Notes on the Public and Science

We live in a world surrounded by science and the products of science. Yet there seems to be an increasing tendency among too many of us to disregard, deprecate, ignore and dismiss science. We do so at our peril.

According to Fortune Magazine, 3M’s 2019 State of Science Index, which includes responses from 14,000 people in 14 countries, some 35% of respondents say they’re skeptical of science, an uptick of 3% since last year. Just over a quarter of the world say they’re suspicious of the role of science over the next 20 years—in the U.S., this number grows to one third.

According to a 2018 poll, 16 percent of Americans think the world is flat. Seriously. Apparently, Flat-Earth support runs highest among millennials and those with lower incomes. The flat-earthers have a smattering of celebrities and self-promoters on their side, from rapper B.o.B. to NBA basketball star Kyrie Irving. Never mind Copernicus, Galileo, Apollo 8 and four hundred years of science. Never mind that they use GPS to find their way around. They think the world is flat. They think NASA is part of a giant conspiracy to hide the truth.

It’s not just Americans. Alex Moshakis reported on a flat earth convention in Birmingham, England.

Despite the recent measles epidemic in eastern Washington state, the anti-vaxxer movement continues to thrive. To some extent, it is enabled by social media. There are closed Facebook groups for anti-vaxxers, who, increasingly, are attacking those who suggest they are wrong. A recent peer-reviewed study (paywalled) found 4 distinct sub-groups of anti-vaxxers, labelled as “trust,” “alternatives,” “safety,” and “conspiracy.” For example, a comment representative of “conspiracy” is that poliovirus does not exist and that pesticides caused clinical symptoms of polio. An example from the “alternatives” sub-group is that eating yogurt cures human papillomavirus. Never mind that the claims are scientific nonsense.

In one case the researchers studied, in the summer of 2017, Kids Plus Pediatrics of Pittsburgh posted a video on its Facebook page urging parents to vaccinate their children against human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause a variety of cancers. The pediatrics practice found itself subjected to unrelenting, coordinated attacks by the anti-vaxxers, some from as far away as Australia. As the researchers noted, it’s not about misperceptions of a risk of autism any longer; there’s an element of vindictiveness now.

Among all the threats created by the human-caused increased CO2 emissions, ocean acidification may carry the greatest long-term risk. About 30% of the higher levels of CO2 are absorbed by the oceans. Increased dissolved CO2 leads to increased ocean acidity.

The red line is atmospheric CO2, measured at the summit of Mauna Loa Volcano in Hawai’i. That the longest, continuous measurement point for atmospheric CO2. The blue line is the level of CO2 dissolved in the Pacific Ocean waters off of Hawai’i. The green line is the pH, the alkalinity and acidity of those same ocean waters.  It may not look like much, bu remember the pH scale is logarithmic. The pH has changed so drastically that the small creatures that make up the base of the food chain, animals that excrete calcium carbonate shells like pteropods, can no longer do so. Corals, crabs, clams and oysters are all at serious risk of failure. The collapse of the base of the oceanic food chain would mean the loss of about 30% of the humankind’s sources of protein. That’s kind of important.

And yet a U.S. Senator, Mike Lee (R, Utah) argued on the floor of the U.S. Senate this week that climate change was less real than a portrait of the late Ronald Reagan, firing a machine gun from the back of a Velociraptor that was clutching an American flag. Admittedly, not a lot of what Senator Lee said made any sense, but his mockery of anthropogenic climate change was very clear.

What has happened that science has fallen in to such disregard?

Without science and technology, we’re not going to be able to feed the 7.7 billion humans on the planet, let alone the projected 9.8 billion that will be here in 2050. Without some serious science, we aren’t going to be able to deal with the consequences of the damage we are doing to the environment. Without some serious science, we’re not going to be able to deal with the tropical diseases that are going to be spreading to the warmer Northern Hemisphere.

And yet the president, a reality television star, as ignorant of science as a duck, feels free to claim that 97% of climatologists are wrong, that he is right, and that anthropogenic climate change is a Chinese hoax. Anti-vaxxers who haven’t had a biology class since high school can claim that polio – a disease nearly eradicated through vaccines – is caused by pesticides, and eating yoghurt cures papillomavirus. And none of them are immediately hooted down in derision.

Illogic, appalling risk assessment skills, abysmal ignorance and an utter absence of critical thinking.

You want something to worry about? Worry about this: science, the only plausible means of getting us out of the hole we have dug for ourselves, is increasingly being mocked, disregarded and ignored. That’s what keeps WC awake at night.





4 thoughts on “Notes on the Public and Science

  1. I hear you about sleepless nights….
    And yet, this is the way to go: make an effort, speak up, denounce, engage converse, follow up.
    My job as a coach has become a mission in helping people approach the world through critical thinking, and not the modern fashion of pre-packaged notions that feel right or good.
    Silence instead, is not an option anymore, otherwise the momentum ignorance has taken will keep on building.

  2. It was reports filtering all the way up to my mountain redoubt some time in the early 2000s of the ocean’s pH changing that shook me out of my lack of interest regarding CO2 and global warming.
    As most of my years in graduate school were intimiately tied to the complexities of seawater chemistry, I was (read: used to be!!!!) not just familiar with but in awe of the staggeringly multifarious and intertwined pieces of the mélange we call seawater. In that mixture is buffer upon buffer after buffer that stabilizes the soup and laves not just the sea’s creatures but ultimately all life on earth.
    So my initial – and well-founded – response was “these reports must be fake science: an increase of CO2 simply will not effect such a change”. And yet, I was wrong (and I quickly changed my mind, I am happy – for a given definition of happiness – to report).

    I thus have long since agreed with the tenor of this post. The earth’s atmosphere is a vaporous sheen – little stuff. Compared to that, the mass of and consequences tied to such a fundamental change of the earth’s oceans is not multiples, but many orders of magnitude more serious.

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