Community Activism: citizens role in promoting evidence based policy and practice

Remember the March for Science? Caroline was the national co-chair for that march; a first of it’s kind unprecedented global event that united more than a million people in 600 cities around the world. That’s pretty mind blowing. Caroline provided a passionate call too action in her talk, explaining that ‘the science does not speak for itself and we need to speak for it.‘ She encouraged researchers to engage with communities rather than purely presenting the facts to them – engaging in dialogue, discussion and debate, as well as conveying facts with meaning behind them (here meaning emotional or social implications rather than a significant p-value) to mobilise society and encourage the use of evidence again.

Caroline’s presentation was made up almost entirely of photographs from various March for Science events from around the world – the reach that this movement had is something we’ve never seen before in the scientific community, and it wasn’t just scientists marching!

This plenary left me feeling hugely excited and hopeful for the future. We’ve got a galvanised public and a scientific community that are finally switching on to the need to communicate and provide rebuttal to so-called ‘alternative facts’.


3 responses to “Evidence in a Post-Truth World – Global Evidence Summit 2017”

  1. […] Again, I’ve written a more in-depth post about this plenary (take a look here). This session connected with my broad research interests and thoughts. I am passionate about […]


  2. […] I wrote this post, I saw this great post by Heidi Gardner, which is also on the post-truth world plenary session. Gardner’s “fan girl” […]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] working in some sort of routine. When I went to South Africa for the Global Evidence Summit (posts here and here if you missed them) a few months ago, I ended up working extra hard in the few weeks […]


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