Education and Research in a Post-Fact World: Responses, responsibilities and possibilities

Thursday, 24 August, 9:00 - 10:30
Location: K1.02 Auditorium 2

Speakers: Radhika Gorur; Christian Lundahl; Mary Hamilton; Risto Rinne
Chairs: Ben Williamson; Paolo Landri

The Brexit and Trump campaigns and their successes have raised anxieties that we have entered – a ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-fact’ world. In Europe and the US, this is associated with the rise of right-wing fundamentalism and a threat to liberal thinking. This symposium explores the phenomenon of the ‘post-fact world’ and its implications for education and research (Peters, 2017).

The ‘post-fact’ world is not about politicians lying, but that the truth or falsehood of a statement ceases to matter. ‘Fact-checking’ and providing proof that an assertion is false seems to have little effect on citizens, who refuse to revise their opinion even when incontrovertible evidence is presented to challenge their belief.

A related aspect is the rise of ‘fake news’ – i.e. false and factually incorrect news that is deliberately released, particularly in social media, where click behaviour progressively channels towards you the content you want to see, creating an echo-chamber that reinforces and magnifies biases.

In times when the polity declares itself not to care about factuality, how are education institutions to respond (Stanford History Education Group, 2016)? What implications might this have for curriculum? In many countries, there are specific curricula on civics and citizenship to enhance the possibility of informed participation of citizens in democracy. Education has also been key in resisting oppressive regimes (Seargeant, 2016). How can this happen when citizens have difficulty distinguishing between news and fake news, relying on the ‘truthiness’ of a statement rather than valid and established means of verifying facts? Rationality, logic, systematic argumentation, evidence – these have been the pillars upon which educational institutions have built their edifices. How are these institutions to respond to current developments (Gold, 2016)?

The search for truth is fundamental to our work as academics. We have established practices of validation, registers of proof, and methods of challenging assertions. What is the status of these epistemic practices in a post-fact world? How do we conduct research and train our research students? Does the important work of critique exacerbate the situation, creating doubt in the minds of the public on such matters as climate science? If so, how can we keep science ‘honest’ without providing fodder for fake news that gives strength the post-truth world? For scholars of Science and Technology Studies (STS), these questions are of particular concern, since STS is principally concerned with the fabrication and stabilisation of facts and with the epistemic practices of fact-making and un-making.

Using STS concepts and methodologies, and taking up the invitation of the conference theme, the four papers in this symposium reflect on the implications for education and research in a ‘post-fact’ world. Taking the call of Network 28 seriously, they explore the challenges posed by the strong authority of numbers on the one hand, and the loss of authority of academic expertise on the other.

Paper 1 sets the scene by exploring the meaning and features of the post-fact world, and outlines the challenges it poses to education and research.

Paper 2 presents how research on national and international assessments are “written up” and debated in national and social media in Sweden, and the challenges to established epistemic processes posed by the public.

Paper 3 examines the UK press and online media activity following the publication of PISA 2015 results, and argues that numbers uncritically accepted as truth in public debates.

Paper 4 examines the challenges posed by the post-truth world to the sociology of education in contemporary European politics of science.

Following the four presentations, the Discussant will provide remarks and then the panel will engage with audience questions.

Future ECERs

ECER'24, Nicosia
ECER'25, Belgrade
ECER'26, Tampere
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