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Why we should communicate evidence more than ever in 2017

By Erlyn Macarayan
on December 22, 2016

2016 marks a change in history, for better or for worse. In today’s politics, we all witnessed how political correctness, decency and diplomacy were suddenly belittled by being frank, blatant or downright rude, even in dealing with international affairs. Many observers call ours a post-truth post-fact era and even that sounds too nice (I’m from the Philippines 🙂 ). The new political trend is a terrible loss for today’s society and totally disrespects future generations. These “outbreaks” of careless diction – and more so uninformed decisions – urgently need a stronger antidote before they become uncontrollable. So let 2017 not be just a year for the rooster (for the Chinese zodiac fans among us), but also a year for researchers to better communicate evidence.  It’s needed more than ever. Here are my top two reasons why:

First, recent political events have threatened the value of evidence for decision-making, resulting in misleading and even false claims. Some examples (out of the hundreds or even thousands from this year alone), perhaps. For many years, climate scientists have been defending the reality of climate change and although I’m generally not pessimistic about this battle (unlike some other contributors to this website, I’m a “glass half full” person 🙂 ), the struggle will definitely continue in the years to come. With one of the most powerful leaders in the world now arguing against global warming, calling it a “hoax” (invented by China), promising to cancel the historic Paris climate agreement, and appointing a climate skeptic in the Environmental Protection Agency, the picture for climate change suddenly looks even worse than it already did. In any case, Trump doesn’t seem to give a damn about evidence (as is the case with daily intelligence briefings, it seems). Also, reproductive rights in the US are on the brink with more restrictions for women’s healthcare access and potential budget cuts for family planning funds. Similarly, the bigoted immigration plans (of his campaign) seem to remain largely unchanged despite the unnecessary billions of dollars of spending it may cost the government, not to mention the countless lives of people that might be affected. And of course, the list goes on and on.

Will other countries follow the path of the superpower (now clearly in decline) and ignore evidence? We don’t know yet. Zooming in on my country, for example, no matter how much a new influential leader like Duterte lambasted the US (Obama, notably) for not supporting the Philippine war on drugs, it seems like the ties with the new US leader will remain steady in the years to come. Trump and Duterte seem to get along just fine.  Both Trump and Duterte seem to also enjoy the company of their new Russian ally, Putin – who suddenly seems to have a lot of friends (Erdogan comes to mind). In these volatile times, I wonder how many more prime ministers will resign next year for whatever reason, and how many more regimes will take an authoritarian turn, with ever more people seeming to root for ‘strongmen’. With the rising political volatility and uncertainties, evidence-informed decisions seem even more important than before, when Fukuyama still seemed to get it right.

Second, funding is political. As such, the failure to use evidence in informing political decisions will have detrimental effects to global health funding schemes. Many global health players were already frightened when the UK, a global leader in international aid and development, voted for Brexit. Now the US, another key player, pledges to also ‘stop sending aid to countries that hate us [the US]’, promising to redirect funding to the US instead. Against that backdrop, more than ever, information about the benefits, risks, and cost-effectiveness of resource allocation decisions are needed. We will probably never be able to convince the far right on this issue, given the way they’re “wired”, but leaders and even the general public should stop looking at aid recipient countries as leeches and parasites, and refrain from dehumanizing jargon and harsh policies. Those living in the comfort of their posh homes with a nice Christmas tree and sumptuous meal should stop believing that they can forever live in a so-called “bubble”, no matter how “state of the art” that notorious US-Mexican wall (“The best ever”, no doubt) will turn out.

While the picture for 2017 and the years after thus looks bleak, we need champions to change the course of our global landscape before we all go downhill. Fortunately, Justin Trudeau has said at least that he will defend Canadian interests if Trump goes too far despite the latter calling him ‘Canada’s worst President yet’. In the current circumstances, that’s certainly a compliment.  Likewise, Angela Merkel pledged to cooperate with Trump, but only if he adheres to the values of democracy and equality. With the upcoming WHO Director-General elections, I wonder who will be the next Halfdan Mahler to champion our cause for global health. Whoever will emerge as triumphant later this year, if he or she is a great communicator of evidence – perhaps learning how to best do elevator pitches for a business-focused US leader?  – that would be a great asset. Similar reflections are needed for us, health systems researchers, and the rest of the scientific world. We need to be active not just within the four corners of our office walls or laboratories, but also in shaping the global political landscape that was subjected to relentless perils this year, with probably worse to come. So I suggest a competition next year for “the best innovation to communicate research in the post-truth post-fact era”!

On that note, a happy holidays to you all!

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