TRUTH VS. FACT
In the past year Scientific American has published several articles examining the rise of misinformation and disinformation in media and general communication and what we can do to resolve this growing dilemma. “Conspiracy Theories Made It Harder for Scientists to Seek the Truth,” by Stephan Lewandowsky, Peter Jacobs and Stuart Neil, discusses this topic in the context of the virus that causes COVID, as well as earlier pathogens.
I would like to focus on one aspect of these articles: the misuse of the word “truth” and the confusion over its fundamental meaning. In your examinations, the term has been used repeatedly to suggest that given information is genuine and factual. Without a doubt, truth and fact are sometimes the same. But it is important to recognize that they are often different.
For example, it's springtime where I live near Vancouver, and I have two friends visiting me. One is from Inuvik, Northwest Territories, near the Arctic Circle, and the other from Ecuador, which straddles the equator. While sitting together, one friend complains about how hot it is in my home and asks if we should open a window; the other expresses how cold it is. Now, is it hot or cold? Which friend is lying, and which is telling the truth?
A realization that truth does not equal fact might seem a matter of trivial semantics, but the social consequences of misusing the former term can be substantial and dire. The word “truth” is elemental, and its misuse (unintentional or intentional) promotes division. Such social polarization is not limited to individuals or to small groups alone. It spreads with communication and is therefore able to permeate entire societies.
On the other hand, the word “fact” promotes consensus and agreement because it focuses on a point of common certainty (say, that the temperature is 72 degrees Fahrenheit) that is objective and impersonal. Without using facts to mediate, would it be possible to reconcile the two groups' opposing truths?
The whole misinformation and disinformation issue is admittedly bigger than a one-word fix. But communicating facts instead of truth is a good place to start.
RAY JEANNOTTE Langley, British Columbia
While reading the article by Lewandowsky, Jacobs and Neil, I wondered what advantage might follow from believing that humans were somehow directly responsible for the virus that causes COVID. It occurred to me that if humans created it in a lab, then the unspoken reasoning might be that humans could uncreate it. That is, if the pandemic isn't a “random act of nature,” this might assuage anxiety from uncertainty, and some people might need such comfort more than others.
ANN G. FORCIER via e-mail
THE EDITORS REPLY: Jeannotte makes an apt point that facts are not always synonymous with truth. Jen Schwartz and Dan Schlenoff highlighted this distinction in “Reckoning with Our Mistakes” [September 2020]. Schwartz and Schlenoff noted, “If it were that simple to establish and convey a shared reality ... wearing masks and cutting greenhouse gases would not be political issues.” In 1856 Scientific American's editors wrote, “What is science but well-arranged facts derived from study and observation? It is not merely speculation—hypothesis—it is positive truth.”
TO INFINITY AND BEYOND
In describing Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's July 20, 2021, trip on a rocket made by his company Blue Origin in “Billionaire Space Tourists Became Insufferable,” Clara Moskowitz opined, “The sight of the richest man in the world joyriding in space hit a nerve.” Perhaps it hit a nerve with some—but not everyone. I thought it was cool. My wife, who is a self-described “space nut,” and my nephew, who is an aerospace engineer, were both excited by the news of private space travel, even if of a rudimentary and exclusive sort.
Moskowitz also noted billionaire Richard Branson's trip to space on a rocket made by his company in the same month and criticized him and Bezos for hogging the spotlight from the many who worked so hard to make their flights a reality. In leveling this charge, I think she forgot that if the two had not shelled out enormous sums of their own wealth to create the workforce and infrastructure necessary for their respective rockets, the various workers would never have had the chance to create them. Rather than masking the reality of private spaceflight, their financial support would appear to be contributing to that very reality.
MEL TREMPER Berwyn Heights, Md.
In “Get Ready for the Next One” [Science Agenda], the editors emphasize that an important point of focus in preparing for future pandemics is “building new systems” and “strengthening ... institutions already in place.” Indeed, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other health agencies need to put in place organizations that are prepared to coordinate responses to a biological threat such as COVID.
The editorial doesn't mention that when President Barack Obama was in office, he grew the National Security Council (nsc) to include the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, whose staff was dedicated to pandemic response and related medical threats. This organization would have been well prepared to guide the U.S. through the early days of the COVID pandemic.
But in 2018 the Trump administration decided to eliminate this office as part of a reorganization of the nsc. The team was not fired outright, but many of the staff were effectively elbowed out. And the net result was, at best, muddled management, with a lack of focus and coordination. One must believe that the COVID pandemic would have played out much differently if the response structure that Obama shaped had been left in place.
DANIEL HICKS Rochester, Minn.
“Women on Ice,” by Naomi Oreskes [Observatory; December 2021], highlights several women's accomplishments in polar research. I would like to add another: Gisela Dreschhoff of the University of Kansas. Over 10 summers in Antarctica between 1976 and 1986, she used gamma-ray spectrometers to search for uranium and measure radiation from space. She has spent at least 20 field seasons and expeditions in the polar regions. Dreschhoff even has an Antarctic summit named in her honor!
CRAIG PAUL Kaneohe, Hawaii
WANTED: YOUR INFORMATION
I am very disturbed by “Spying on Your Emotions,” by John McQuaid [December 2021]. Although I realize that some functions of AI data collection are used for product improvement, that does not justify, in my mind, the activity of companies to covertly gather information on individuals, even if it is purportedly “anonymized.” We say that privacy is very important, but we are apparently charging headlong into an era stripped of it.
ROBERT WALTY Stephens City, Va.
“Healthy Skepticism,” by Naomi Oreskes [Observatory], should have indicated that male fertility, not male infertility, declines with age.
“Conspiracy Theories Made It Harder for Scientists to Seek the Truth,” by Stephan Lewandowsky, Peter Jacobs and Stuart Neil, should not have described U.S. Right to Know as an anti-GMO organization.