Facts vs truth: Brexit and sustainability in turbulent times

Flight instructions - brace position

Today the UK’s Article 50 letter will be delivered, formally marking the UK’s intention to leave the European Union. Two weeks ago a conference on ‘Sustainability in Turbulent Times’ was held in London to discuss the uncertainties around Brexit and other momentous political developments in the global North, which seem to be driven by a popular desire to radically change the direction of travel in all kinds of arenas.

For this corner of the world, it feels like enough turbulence to make you assume the brace position – to others, it’s barely a bump. But one of the features of this movement has been an apparent crisis of trust in expert evidence and the media, as several speakers at the conference observed. Whether this is really a new crisis is arguable, but it does give us an excuse to think about how knowledge works in society – a key question for the very political subject of sustainability.

The vast and enduring edifices of human knowledge are based on relationships between facts, truth and trust. The current complaints about a ‘post-truth’ society (one where people seem guided ever more strongly by values and emotions than evidence) addresses one of these, but what about the other two? How are they entangled, and what does this mean for the long-running debate about how people and institutions seek different kinds of ‘sustainability’ together?

Facts, truth and trust

The word ‘fact’ draws on its original meaning of ‘something that has happened’ (the corresponding word ‘Tatsache’ in German is made up of Tat = done and Sache = thing, and ‘fait’, the word for fact in French, also means ‘done’): facts are the building blocks of evidence. Science isn’t a random collection of facts, but it does need facts to make it work. Look closely at them, though, and some facts become more slippery than others. For example, is a statistic a fact? Well, you can decide to take it as such, but a lot also relies on the methods of collection, the analysis, and the context. Social and natural scientists know that innocent statistics can be twisted and repurposed, zombie stats can be killed and then reanimated to suit an agenda. This doesn’t mean that the reality itself is any less solid, but that we are only human, so our way of understanding and talking about reality is only human too. And we cannot practically live without taking some facts on trust.

To illustrate this another way, we can learn from Donald Trump’s approach to facts, and why fact-checking only seems to have limited effect. Trump is clearly perfectly happy to make statements which are easily verifiable as false, in the service of a higher truth (‘I will Make America Great Again’). When he was caught inventing an incident in Sweden, he justified it later by pointing to an outbreak of violence that had followed his original statement). So it is hard to attack Trump on the basis of factual inaccuracies, without addressing truth and trust. Truth and trust here are only loosely associated with the facts but inseparable from the person. Trusting Trump is an act of faith in him and an effort of love for a particular idea of America, regardless of the detail – often incomprehensible or contradictory – of what he says at any one time.

None of this is particularly new, or unique to the USA. In Britain too, the Brexit referendum saw a newly divided debate between two sides accusing each other of lying. Statistics were invoked. Dog whistles were whistled. Experts were had enough of. Fear was mongered. Millionaires ripped into ‘elites’. Accusations of treason were hurled. Immigrants were relentlessly othered in front pages and on outsized billboards behind the heads of batrachoid patrioteers.

Numbers became especially important: the £350m ‘sent’ to the EU each month, the numbers of potential immigrants from the Middle East, the hundreds dying each month in the Mediterranean, the millions of pounds lost or gained in trade deals or flows of investment. Again, these numbers didn’t do anything on their own. They only gained power from people’s analysis of what they meant: for households, communities, GDP, the NHS, our relationships beyond our borders. They were woven into realities informed by people’s personal practices, relationships and stories: cross-continental marriages, sunny optimism, the loss of privilege, the grind of chronic unemployment or demeaning work, bitterness, nostalgia, cultural insecurity. At the heart of these realities were choices about whom to trust and which truth mattered. Disagreements over facts often disguised a disagreement over lived experience and underlying truth. Strong and sometimes violent emotions often simmered or went unspoken.

At the same time, there has been a push back from advocates of science and journalism to value evidence – for example, in the March for Science in the USA. It is hard not to sympathise with this, or to fear the impacts of ideological cutbacks on certain areas of research like climate change. But the marchers seem to be asking for more people to put more trust in them. Perhaps they are also asking for solidarity and encouragement from people who already trust and support them. I think that the second is more easily achievable by marching than the first.

What does this mean for sustainability and the safeguarding of a healthy relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world? There is a well-established argument that there is only limited effectiveness in scientists or campaigners telling people to change their behaviours and practices on the basis of facts and evidence. This is not a particularly new insight though it seems to bear repeating. To move beyond this, framing and messaging is also often discussed. And though it is tempting to try to ‘reframe’ sustainability messages in terms of populism, consumerist aspiration or even – disquietingly – tribal, place-based ‘benevolent green nationalism’, this risks being inauthentic or worse, rather than being a genuine conversation on common ground.

As well as facts (and not neglecting them), sustainability advocates need to engage with the values, truths and trust relationships that underpin people’s choices and lives. We should be wary about doing this from a position of authority, or assuming that we have all the information which should guide people to make certain inevitable choices. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be confident in our own values and understanding of the world – but it must be a confidence that is open to interrogation and collective truth-seeking.

In many cases, the options are more open than we might think, and different truths and values will have to meet each other under conditions of empathy, trust and personal contact. If this sounds difficult, why not try it out, test and refine the methods? In a small way, that is what we are doing in our project on Transformative Pathways to Sustainability, alongside many other experiments and experiences from around the world – through a series of carefully-designed processes where local environmental problems can be discussed and solved collectively. A crucial starting point is to think about who might be ready to enter such a dialogue – clearly, there are some who are not prepared to listen, are hostile or aggressively resistant, and we all have limited resources and time to engage.

As Mike Hulme suggested at the Sustainability in Turbulent Times conference, we might most successfully overcome bitter arguments in person rather than on social media – acknowledging our own and others’ emotions, treating arguments in good faith, working on problems together despite differences. I think this also means opening ourselves up to the possibility of changing our own minds. If we ask others to do it, shouldn’t we be prepared to do it ourselves?

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