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A Fact is No Match for a Martian

A man stands, arms crossed, in front of a classroom whiteboard. In the foreground, empty chairs.
Alexey Golubev is the 2020–2021 Joy Foundation Fellow at Harvard Radcliffe Institute and an assistant professor of Russian history and digital humanities at the University of Houston. Photo by Rob Greer

Informed by Soviet Science Initiative, Alexey Golubev Sees Dark Side of Storytelling in Spread of Misinformation

“The Soviet experience,” Alexey Golubev says, “is an important warning.”

Golubev, a 2020–2021 Joy Foundation Fellow and a scholar of Russian history at the University of Houston, is offering Cold War–era insight on the misinformation and rampant doubt that are poisoning US discourse—and threatening lives—today. In health care, elections, and public policy debates, rumors abound.

Golubev’s work over the past year illuminates not the liars and their tactics but an aspect of misinformation that receives less attention: our willingness to be deceived, to believe in a proven falsehood and to keep on believing. Although the idea that people are entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts resonates with many, a significant portion of humankind rejects the primacy of data and evidence. For many in that group, a good story—exciting, exotic, fantastic, scary, or all of the above—is more persuasive, says Golubev, especially when the story affirms an aspect of self-image.

Alexey Golubev’s work uncovers our willingness to be deceived. Photo by Rob Greer

The main focus of Golubev’s Radcliffe project is an ambitious science-education campaign that was launched in the Soviet Union in the years after World War II. The National Society for the Dissemination of Political and Scientific Knowledge grew out of Joseph Stalin’s belief that an educated country would be a mightier one. Lectures began in cities before expanding to rural areas, where scientists and academics addressed break-time crowds at collective farms and factories. The lecturers were members of the Soviet intelligentsia. Their number grew from 30,000 in 1948 to 3.2 million in 1979, making the program the largest scientific-popularization effort of the 20th century.

From a participation standpoint, the program was a success, and the relatively broad scientific literacy of post-Soviet states owes a debt to the effort. But from another standpoint, the campaign failed. Along with lessons in established science, it gave thorough airing to UFOs, psychics, poltergeists, astrology, cryptozoology, and other fringe theories. Some of the campaign’s most prominent lecturers were proponents of these ideas, including Gavriil Tikhov, who ran an observatory in Kazakhstan and claimed that life on Mars was a scientific fact; Felix Ziegel, who insisted that the 1908 Tunguska event—a massive explosion in Siberia that wiped out 80 million trees—was caused not by a meteorite but, rather, by the crash of an alien ship; and Anatoly Kashpirovsky, whose paranormal seances briefly dominated Soviet central television in 1989. 

“Among other alternate forms of knowledge, ufology penetrated the Iron Curtain as if it didn’t exist at all,” Golubev says. In explaining what went wrong, he begins with what he calls the ”knowledge deficit model”—the belief that once you explain phenomena and provide relevant facts, citizens will become educated and share the prevailing ideas, values, and goals of their educated peers. But a different theory might be a better guide to what happened in the Soviet Union over those decades, and what’s happening in the United States right now. The “media theory,” says Golubev, holds that it’s not the facts that are important but, rather, the way they’re presented. In other words, the best and most engrossing story wins. A lecture built on facts and figures will soon be forgotten, while a well-told story—true or not—entertains and endures. In the Soviet case, the problem was compounded by the self-funded nature of the scientific-literacy effort. The campaign supported itself with books, speaking fees, and ticket sales, and the most compelling storytellers brought in the biggest crowds.

“The audience got introduced to not just facts but also storylines from the popularizers,” Golubev says, adding that people’s emotions and how the lecture left them feeling—curious, excited, scared—often trumped reality. “The affectiveness of stories ensured their broad circulation.”

Mainstream Soviet scientists attempted to discredit the most fantastic ideas, even publishing detailed rebuttals in the state newspaper, Pravda. But the rebuttals were “powerless to slow down or stop circulation among the public,” Golubev says.

The Soviet experience helps clarify the appeal of modern movements of disinformation, misinformation, and denial, he says. Where some of us see half-truths and outright lies, others are inspired by narratives in which they imagine themselves heroes—protectors of freedom, defenders of children against harmful vaccinations, clear-eyed truth tellers puncturing falsehoods promoted by crooked scientists. “You have to narrativize knowledge for science communication generally, come up with a story—a good story,” Golubev says. “The problem is, that’s not our field. This is a literary field, and some people are just better at telling stories.”

The 1908 Tunguska event was a massive explosion in Siberia that wiped out 80 million trees. One Soviet lecturer claimed the cause was the crash of an alien ship.

Skepticism and hostility toward vaccines have existed as long as there have been vaccines. One of the more recent iterations—debunked by studies—promotes a connection between vaccination and autism. From the perspective of vaccine skeptics, the story involves devoted parents defending their kids against a health risk that is being covered up by a government and a public health establishment that are uncaring or, worse, beholden to greedy pharmaceutical companies. If the story were rewritten as a Star Wars spin-off, Golubev says, the anti-vaccine forces would imagine themselves as the good-guy Rebels and the vaccine-promoting establishment as the Empire. The collective memory of medical and scientific scandals is also a factor in fueling doubt and distrust: The drug thalidomide caused birth defects in 10,000 children; the Tuskegee syphilis experiment left subjects with untreated disease for decades. These and other events affect responses to the less devastating but still potentially deadly blood clots and allergic reactions that have been connected to COVID vaccines. “Stories of antivaxxers are more affective than their refutation,” Golubev says.

Allan Brandt, a 2019–2020 Radcliffe fellow whose 2007 book, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America, tracked the battle between cigarette makers and the anti-smoking community, says that Big Tobacco created a model for modern misinformation campaigns, in part by realizing that public receptiveness to its efforts would depend on influencing customers’ personal narratives. Cigarettes weren’t tobacco rolled in paper—never mind a lethal addiction—but a statement about the smoker’s character and values. So the industry cranked up the affectiveness and used the Marlboro Man and other advertising campaigns to appropriate cherished American myths involving freedom and rugged individualism. Having sown doubt about smoking’s impact on health, its pitch was a story of self-determination. In a land of liberty, the narrative went, it should be your choice, not the government’s, whether to smoke or not. “The tobacco industry did its job well,” Brandt says.

That playbook has been used numerous times since, including by makers of sugary drinks and fatty foods. David Hemenway, the 2020–2021 Elizabeth S. and Richard M. Cashin Fellow and a professor of health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is focused on an area in which misinformation thrives in part because the genuine article is so scarce: guns.

That scarcity owes to sustained efforts by pro-gun lawmakers in Congress, who for years cut budgets for the agency that oversees injury control and discouraged the Centers for Disease Control from funding gun violence research. Hemenway’s Radcliffe project aims to help fill the information gap and examine the role of guns in self-defense. As hunting has declined in recent years, so has an important market for US firearms. In response, fear-based messages have been used to drive sales: gun owners must be ready to confront foreign and domestic enemies, and to protect their families in a supposedly dangerous society. “They sell fear—fear of the other,” Hemenway says. “The thing gun sales track is fear, including the fear that government will take away guns.”

It’s easy to understand the power of those storylines, Hemenway says. But, in fact, few studies have been conducted on actual gun use in self-defense, and doomsday predictions are contradicted by news reports.

As part of his fellowship, Hemenway has worked with Radcliffe undergraduate research partners to comb through the Gun Violence Archives, a nonprofit database of gun-related stories from 7,000 news sources across the country. Stories of firearms use in self-defense number around 1,500 a year—far below the claims of many gun-rights advocates. Meanwhile, researchers continue to note the significant risks that come with firearms in the home. Every year in the United States, thousands of people use a gun to take their own lives. “In the injury field, particularly in the gun field, one basic problem is a lack of information and a second is misinformation,” Hemenway says. “There’s so often little good information, people can say anything.”

Climate change has been subject to an enormous amount of misinformation and denial over the past few decades. When not rejecting the evidence outright, defenders of fossil fuels have admitted that the problem exists but disputed the role of human activities or dismissed scientific projections as alarmism.

Thea Riofrancos warns that misinformation may derail efforts to mitigate climate change. Photo by Rose Lincoln

Thea Riofrancos, the Institute’s Katherine Hampson Bessell Fellow and a political scientist at Providence College, is spending her fellowship year examining climate and sustainability through the lens of the rechargeable lithium batteries that power cell phones, electric cars, and other high-tech conveniences. She believes that the long-running debate over the most fundamental question about climate change—whether it’s really happening or not—is largely over. Skepticism has lost ground to personal experience with weird weather, she notes: torrential rains from slow-moving storms, flooding and erosion from rising seas, and more frequent and ferocious wildfires, all of which are linked to climate change. Today, she argues, the most damaging misinformation is the idea that half measures will be adequate to deal with the crisis. Even the climate-related actions recently proposed in President Biden’s infrastructure plan, while they may seem sweeping to many, aren’t nearly enough, Riofrancos warns.

“There’s been a concerted effort on the part of fossil fuel companies to deny and delay, but just as pernicious, I think, are policies that don’t deal with the scale of the problem,” she says. “It’s almost more important for people to focus not on outright denial but on denial of what needs to be done about it. Just spending on our energy systems to create more investment in renewable energy is not enough if we don’t also stop fossil fuel burning.”

The larger takeaway—that the facts tell the real story—does not eliminate a role for narrative in communicating science to students and the public, says Golubev, who sees in the Soviet experience a cautionary tale that might, with some major refinements, be transformed into a model. A society must innovate to educate, he says, and the possibility of failure “doesn’t mean we should not try.”

Alvin Powell is a staff writer for the Harvard Gazette.

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