Indelible in my memory is that day that I lost my political virginity. In March 2007 I was just beginning to deliver an invited talk on the science of climate change to a joint committee of the Florida legislature when a conservative senator rose from his seat and called me a charlatan and demanded that I be dismissed. I was asked to step down.
The good news is that I finished my talk on time. The bad news is that the Florida legislature made it abundantly clear that the topic of my talk would be censored. Only one newspaper in the state carried the incident, and the denial of science in Florida became even more extreme under the administration of Rick Scott, who banished the term “climate change” from official business.
The current administration under Ron DeSantis seems finally to be taking environmental issues seriously, but this is largely because they can no longer be swept under the rug. The consequences of climate change and widespread despoiling of Florida’s freshwaters are abundantly apparent to even the most hardened denier. The public is demanding a response from Tallahassee.
Like death and taxes, the denial of science is a constant. The current denial of science with respect to COVID-19 is essentially the same story as the denial of climate change, but it is playing out much more rapidly. Climate change has unfolded over decades, but we can see here and now the COVID-19 dead in ERs, ICUs, morgues, refrigerated trailers, and graveyards. Death and suffering have touched every corner of the US.
Yet the best science delivered by our leading experts has been ignored and denied by most members of the GOP in the US Senate, and of course, by Trump and much of his administration. The CDC has been underfunded, sidelined, and disavowed by the administration. Government programs for response to a pandemic have been dismantled and those resources dispersed. Delay and refusal to acknowledge the COVID-19 threat by the administration has cost thousands their lives. All leading scientific authorities project that a disorderly opening of the US economy will kill thousands more.
Within the lay community there is profound confusion and anger about the science of the pandemic. Although some of this is simply the desire to shoot the messenger, but much of it is driven by a disinformation campaign that is strikingly similar to that propagated over the last 30 years about climate change. The fossil fuel industry, conservative think tanks, and various corporations have invested massively to undermine attempts by governments to address climate change.
Friends from the small town in Missouri where I grew up include many who are hard rightwing in their views. They are profoundly distrustful of science. They are angry at the experts who have testified before Congress about COVID-19 and they argue that the media cannot be trusted. They feel that experts are lying to them in order to promote a liberal agenda. There is overwhelming evidence that much of this disinformation is coming through social media propaganda funded by rightwing organizations.
Much of the confusion about the science of COVID-19 derives from widespread misunderstanding of the nature of science. Dr. Naomi Oreskes is a leading international scholar on the practice and history of science. Her recent TED talk is one of the best that I have found to convey the basic tenets of science. She masterfully demonstrates that there is no such thing as the scientific method. Science proceeds through many means of discovery, and inductive and deductive reasoning. The fundamental universal commonality for all good science is the critical skeptical review of findings by the scientific community. All hypotheses, no matter how long standing or venerable, are subject to re-evaluation and falsification.
I wish that the public could understand that the sciences are an ever-changing mosaic of scholarship that is self-correcting and never finished. The lay public often fails to grasp the depth and breadth of the scientific enterprise, which involves hundreds of thousands of experts from every corner of our planet. Arguably, the creation of such an amazing landscape of scholarship is the greatest accomplishment of civilization.
As a scientist I will continue to point the public to the most authoritative sources available and hope that something sticks. Unfortunately, the phenomenon known as “cultural cognition” is a major factor in the acceptance of science. It is a person’s cultural milieu that is a major determinant of what information they are willing to trust. Most often it is not the facts, but rather who is speaking and who is hearing that determine the acceptance of scientific understanding. Such tribalism is the dubious luxury of a time when our populations were small, but the denial of facts will be catastrophic for a globalized civilization.
Science can only provide a framework for understanding issues and make recommendations based on the best data available. The best data available as I write this shows that it will be monumentally stupid to open the US economy without very strong measures in place to control the spread of the virus. Americans are notoriously undisciplined and not likely to follow the guidelines that have made return to normality possible in countries such as Denmark, New Zealand, and others. The consequences for public health in the US have already been profound, and based on the best science that I have studied, likely to get much worse.
At this stage of our understanding of COVID-19 science cannot give the public a definitive answer about when it will be safe to return to business as usual. Such a recommendation will depend on our understanding of this complex and in some ways mysterious virus. Unequivocal evidence for how the virus works will require meticulous effort by experts all over the world, and this takes time.
I implore my conservative friends to avoid extreme responses based on their political perspectives. I ask them to get their science from sources that are directly linked to the peer reviewed literature. Although papers in many scientific journals are impenetrable for someone with a high school degree, there are aggregators such as ScienceDaily and ScienceX that provide accessible summaries of the scientific literature. Journals such as The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Science, and Nature often provide lay summaries of important papers.
It is likely that science will never provide answers to our most important questions about, well, the reality of reality. What is the universe? I don’t know, and importantly, you don’t either regardless of your high opinion of your beliefs. Despite our hubris and belief that someday we will have all the answers, I am certain that there will always be mysteries. Science is a chaotic and messy process that is always pushing the boundaries of what is knowable. Rather than cry conspiracy and hate science when it reveals something you don’t like, approach new understanding with equanimity and willingness to grow.
Question. Read. Learn. Grow. Rinse and Repeat.