When it comes to our personal health, we need to be able to trust advice and guidelines from government health officials. During this pandemic, this trust has proven thin.
Recent discussions have rightly exposed the dangers of conspiracy theories and foreign misinformation in undermining our society’s trust in science and in important government policies. However, what has been little discussed is that the successes of such conspiracy theories and the amplified skepticism they sow are in part due to the fertile soil they fall upon.
For the past two decades, the concept of science has been continuously and indiscriminately employed by a range of activist groups to justify various political and ideological causes.
From the hole in the ozone layer, to global warming, to manmade climate change, we are told there is a constant threat that we all must change our lives over. However, in the end, it is like the “Boy Who Cried Wolf”. If alarmists constantly come up with a new scare for us to worry about, can you blame us for not listening when the threat is real? How do you think, for example, Al Gore’s doomsday predictions that did not come true affect our society’s trust in science?
In far too many cases, when the threat is described, the science is misrepresented. How many times have you heard arguments on controversial political issues such as carbon tax, natural resource development, pipelines, effectiveness of alternative energy or plastic straw bans, end with statements such as “the science is settled” or “people who oppose policy X are anti-science”?
Presenting science in this way has damaged the very entity of scientific reasoning and thought. Less than a year before the pandemic, in September 2019, a poll showed Canadians’ trust in science falling, with 44% of the respondents saying they “consider scientists ‘elitists’ and many discount science that doesn’t align with personal beliefs”.
This percentage should alarm everybody. Science is what we use to know about our world, to innovate and solve health problems. We need good scientists and we need people to make rational decisions informed by science.
What we don’t need is people to worship science. That is not what science is. Science is a continuous set of reasoning skills and observation that is challenged and studied with careful experimentation to advance knowledge.
There are known facts, and there are many more known facts that develop and alter as new knowledge is gained. This is normal. This is the scientific process.
When considering policies that government must enact, in addition to scientific research, many other factors are considered as well. This includes things like economic impact, what is practical, effectiveness, available alternatives, social impacts, and enforcement. Scientific data is only one factor and alone, without consideration of the other important factors, cannot provide a complete policy.
In the US, the Green New Deal has been presented as wonderful for the environment because it is claimed to be based on science. However, many of the sweeping policies of this package go far beyond the limits of the scope of science.
The famous claim that “97% of scientists agree on climate change” that is often used to argue that particular policies like carbon tax are unquestionably correct and must be embraced, is factually misleading. But worse, it presents science as something without alteration, which is misunderstanding what science is.
Many of the activists who constantly talk about science and use its name to preach their opinions on economic and other government policy are not using science correctly, but are using dogma. Al Gore, Naomi Klein, Greta Thunberg, Elizabeth May, Bill Nye, Alexandra Ocazio-Cortez, Leonardo DiCaprio – none of them are using science correctly.
This constant use of science to settle an argument on policy, economics or ethics in an authoritative and arrogant way has cheapened the true meaning of science, just like the notorious indiscriminate overuse of the word racism to settle disagreements has distorted the meaning of racism, which is a travesty.
While left leaning activists generally misunderstand the concept of science in the way they use it to promote their policies, some right leaning activists advance a false understanding of science in a different way. On the right, especially in its populist and extreme branches, one can find conspiracy theories and rejection of science altogether. Mike Adams, the founder of the Natural News, a website that is notorious for anti-science fake news and conspiracy theories about US President Barack Obama is a good example of science denialism from the right. As regarding climate change, while the questions of its exact mechanisms, expected effects, and of the best ways to deal with it are complex and are not settled, some conservatives deny the very occurrence of human impact on climate change and engage in conspiracy theorizing.
Another notable example of misuse of science is the anti-vaccine movement that has attained support from a number of celebrities such as Jessica Biel, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Juliette Lewis and others who are using social media to spread their distrust of science. According to Dr. Chris Altman, manager of clinical and immunization programs for a Rite Aid in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, “Celebrities have a strong influence just in general. It seems to me that they’re using those platforms to then push out their personal views on health care.”
Now, when governments have needed to implement unpopular but necessary policies that are based on scientific conclusions in order to ensure our safety and to save lives amidst the uncertainty of a pandemic, a large portion of the public is distrustful and outraged. As a result, conspiracy theories, whether promoted by local enthusiasts or by foreign entities, are falling on a very fertile soil.
Those who have been consistently promoting controversial ideological policies under the name of science have distorted the meaning of science and helped instill in the public mind a caricature of what science is. Let’s hope people will take precautions to keep themselves healthy and ask good questions about the pandemic protocols, not languish in the world of conspiracies.