It’s been a rough month for the truth in America. Disputes over “alternative facts” from the White House on crowd size and voter fraud have been coupled with attempts to muzzle government agencies accustomed to sharing their research with the public. Scientists are gearing up to march on Washington, and even The Onion’s satire about Sean Spicer’s dissembling rings disturbingly true.
Given the partisan nature of many of these disputes, it may seem difficult for foundations to weigh in. But here are three positive steps to take:
1. Support research into why evidence fails to convince
A recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine lays out a research agenda for communicating science effectively. Drawn from a wide-ranging panel of scientists and science communicators, the report suggests that more work is needed to understand how particular modes of communication match communicators’ goals, why simply providing more information does not better increase people’s knowledge and understanding of scientific topics, the role that pre-existing feelings play in influencing audience members’ reception of information, and the importance of social influences such as religion and ideology in establishing trust in science.
What’s more, “the use of science in policy making is not a straightforward process,” the report asserts, and there’s “a shortage of evidence on effective practices for affecting policy makers’ understanding, perception and use of science.” Deliberation is necessary to engage the public in complex issues, but at the same time controversies over particular issues make it that much more difficult for audiences to feel confident about the facts at hand.
These complexities and many others laid out in this report need to be further investigated. Foundations can directly support related communications research, or can work with grantees to encourage them to test different communications approaches and report what they learn back to the larger field. It’s worth noting that this report itself was produced with funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Rita Allen Foundation, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
2. Invest in solutions
In addition to supporting the production of quality news and information, foundations are increasingly pursuing ways to counter misinformation. As we reported in November, there’s a lively conversation taking place among technologists, journalists and funders about the best methods for battling the rapid circulation of falsehoods and propaganda. See this jointly authored document for a fascinating deep dive into many different proposed fixes.
Want to join the discussion? In February, the MIT Media Lab, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, The First Draft Coalition and Hacks/Hackers will jointly host MisinfoCon, a combination conference and “creative studio” designed to develop solutions for media makers and consumers. Supporters for this event include the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund, Mozilla, Knight Foundation, Center for Civic Media, and Alley Interactive.
3. Speak out
The tumult of recent months has inspired many philanthropic leaders to take bold public stands in defense of truth, civility and democracy, and to write frankly about their own difficulties with navigating this moment.
“No other year in our long memory has had us recalculating our route like a GPS gone haywire,” writes Ruth Ann Harnisch, the founder and president of the Harnisch Foundation. In 2017, she has recommitted herself to investing in media projects that to “show where boundaries are being broken” and “tell the stories of the issues that affect marginalized people most profoundly and personally.”
“Did we really believe, any of us in this nation’s robust civic sector, that progress would be linear and certain?” asks Grant Oliphant, the president of the Heinz Endowments. “No, of course we didn’t. It has never been that way, even under the best conditions. And so now falls to us in this generation the work of continuing onward under whatever circumstances we may now encounter.”
Contemplating how the future will unfold has “demanded an uncommon degree of institutional soul-searching and forbearance,” writes Sam Gill of the Knight Foundation in an introduction to a set of three scenarios that reflect on how people will be informed and engaged in democracy over the next decade.
Speaking and writing honestly about uncertainty in this way is difficult work for leaders in a sector often marked by caution and diplomacy. But being truthful about what it takes to preserve truth is key to the battle.