It seems to be fashionable these days for people to pick and choose among scientific theories and advice, depending on whether they like the implications of that scientific advice. They may treat one scientific theory like the gospel and another theory like a hoax, to be ignored at all costs. It’s called the post-truth world: whatever we want to believe to be true is true and whatever is troublesome to be taken seriously is not true. How is this working out for you?!
As convenient as this is for personal and political decision making, presumably students are still taught and tested on established scientific principles. And while I can identify with not knowing the answer to every question on a science test, it never crossed my mind to just dismiss the question as wrong if I couldn’t get the answer. Maybe too difficult to understand without having done enough studying, but not wrong. I guess that’s because I was pre-post-truth!
There is no doubt that for many people these days, including, sadly, some powerful political leaders, the economic, social, and/or political expediency of denying and even disparaging the findings of science wins out with depressing frequency. This is our post-truth world.
The work of scientists is to try to understand the structure and behaviour of our physical and natural world – aka Mother Nature. Much of the work scientists undertake in furthering our understanding of our physical and natural world is for the betterment of mankind. How to predict hurricanes and earthquakes with more accuracy in order to save more lives. How to develop medicines and vaccines to treat an increasing number of new viruses. How to cure cancer. You get the picture.
Scientists rarely discover a theory that won’t eventually be improved upon as more observations are made, that’s the nature of science. But they are working with the best possible knowledge at the time. For example, although bacteria was first “discovered” in 1676 by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, using a very early version of a microscope, it wasn’t until 1928 – 250 years later – that Alexander Fleming made the serendipitous “discovery” of penicillin, our first large-scale successful anti-bacteria treatment. I put the word “discover” in quotes because the bacteria was always there, we just didn’t know about it. In fact, there is evidence that bacteria has been around for as long as 3.5 billion years. And penicillin was already there, too, waiting for humans to notice.
Since the advent of antibiotics, less than 100 years ago, scientists have learned many, many things, but there’s always more to uncover and understand. And understanding something is just the first step in solving whatever challenges this new understanding might pose to humans. Scientific knowledge evolves, that’s how it works. But we ignore what we do know at our peril.
In the 1850s there was a terrible outbreak of cholera in the heart of London. Nobody knew what caused it. People had all kinds of theories and treatments, based on superstitions and gossip. People were dying in droves. It took one pharmacist to make the connection between the filthy water people used at the public wells and the disease for the cholera epidemic to be brought under control. Before then, nobody had understood that there could be a problem with using water contaminated by sewage and rubbish. Believe it or not. And not everyone bought into the idea of not using the water they had always used, just because some know-it-all said so. Those people kept dying. That’s less than 200 years ago. It would appear that we’ve been fighting every step forward.
We’ve cleaned up lots of things. The big cities that used to burn coal finally realized (or admitted) that people were dying from breathing in the particle-laden dirty air and stopped allowing it to be burned in home furnaces and fireplaces. That was only in the 1960s. Did that finally happen because you could actually see the coal particles on your clothes and skin, as opposed to carbon exhaust from automobiles and heating plants, where the haze hanging over the cities now is somehow less obvious?
We finally acknowledged that cigarette smoking killed people (duh), after decades of having been told so by scientists. And, lo and behold, after 20+ years nobody can imagine having to go into a restaurant or airplane and be overcome by second-hand smoke. But we all did, for decades, until finally public interest won out over profit. The tobacco lobby was very powerful, as have been the oil and gas industries. But we continue to hesitate to follow the science – and our own common sense – at our peril and to the peril of our planet.
More extreme weather events can be expected. The horrific wildfires in the western U.S. are symptomatic of climate change, as were the horrific wildfires in Australia last year and the unprecedented wildfires in Siberia and other parts of the Arctic. The weather in these places has been hotter and drier than anything on record. The fires are not because of poor forest management. You can believe that – it’s your right – but that’s not going to change the march of man-made climate change. Sorry, but things will undoubtedly only get worse as climate change advances.
More pandemics can be expected. Sorry to burst your bubble, but this is caused by another outcome of human interference with nature: destruction of wildlife habitats. We have been destroying them through carbon emissions that are responsible for the melting polar ice (polar bear habitats, etc.), but also by cutting down huge swaths of tropical and sub-tropical forests in order to plant non-native single-species crops, primarily for the first-world consumer market. It’s not that this revenue is not vital to the local economies, but an unintended outcome is that as wildlife habitat is lost the wildlife starts competing with humans for the limited remaining space, and their viruses spread. This isn’t going to stop with COVID-19. You can believe it’s a hoax – that’s your right – but believing that will not make it disappear. Believing that it’s a Chinese plot won’t make it go away either.
More extinction of animals can be expected. Scientists estimate that animals are going extinct at a rate that is 1,000 to10,000 higher than the “background” rate one would expect from historical extinction rates. Wrap your head around that figure. And by the end of this century, large mammals such as the elephant, tigers, rhinos, and polar bears could no longer roam our planet, thanks to us. Thanks to man-made climate change, wildlife habitat destruction, and illegal poaching. I weep.
Attending to the destruction we have wrought on our planet and attending to the gross inequalities around the world is what we need. Desperately. Now. And that requires countries around the world working cooperatively and collaboratively to solve what are world problems. That requires world organizations to be accountable and to know they are supported. That requires international agreements to be respected and protected. That requires us all to understand that we have to be in this together. Why are we going in the opposite direction??!
Mother Nature doesn’t care if we listen to our scientists. Mother Nature doesn’t care if we get it right or wrong. The natural world will just keep responding to the harm we’re causing it as best it can. And if we cause our own complete destruction, which we just might, nature will pick up the pieces and do just fine without us. Sad but true. Believe it or not. Truth or post-truth.
Image credits: cbc.ca, bbc.com