The alternative facts debate: In defense of questioning the facts

It’s challenging times to be in the knowledge business. Twitter followers question whether climate change is real and FB-followers question facts because they are published  in unknown media. And when you don’t agree with someone else’s statement you call it alternative facts. This is, I guess, a sign that parts of the public question some commonly held facts.

While some see this as a dangerous development, that people question commonly held facts and hold alternative views, it is also an opportunity to dive further into the questioned facts and learn something in the process. To proclaim that ‘this is a fact, deal with it’ is unlikely to convince anyone. We teachers know that when our statements are questioned it forces us to learn and ‘know’ the issue on a more detailed level. Having commonly held facts questioned is a challenge for sure, but if we can defend them it’s generally worth the effort.

Unfortunately, some argue that those questioning our facts are driven by emotions and thus that logical arguments do not work. This is not a helpful picture to paint. Of course all of us are motivated by emotions. But if we would apply this at universities, that emotion is the motivation for questioning our teachings and that logical arguments is not an appropriate response, it’s a dangerous path to follow. Nobody wants to be treated as an emotional creature that cannot be reasoned with. In contrast, I would argue that many of us are convinced by logical arguments and remain unconvinced when we are left with incoherent arguments and told to ‘trust the expert’. Instead, if our commonly held facts are questioned, let’s sharpen our arguments further.

Increasingly, researchers are called upon to tell us if a fact is true or not. Are researchers suitable in the role as ‘ fact experts’? Why should researchers, and not others, be able to do this? Researchers are not experts because they work at a prestigious institution, have the professor-title or speak in a charismatic way. They are not better equipped to judge value issues, such as if one political measure is more valuable to the population than another (although we often think so ourselves). However, in certain cases researchers can help us when it comes to facts. It is true that researchers are, generally, good at handling facts because:

  • We are up to date on facts within our own field of research. This field, however, is usually quite narrow!
  • We use facts to test theories and potential explanations and are thus used to questioning and interpreting facts.
  • Occasionally, we develop facts. If facts are necessary for our research but unavailable, we might create them in order to conduct our research. These facts, such as the amount of plastic in the ocean or amount of companies with a sustainability strategy, can be of interest to the general public too.

Instead of raging against those that do not share our facts, don’t agree there is climate change etc., and labelling them alternative facts or anti- this or that, why not look at the explanations we provide. How pedagogical are we? Where are the weak points in our explanations? Which parts of the argument do they question? Do they have reasons to question these points? Can we support our statements further? We might just learn something about the issue and communication in the process.

A second year of no-shopping?

At the end of a year of no clothes shopping,  I concluded on this blog that I would not be able to continue another year. Despite ending the year with ca 540 items in my wardrobe, I saw ‘needs’ that meant that I would have to resume shopping this year.

Five months into 2018 and it turns out I was wrong. There have not been any urgent needs that I have had to address. Sure, I am running low on nylon stockings (but still I’ve managed 1,5 year using only my stash!). The boots are getting worn but they are still fine with a bit of leather balm. Clearly, I overestimate how much I wear items. In this part of the world, seasons change so fast so clothes/shoes are used only a few times before the weather is too warm/cold and the items get stored away again. The wardrobe gets worn oh so gently.

A friend asked how much time I spend mending. Yes, mending takes time. In fact, I’ve kept track of how much time I’ve spent mending the last four months. As a general pattern, I mend more when I have time to do so and less when I’m too busy. Only natural. What happens when I’m busy is that I get professional help with the mending and I’ve kept track on that too this year. So far it looks like this:

February: 32 min mending, no professional help

March: 15 min mending, professional help SEK 1600 (including mending,  dry cleaning & shoes repair)

April: 10 min mending, professional help SEK 2600 (including dry cleaning & sewing)

May: 1,5 h mending, no professional help

So I don’t spend a lot of time mending, but when I do I get a lot done (17 mends overall). I had five occasions of professional mending/sewing to a totalt cost of SEK2500. Two instances of shoes repair to a total of SEK 500.

From a financial perspective, it makes sense to mend things yourself. It’s fast and cheap. However, in very busy times, it might make sense to get help and save the stress of possibly not having the clothes ready for when you need them. I get help with mending and sewing from my dry cleaner and yes the cost adds up. Above all, less dry cleaning would save both the environment and my wallet. In once instance, I successfully avoided the dry cleaner by washing outerwear in the washing machine, after realising that it was mostly cotton and thus supposedly washable despite the label saying dry cleaning. Shoes repair I’m happy to leave to the professionals at all times.

I’m also happy to report that almost half way through 2018, my wardrobe is  minus 2 items. I went plus 8 when I inherited some clothes, mostly outerwear, from my great-aunt. In addition, since January, I’ve worn out 10 items (mostly basics). Since I don’t expect to suddenly inherit more clothes (fingers crossed!) and if I successfully keep other temptations at bay, I hope the wardrobe content will decrease even more. I am, as we speak, selling a pair of hardly worn Converse All Stars on auction site Tradera. That’s another minus one.

So to sum up, my commitment this year was to adhere to Sara Lazarovic’s ‘Buyerarchy of needs’ but so far I’ve stayed at the bottom, in the category ‘Use what you have’. Which means that I’ve now managed 1,5 years without wardrobe shopping and, since the start, reduced my wardrobe with six items. It’s safe to say that I will never have a minimalist wardrobe. And that’s not the issues here either. I love my clothes. I just need to wear them instead of getting new ones all the time.

2018, the year flying becomes uncool

My prediction for 2018 is that this is the year when flying becomes ‘uncool’. Admitting you’re frequent flyer gold status will become embarrassing.

We already see the early signs. Deputy Science Director at Stockholm Resilience Centre, Henrik Östblom, tweeted happily that he had been downgraded by two air miles programs this year. Swedish sport stars Björn Ferry and Heidi Andersson have stopped flying entirely, despite the fact that they live far up in the Swedish North. Björn Ferry even declined to report from the Olympics because of the required flights.

Why are people making a fuss about flying? In the case of Heidi and Björn, they try to live as climate friendly as possible. After filling in the Swedish Environmental Institute’s ‘climate account‘ they discovered that the absolute biggest impact they had on the climate was transport and particularly flying. So they got an electric car and quit flying. Pretty hard core and quite admirable.

Inspired by these people, I also filled out  the climate account and, as expected, almost all of my climate impact derives from flying. And this is after I already limit my flying to within Europe. This year, I have skipped conferences outside of Europe. Still the footprint from flying is high and much higher than the average person on earth.

Researchers propose that our total carbon footprint should be around 1-2 tonnes per person and year, that’s one return trip to Thailand.

When they compared the impact of car traffic with flying in Stockholm, the flying habit had much larger impact on the climate.

What about climate compensation? It’s not evident that we can compensate fossil fuels, that have accumulated during a very long time with carbon in trees and plants that have much shorter time horizons in the carbon cycle. Thus it’s a practice that has been criticized by researchers. The environmental NGOs disagree on the value of climate compensation, Naturskyddsföreningen is critical to it whereas WWF support the gold standard.

Will we have to quit flying permanently? Maybe not. On the optimistic side, Norwegian airports are starting to offer renewable jet biofuel, for example at Bergen airportThis is very promising, although Swedish airports, unfortunately, are far behind. 

Despite the promise of jet biofuel, the amount of flying and how it’s increasing remains a problem. Our flying habit has exploded the last decades.  Even if we replace all the jet fuel at Swedish airport with renewable ones by 2030, this only compensates for the expected increase in flying i.e. our overall carbon footprint will remain the same as today.  Thus we cannot increase our flying, as we have done the last decades, in the future. And until jet biofuel is the standard, we should simply avoid flying. If we want to save the climate.