We live in interesting times. While there have been many gains in the fields of science, medicine, technology, and social issues, American society is currently facing a malignant epidemic: post-truth. Oxford Dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  And before you question the relevance of this term, keep in mind Oxford recently named “post-truth” their international word of 2016. 
Our current post-truth climate has indeed been in the making for many years. Take, for example, the case of tobacco: scientific doubt held by a handful of individuals was able to brilliantly obscure to the public, for an astonishingly long time, research and truth produced by a clear majority of the scientific community.  From the mid-1950’s, when significant research indicating the harms of tobacco began to be muddled by these scientists, we can see a trend where fact morphs into opinion. It is no longer important whether or not something is true, but whether one believes something to be true.
Tracing this insidious phenomenon brings us to more modern-day scientific cases, such as vaccines and climate change. Of course, by now most of us are aware of the increasingly held belief that vaccinations have the potential to cause autism. What fewer people know is that this belief is based on a single study by Dr. Andrew Blakefield, whose findings have since been deemed “fraudulent” by the British Medical Journal, disproven by dozens of epidemiological studies (and counting), and resulted in the paper being retracted from the journal in which it was published and the loss of Dr. Blakefield’s medical license.  Yet despite the discrediting of his work, non-medical exemptions from school vaccination requirements continue to increase.  This effect has been bolstered by efforts of celebrities and other high-profile individuals, along with increasing reliance by the public on ad-hoc arguments and anecdotal evidence. But the bottom line is clear: more and more people are choosing what they want to believe, rather than what is.
Fortunately, nearly two decades after Dr. Blakefield’s study, a large portion of the American public has come to accept the fraudulency of his findings. Climate science, however, is still fighting for its own legitimacy. A 2016 poll conducted by Pew Research indicates that less than half of Americans (48%) believe climate change is due to human activity.  This figure is at odds with another Pew Research study of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which found that 93% of members with a Ph.D. in Earth sciences (and 87% of members overall) agree that global warming is mostly due to human activity.  Not only do Americans opinions differ dramatically with scientific consensus, the awareness of a scientific consensus itself is dramatically low: only 27% of Americans believe that “almost all” climate scientists agree that human behavior is responsible for climate change.  The results of the post-truth epidemic are harrowing: politicians and the public alike are able to dismiss scientific findings as matters of belief, for better or for worse, without serious repercussions.
So where has post-truth gotten us? Let’s take stock. Currently, more and more Americans are receiving their news from social media tailored to their specific interests or news websites that already support their own bias, forming a kind of informational vacuum in which we are only exposed to news that we desire to see. We continue to find increasing amounts of evidence that the circulation of fabricated news stories designed to discredit Hillary Clinton played a significant role in the outcome of our most recent election.  We have just elected an individual who Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington D.C., has described as “the first anti-science president we have ever had.”  Our president-elect believes in the false link between autism and vaccines, has aligned himself with “anti-vaxxer” factions around the country,  and who defends these claims with anecdotal evidence: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!” 
Trump’s views on climate change are equally unfounded, having famously declared in 2012 “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”  His transition team is rife with climate change skeptics, including Kathleen Hartnett-White, Thomas Pyle, and Myron Ebell, all three of which have publicly doubted climate change and continue to criticize scientific findings by the International Panel of Climate Change.  Lastly, Trump’s selection to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a position that oversees the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Tom Price, has a less-than-stellar public health record: He has routinely voted to cut spending in public health, consistently opposed embryonic stem cell research, supported various efforts to defund Planned Parenthood (a non-profit reproductive healthcare group), and in 2008, voted against allowing the FDA to regulate tobacco as a drug. 
The post-truth era has presented us with a novel ethical conundrum. Now, more than ever, we must fight for the legitimacy of science and ethical dissemination of information, for it is not only science that is at stake: the survival of our democracy depends on it.
 “Post-truth.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016
 “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 Is…” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.
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