The internet was supposed to make us all smarter, given its limitless access to information. This is still possible in theory if you know how to avoid the traps and pitfalls cleverly arranged at times by those seeking to obscure the truth. 

So, how do we know who to trust on what subjects and when?

Broadly speaking we have two strategies: listen to genuine experts and, if these disagree, assess the diversity of their viewpoints and add your own two cents with some grains of salt. We know that scientists are not perfect (who is?) but science remains the best game in town for truth finding by far. Science is a highly advanced and complex human endeavor but being conducted by flawed practitioners it is prone to bias and blind spots, as history has amply shown. For example, around 1850 the odds of surviving surgery in Europe or the U.S. were about 50/50. Then two breakthroughs emerged:

1. Ether treatment, discovered by Drs. William Morton and Collins at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, and

2. Sterilization, based on radical new theories about germs published by Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister.

How did the medical community and society react?

When The Crowd Was Wrong

Within six months, all major hospitals in U.S. and Europe embraced the use of ether. It wasn't until early in the twentieth century that sterilization techniques became commonplace. Why? First, the anesthetic and euphoric effects of ether were immediately evident; not so with sterilization--after all, you can't see germs--even though post-surgical survival data showed it statistically to be superior for healing. But doctors found the carbolic acids needed in sterilization cumbersome to apply, burning their hands at times.  (Which led to another innovation: rubber gloves.)

In science, the better theories and techniques will eventually win out because the evidence becomes too compelling. Even so, experts remain subject to biases and myopic viewpoints as Thomas Kuhn clearly pointed out in his famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He found that it's the established scientists who often retard progress; their retirements are what makes room for younger scholars to change the paradigm. As Jurgen Habermas noted, truth is very much about social consensus since other legitimation criteria may be weaker or less accessible.

Which leads us, naturally, to scientists and climate change. The Pew Research Center found that only 15 percent of conservative Republicans in the U.S. trust climate scientists to give "full and accurate information" as compared with 70 percent of liberal Democrats. Surprisingly, the degree of political polarization about climate change is greater among those who more math and science training. More disturbingly, people don't easily change their views once they are locked in. A 2016 study of voter responses to post-debate fact checks was not encouraging. After Donald Trump made a misleading claim, factual corrections were given to Trump supporters and their reactions were compared to a control group. Those receiving the corrections did lower their ratings of Trump's veracity somewhat but they did not change their overall ratings of him.

Although truthfulness may matter, it may be overshadowed by other factors. Climate change is especially sensitive to this since it has become more of a political Rorschach test than an informed debate aimed at deeper understanding. Another example is the anti-vaxxer movement, which seeks to reject more than 200 years worth of scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of vaccines.

What Can We Do?

Typically, most people trust their own judgment far more than those of others but make exceptions when dealing with presumed experts like doctors, accountants or scientists-- if they stay in their lane.  The politization of climate change research is partly due to some scientists staking out positions for personal or ideological reasons.  Once subjectivity creeps in, credibility drops, turning a topic like climate change or the anti-vaccine movement into a free-for-all.  However, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously noted "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." 

But we now live in a post-truth world were alternative facts are bandied about and traditional expertise has taken big hits. A deeper problem is that not everyone is really interested in the truth anymore; people may be more concerned--often subconsciously--with social validation or evidence that confirms their deeper beliefs.  This bias is compounded when one's livelihood and social standing depend on believing X rather than Y, independent of the evidence.  If you're a coal miner, you're more likely to believe in "clean coal." The currency that matters most in many settings is that of influence and power rather than truth per se. 

Scientific truths alone are often cold or impersonal and so personal connections and context start to matter.  An old consulting adage holds that clients will not really care about how much you know until they first know that you care about them. This partly explains the development of political parties, affinity groups, online chat rooms, identity relationship and the appeal of cults.  But independent thinking and wisdom also still matter and those require acknowledging the facts plus a willingness to change one's mind when warranted.  If your primary interest is indeed to get closer to the truth, here's how to separate beliefs from facts, and truth from fiction. Keep in mind though that you still will have to deal with flawed human beings in a society where truth is too often negotiable.

  1. Have an open mind about the facts, arguments, and beliefs of another person
  2. Show respect to those holding different views and explore them deeper
  3. Establish common ground, or shared values, as a trust-building strategy
  4. Acknowledge the limits of your own views; where have you been wrong before?
  5. Seek a range of possibilities when there is uncertainty, rather than absolutes
  6. Try to simplify disagreements to their core; make your argument short and clear
  7. Expect honest misunderstandings; do not overwhelm with data or complexity
  8. Pick your battles selectively and only fight those deemed worthy by both sides
  9. Ask others and yourself what new evidence would prompt a reversal of views
  10. Deep down, you cannot really convince others--they must convince themselves.

Co-authored with Jim Austin, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Brown University and President, JH Austin Associates Inc.