Facts over fiction: Why we must protect evidence-based knowledge if we value democracy

Side view of a ballot box in a story about maintaining the values of democracy

A facts-based worldview is the foundation of any strong democracy. Image: Unsplash/Element5 Digital

Ben Feringa
Member, European Research Council, Distinguished Professor of Molecular Sciences, University of Groningen
Sir Paul Nurse
Director and Chief Executive, The Francis Crick Institute
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • 2024 is a major election year, with political parties across the world putting forward their visions for the future as democracies go to the polls.
  • Fact-based worldviews are the foundation of strong democracies, but society's ability to tell fact from fiction has become severely tested.
  • Two Nobel laureates outline why, if we truly value the gains in human progress of the last century, we must do everything we can to strengthen the foundations of democratic societies.

2024 is a major election year, when many political parties in democratic countries across the world will be promoting their visions for the future and progress.

These will include how to deal with challenges facing the world such as climate change, health, conflict and migration, and what is critical for all these issues is our collective ability to tell fact from fiction.

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Central to human progress are three interconnected pillars. The first is pursuit of knowledge, a major component of which is the expansion of the frontiers of learning and understanding – something often achieved through science, driven by the innate curiosity of scientists.

The second pillar of progress is the need for stable democracies where people and ideas can mix freely. It is this free exchange of diverse perspectives that fuels the democratic process, ensuring policies are shaped by a multitude of voices and evidence, leading to informed decision-making that benefits all of society.

Such freedom of speech and expression also serves as the bedrock for scientific inquiry, allowing researchers to challenge prevailing notions without fear, fostering discovery, applications and innovation.

The third pillar is a fact-based worldview. While political parties might disagree on policy, for democracy to work well all of them should support and protect a perspective that is grounded in reliable facts, which are needed to generate reliable policies that can drive human progress.

Why a lack of trust threatens democracy

But in this election year, cracks are appearing in all three of these pillars. Many populist and extremist politicians dismiss science and propose budget cuts which will reduce this area of learning, casting a shadow over the prospects of scientific progress.

Equally worrying is the systematic erosion of trust in institutions that support fact-based worldviews – institutions such as academia, journalism and government departments.

This erosion undermines an informed debate, based on facts, which is essential for the progress and health of a democratic society. Failure to deliver this will lead to a slide-back from democracy.

Social media can contribute to this slide. The promise of “connecting the world” is well intentioned but its polarization can fragment us into groups, which ultimately can help weaken the fabric of society and undermine the consensus process necessary for democratic decision-making.

And we know that fake news often travels faster than facts and reaches many more people. The social media revolution has exacerbated this problem by changing the way information flows in the world. The traditional gatekeepers of information for mass consumption – the mass media – are now more easily bypassed.

Swift advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to further reshape the information ecosystem by affecting education, the media, science and politics.

Open AI’s ChatGPT model is now used by more than 100 million people, according to the company. This innovative tool is clearly useful but it is also prone to “hallucinations”, when it generates false information but presents it as fact.

This may be less of a concern when used to support people with expert knowledge in the subject under question, but for non-experts it can be more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. We must proceed with some caution concerning AI if we value democracy.

Why we need a renewed commitment to facts

A renewed commitment to evidence and truth is essential for continued progress. The rise of AI will bring advances including in scientific research, but also requires careful consideration to ensure it serves the best interests of humanity and does not compromise our ability to distinguish fact from fiction.

We propose three areas that require attention to protect the pillars of human progress.

First, we need regulation. Last December, the European Union (EU) became the first major world power to agree harmonized rules to ensure that AI systems within the EU are safe and respect the rights and values of its citizens. This is a significant step forward, but regulation will be needed everywhere to prevent a race to the bottom.

Secondly, we also need to protect a global information ecosystem that works for the benefit of all. We can learn from what has happened with social media, which has brought about many benefits but has also contributed to erosion of informed decision-making.

And finally, we need to nurture critical thinking in society. Critical thinking should be a foundation for everyone to help navigate the information ecosystem, and work should start early in primary school to instil this ability.

In March, we will participate in an important Nobel Prize Dialogue in Brussels, which will focus on the theme “Fact & Fiction: the Future of Democracy”.


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The event will bring together scientists, journalists, AI experts and policy-makers to discuss collectively how we can protect the integrity of our information ecosystem.

Ultimately, if we truly value the gains in human progress over the last century, and want to accelerate progress this century, we all must do everything we can to seperate facts from fiction and strengthen the foundations of democratic societies for generations to come.

The Nobel Prize Dialogue Fact & Fiction: The Future of Democracy, in partnership with the European Research Council, takes place in Brussels on 5 March.

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