Nearly a week after his death, tributes for Stephen Hawking keep showing up in remote parts of the globe. The British scientist is praised for shedding light on black holes. He is admired for not allowing a physical disability to hinder his mental brilliance. Yet in a sign of the state of humanity, he is also being held up as an icon for humble and intense curiosity, not just for the truth about the physical universe but for universal truths.
In too many countries, leaders have “weaponized” false information to exert power, either at home or in other nations. This is creating a backlash in favor of truth-telling, a movement that needs heroes like Dr. Hawking who can inspire others to seek understanding.
Are more people demanding credible facts?
In 2017, a Texas-based data company called Global Language Monitor found “truth” to be the “word of the year” among English-speakers. A debate over the nature of truth “is currently quite the rage,” the company’s analysis found. (Two runner-up words were “narrative” and “post-truth.”)
And in a January report about “truth decay” in American civil discourse, the RAND Corp. found the erosion of trust in key institutions has left “people searching for new sources of credible and objective information.”
In countries with a free press, journalists have rallied to fact-check comments by politicians. Harvard University now offers a free one-hour online course to help people “better distinguish good information from bad” in hopes they will not “share the bad.” Tech giants such as Facebook are being forced to install truth filters in their online platforms. A report this month for the European Commission charges that the online sites “are becoming increasingly important as both enablers and gatekeepers of information.” They should reveal how their algorithms select news items, the report stated.
Many nations have come to see honest information as a strategic asset. “Truth matters,” says Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and nominee to be secretary of State. “Relying on Twitter feeds and news reports will prove wholly insufficient when policymakers have to make some of the most difficult decisions they face.”
Giants of scientific discovery such as Hawking have long been role models for seeking truth beyond their profession. “In recent years I realized that [Hawking] has become a symbol for mankind,” says physicist Bobby Acharya. “People looked to him for reason and truth.”
The tributes rolling in for the man are really tributes to a widespread desire for light over darkness, for truth over all the “black holes” of fake news or misinformation campaigns.