Science-skeptism and lessons we can learn from COVID-19
It seems crazy that 30 years after James Hanson testified in front of the US Congress, seemingly reasonable people in my classrooms and at the Thanksgiving table continue to dismiss the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change. It could be easy to dismiss this as a side effect of partisan politics, but skepticism of science is not confined to one party. A 2018 General Social Survey found that in the United States, only half of Democrats and 39 percent of Republicans expressed “a great deal of confidence” in the scientific community.
So, how did we get here?
But really, when haven’t we been here? Skepticism of science is not new. Galielo, Copernicus, and Darwin, certainly faced significant doubt and condemnation. Even Ignaz Semmelweis, who pioneered hand washing in hospitals, failed to gain any traction on his discovery in his lifetime.
The current pandemic has shown how distrust in the scientific experts can be catastrophic. In the United States, President Trump disbanded the National Security Council’s taskforce on pandemics, has refused to follow CDC advice to wear a mask in public, and in the midst of the crisis proposed treatments like hydroxychloroquine and injecting cleaning supplies or solar radiation into the body – none of which are supported by the medical or scientific community. Meanwhile protestors have gathered around the country to demand an end to stay-at-home orders and social distancing, measures which experts say are the best way, sans a vaccine, to impede the spread.
As we compare the effect of the virus on different countries one differentiation stands out: how quickly and how effectively did the government and citizens follow the advice of medical experts?
What do the Boy Scouts say? Be Prepared?
In the US, especially, we are seeing the consequences of a late and scrambled response. The coronavirus pandemic and climate change are both problems that are best dealt with through preparation. We’ve seen that preparation can work. Decades ago when scientists warned of the implications of ozone depletion, the global community took the scientific evidence of this threat seriously and we got the Montreal protocol – and it worked.
As someone who has played the dangerous game of procrastination too many times in my school career, I understand that there seems to be a human proclivity toward procrastination and belief that, like a Hollywood heist movie, it will all come together in the end. Perhaps that is, at least, part of the reason so many have been skeptical of the warnings from scientists about our current and future catastrophes. It’s hard to imagine that there might really be an existential threat lurking in our future. We see cold days in May, but can’t see CO2 in the air or rising sea levels so our intuition might be – hey, maybe this climate change thing isn’t really happening. The problem with that thinking (other than the fact that weather and climate are different things) is that intuition and science don’t go hand in hand. In fact, the scientific method is designed to prevent us from being swayed by our own bias. Researchers have found that even when we consciously accept scientific propositions, we still may subconsciously hold onto our native beliefs. This might help to explain why some people who we would consider educated, continue to deny certain scientific evidence.
Uncertainty, but Not Uncertain
Furthermore, while we as humans might seek answers, the scientific method seeks truth – which might not always be the same thing. We crave simplicity; simple diagnoses and simple cures. But sometimes the science gets complicated and uncertainty arises – i.e. how exactly is coronavirus spread? Why do COVID-19 symptoms exhibit differently in different people? Why are there so many debates about climate feedbacks? How much warming will happen? How much can our planet handle?
We like simple yes/no answers, but science is often a world of “yes/no, but…” In an age where we value instant gratification more than ever, this can be understandably frustrating. Of course, this complexity is what makes science, well science. It is because science so often lives in the shades of grey that makes it so magnificent. Afterall, isn’t the best of science those experiences of wonder?
So while uncertainties are innate to science, that doesn’t mean the science itself is uncertain. Scientific consensus isn’t built overnight. It is a series of small building blocks, data and ideas and more data built on one another incrementally. So a scientific consensus on climate change or social distancing or vaccines aren’t the lightbulb ideas of a single mad scientist in a lab – they reflect years and years of research done by a lot of people all over the world.
That’s not to say that all of these theories are perfect, science is a series of revisions after all, but that should be a reason to support more research – not demean and defund it. In the meantime, we can’t afford to sacrifice the good for the perfect. Rather than get hung up on the small details of how extreme a threat will be, we instead need to focus on the fact that it will be extreme in some way.
I believe that we will one day find a cure or vaccine for COVID-19 and I do believe that one day we will figure out how to combat climate change. But, and this is a big but – at what cost? When the worst of this pandemic is over we will no doubt ask how many lives could have been saved by better preparation and listening to the medical experts earlier. But, perhaps we will also ask how we might better prepare for future crises – climate change included. More importantly, perhaps we will do more than clapping to thank the medical and scientific personnel on the frontlines; maybe we will learn we can continue to express our gratitude by actually listening and trusting. Our lives may depend on it. Our planet’s too.