Fiction and fact: The undermining of science and society
Tuesday, October 27, 2020
In these days of a tumultuous and politically divided country and a raging pandemic taking scores of lives each day, research is a cornerstone of the bedrock of public health, evidence-based science, and healthcare delivery.
However, when determined efforts are made to undermine the importance of the truth of scientific inquiry and discovery, our society itself is lamentably and powerfully undermined.
Is Fiction Truer Than Fact?
The very notion of how we as humans accept or reject the concept of facts has changed remarkably in the course of the first two decades of the 21st century.
In 2017, Donald Trump’s press secretary, Kellyanne Conway, used the term “alternative facts” in response to a question from a journalist. Since that time, the use of so-called alternative facts has seeped into the American consciousness, leading millions to believe obvious falsehoods in service to particular ideologies.
The president has been repeatedly found to be spreading falsehoods about the coronavirus throughout the pandemic. Stating that the virus was just like influenza led to many disbelieving public health officials’ cautions about the virulence of the disease. Stating that 99% of cases are “harmless” also undermined experts’ claims that the virus was dangerous. And consistently stating that our response and numbers were better than any other country vastly underplayed the extent of the pandemic.
When widely praised experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci are roundly criticized by a political leader with such global power and reach, the foundations of the public’s trust in science is undeniably shaken.
The Information Wars
In other areas of public discourse over previously accepted facts, the information wars rage on.
So-called flat-earthers are essentially conspiracy theorists who purport to have proof that the earth is flat and that astronomical science and physics have been duping the public for decades. To demonstrate the influence of such a clear rejection of science, a YouGov survey showed that one in six people believe that the earth is actually flat despite all scientific evidence to the contrary.
For decades, the belief that the moon landing with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was faked by NASA and the government is yet another example of how science — and the rock-solid proof it offers — can still be rejected by those with other agendas.
And when it comes to the vast database of rigorous science regarding the facts of human-caused climate change, even indisputably iron-clad evidence is roundly denied to this day by President Trump and countless others.
Words, Influence, and Power
The world of social media and the internet make it possible for conspiracy theories and the utterances and tweets of presidents to change the global conversation within minutes. For instance, if hydroxychloroquine is touted as a miracle drug against the advice of medical experts, people suffer.
A man in Arizona died earlier this year when he and his wife ingested chloroquine phosphate, which is used in fish tanks to protect against parasites. In an interview, his wife referred to the president’s avid touting of hydrochloroquine for the prevention of COVID-19 as the reason they ingested this substance poisonous to humans.
In a 2019 study published on the website of the Cambridge University Press, the following conclusion speaks volumes to the power of words and conspiratorial beliefs:
“The proliferation of deceptive claims on social media has done a lot to normalize conspiracy, and to some extent conspiratorial worldviews. We can try to dismiss conspiracy theorizing as something undertaken only by a foil-hat-wearing fringe, however when our friends and neighbors (and sometimes ourselves) begin to believe and share conspiracies on social media, we must acknowledge that conspiracy theorizing is much more widespread. And when it becomes commonplace to project conspiratorial motives onto scientific institutions (and not just corporate or governmental ones) merely because information disagrees with our worldviews, we are in danger of entering into a space where knowledge becomes almost completely relative, we cannot engage in rational discussion with those with whom we disagree, and we completely break down the division of cognitive labor on which our society relies. Although we should not be gullible—after all, there are real conspiracies—we must learn how to balance skepticism with trust.”
Information that “disagrees with our worldviews” does not necessarily need to translate into wholesale denial of reality, yet it appears that such conspiratorial views it gives rise to does just that. And while the belief in a flat earth may on its surface seem harmless, the larger movement to reject scientific inquiry is supported by the ongoing dissemination of any so-called theory that further erodes public trust in the institutions and individuals who use rigorous scientific inquiry to increase the breadth and depth of human knowledge.
Is some research designed more thoughtfully than others? Of course. Yet the scientific process allows for previous research to be repeated and expanded upon so that further refinement of knowledge can be achieved in the hope of getting even closer to the truth.
The Brain Trust
At this pivotal time, we need experts to serve as the brain trust we look to for guidance regarding the best courses of action to take in the interest of our own well-being, as well as that of our loved ones, our communities, our nations, and humanity writ large.
If it wasn’t for the scientific method, the human race would be light-years behind its current state, and the societies and institutions that make us who we are would never have come into being. In fact, we would not be who we are without our ability to tap our powerful pre-frontal cortex and put it to use in ways to benefit the greater whole.
Our scientists are indeed the brain trust to whom we must look. Tweets from a desperate politician should not guide our thoughts and actions, and the denial of clear scientific proof should not be dismissed as misguided conspiracy for the purposes of nefarious agendas.
Science and facts are important collective touchpoints in the evolution of our species, and we must continue to push back against those who seek to destroy the savings account of encyclopedic scientific fact that helps us to be the best that we can be as human beings living on this troubled, fragile, spherical, and beautiful planet.
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