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.

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