When Everything Spins

Does knowledge mean what it used to mean? What happens if it doesn’t?

I once had a long discussion with Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt. Along with our online radio host, David Gibbons, we were talking about ways to engage the public with an issue as complex as climate science. I asked about separating evidence from spin.

Naomi said that she has seen a generational shift in the way university students approach knowledge. She argued that science operates within a 19th century model, in which there is objective reality that can be measured, tested and revealed. The scientific enterprise is a quest for this objective truth and it follows a rigorous set of rules.

These rules, which make the scientific process so robust, also make coming to conclusions very slow. Science advances through arduous and vigorous—but careful—debate, testing, re-testing, analysis and re-analysis.

That’s very different from the lightning-fast dissemination of spin.

Armies of political operatives and communication professionals can pounce on an event, a scientific report or a verbal gaffe and turn the meaning upside down in no time. Instant-access social media is so much faster than the already-quick 24-hour news cycle that spin can go viral before the news even reaches the airwaves.

But the big shock, at least for me, was Naomi’s assertion that so many of today’s students think that everything is spin.

If everything is spin, then there is no objective truth for people to seek. Is this the triumph of marketing and politics over everything else?

The 20th century theologian Reinhold Neibuhr once wrote, “The judgments of the market place and the political arena are biased, not only because they are made in the heat of controversy without a careful weighting of evidence, but also because there is no strong inclination to bring all relevant facts into view.”

Indeed, the tension between truth seeking and truth spinning is nothing new. Our decisions involve judgments, values, and other priorities in addition to objective evidence.

But what happens when the very notion of objective evidence disappears?

I don’t think the situation is quite that dire yet, even though it looks that way in politics and in the news. Beneath all the noise, I meet people who rely on objective evidence to make important choices every day. I meet a lot of them in the business world, and they sound reasonable and pragmatic to me.

Interestingly, though, some of them bring objective evidence to business decisions, yet spin into ideological rants when conversations turn to politics. The difference can be startling, like watching Dr. Jeckyll turn into Mr. Hyde. Sometimes it really does seem wise to avoid religion and politics in the workplace. It would be wiser, though, to talk politics in the workplace with the same attention to facts that we bring to business decisions.

The ways in which we compartmentalize attitudes and knowledge are fascinating, and so is the interplay between objective evidence, interpretation, and persuasion.

But the crucial question is: What happens to society if we stop trying to maintain a healthy balance?

We know that politicians and advertisers will try to spin facts to their advantage. Now we see an effort to spin the very notion that there can even be a set of objective facts. This is what Naomi Oreskes was so concerned about.

The climate change denial campaign is trying to undermine the very possibility that researchers can discover objective data and, therefore, that such data are worthy of being considered in public policy decisions. Instead of saying, “Yes, I see the facts but I choose to give other issues and values higher priority,” the deniers accuse the entire global science community of bias, distortion, incompetence, corruption, and conspiracy.

They are trying to say that science is nothing more than spin. If we, as a society, accept their premise, how will we ever make practical decisions?


About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.