Watch the Lecture: Social Science and the Post-Truth Pandemic

In an engaging and highly topical presentation viewable below, Trish Greenhalgh, professor of Primary Care Health Sciences and Fellow of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford, addressed how social science can help us survive the post-truth pandemic in this year’s Campaign for Social Science Annual SAGE Lecture on December 10. Drawing from scientific methodology to philosophical understanding of truth and persuasion, Greenhalgh provided concrete examples of how different disciplines interact with each other and with the media. In her lecture, “Give me back my fact: How can social science help us survive the post-truth pandemic?”, she analyzed the relationship between theory and methodology and proposed ways for researchers and scientists to navigate this tricky communication environment.

Milly Zimeta, head of public policy at the Open Data Institute, was the lecture’s respondent and she expanded on concepts that explain our relationship with epistemology while looking at the possibilities of new data and digital technologies. The talk was moderated by Campaign for Social Science Chair, Bobby Duffy who lead a lively Q&A session covering how we can improve our relationship with the media, how to deal with trolls and how we can better prepare for future bouts of misinformation.

Greenhalgh reveals the storytelling, interpretation and persuasion inherent to social and even natural science studies. She presents the idea by Latour and Woolgar that a laboratory can be perceived as a strange tribe with its own myths and rituals, and the diagrams, graphs and tracings produced by such a team are the “inscriptions” that come to “depict the ways that things are”. In an age of politicized science, organized social media abuse, and greater scrutiny of science and academic findings, Greenhalgh defines today’s era of science interpretation as Mode 3: a world wherein knowledge and versions of facts are intertwined with power. While Mode 1 might have seen science inside the walls of universities and only understandable to researchers, scientists and academics, Mode 2 saw science and information open to the public through the impact of case studies. In Mode 3, social media trolls can easily weaponize the dominant discourse, and once scientific claims enter the public domain, they are uncontrollable for as who can employ it and for what purpose.

Meanwhile, she suggests that a dichotomy exists between ways of interpreting and using scientific evidence. The evidence-based medicine camp or ‘tribe 1’, defines ‘good’ science by use of correct methods, adhering to a hierarchy of evidence and methods, and accepting some methods over others, while the pragmatic public health ‘tribe 2’ defines ‘good’ science by the use of multiple methods adaptively and pragmatically to build a nuanced narrative, gathering bits of evidence to add to the overall picture and understanding that the narrative needs to make sense and be plausible to the “natives”. Regardless of what camp prevails, comedy plays a key role in getting people to think. What is social science becomes blurred and as Milly Zimeta social contracts become questionable in each country amidst COVID-19.

Thus, in our post-truth science of 2020 where uncertainty has become a weapon, scientists cannot remain pure and uninvolved separate from the facts. Scientists are now the story and focus of the media. They must reflect, and engage to do epistemological work and deconstruct knowledge.

As we enter the new year, we can expect facts to continually be disproved, and so by educating our common citizens (Milly suggests ensuring general data literacy by citizens), understanding our relation to the knowledge as scientists, engaging with our facts and the various interpretations of them, working to expose assumptions and systematically challenge them, and analyze the particular discourses and linguistic conventions that constrain us and our research, we can ensure that policies, data and research are fit for their purposes.

About the Speakers

Greenhalgh studied medical, social and political sciences at Cambridge and clinical medicine at Oxford before training first as a diabetologist and later as an academic general practitioner.

Greenhalgh leads a research program at the interface between the social sciences and medicine. Her work celebrates and retains the traditional and humanistic aspects of medicine and healthcare while embracing the opportunities contemporary science and technology to improve health outcomes and relieve suffering. Addressing COVID-19 specifically, Greenhalgh looks at themes such as clinical assessment of the deteriorating patient by phone and video, the science and anthropology of face coverings, and policy decision-making in conditions of uncertainty.

Greenhalgh was awarded the OBE for Services to Medicine by Her Majesty the Queen in 2001 and made a Fellow of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences in 2014. She is also a Fellow of the UK Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of General Practitioners, Faculty of Clinical Informatics and Faculty of Public Health.

Prior to joining the Open Data Institute in September 2020, Zimeta was senior policy adviser at the Royal Society, where she led the society’s policy program on Data and Digital Disruption, and program manager at the Alan Turing Institute, where she managed the Turing’s research partnership programs in health and in finance/economic data science.

The Campaign for Social Science is the advocacy voice of Britain’s Academy of Social Sciences and aims to amplify the voice of social sciences in policy issues affecting all social science disciplines and higher education across the United Kingdom. Its annual lecture is sponsored by SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space.

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SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space, is a leading international publisher of journals, books, and electronic media for academic, educational, and professional markets. An independent company, SAGE has principal offices in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Melbourne and Washington DC.

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