About: In answer to the title of this article – “Are we losing trust in science?”, I would say “yes”, and add that perhaps we never did trust scientists if they went against our beliefs and traditions.
In this article we look at cases where science is not respected, We start with the CDC, ironically the the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, who did not respect their own work. Going back into the past we see how both Galileo and Darwin were neither understood, nor respected.
Fortunately for us, some journalists uncover scientific truths. Two examples: “The Petroleum Papers” by investigative journalist Geoff Dembicki, and “Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations” by Simon Schama, a Financial Times contributing editor.
Science fiction works give us clues. Kim Stanley Robinson in Red Mars suggest scientists are better decision-makers than politicians. Sequoia Nagamatsu in “30,000 Years beneath a Eulogy” offers a multi-generational perspective, that takes us beyond our present.
When scientists ignore science. Ask the CDC.
After the 2020-2021 covid pandemic studies showed the importance of keeping space between people in closed areas. In 2023, it became standard practice in many places. When it is not practiced, and people get sick, it makes headlines. Ironically it happened in a CDC conference. CDC is the United States’ official organization dedicated to health, meaning they produce guidelines based on research that people can, in theory, trust.
After a CDC conference in Atlanta, US, in April 2023, an estimated 181 people were infected with the virus. There were apparently no makes, questionable ventilation, and lots of close contacts.
Jay Varma, an infectious-disease expert at Weill Cornell Medicine wrote “I hope that organizers of large conferences, especially for health professionals, should, at a minimum, make high-quality masks as abundant and available as toilet paper and ensure that there is adequate ventilation and/or disinfection of air,”
Of all groups! Apparently they do not follow their own advice.
When scientists are arrested. Ask Galileo.
Galileo has been called the father of observational astronomy, modern classical physics and modern science.. Among his work, he proved that the Earth circles around the sun, not the opposite. This view – heliocentrism – was considered false and heretical because it violated Biblical truths, as it did not correspond to the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe. His work, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” led to the trial convicting him of treason, after which he was put under house arrest until the end of his life. His books were banned (sound familiar, American school parents?) including books he had not yet written.
Several centuries later, the Roman Catholic church, in 1992, admitted that Galileo’s cosmology was correct—after 359 years! You can see the New York Times article in the time machine:
Art Kleiner, (one of my gig mindset pioneers, listed in The Gig Mindset Advantage), has a chapter in The Age of Heretics where he puts Galileo in context, along with other “heretics” including people in regular companies. I love the title of the first edition of his book in 1996: The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change
When scientific work inadvertently triggers evil. Ask Darwin
Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 after working on it for over 20 years. The theory was generally accepted in the first half of the 20th century. He developed the theory of natural selection after his work on the famous 5-year trip on the HMS Beagle.
Darwin did not suffer the fate of Galileo, although even today his theory is divisive as some traditionally religious people believe in creationism rather than evolution. This belief persists in some people still today.
Darwinism and the theory of natural selection was one of the inspirations for genetic determinism. Darwin’s half cousin, Francis Galton, developed the theory and term genetic determinism referred to as eugenics. The idea is that we can improve the human population through selective breeding. Darwin disagreed with this, but his original work was highjacked as the trigger for the early development of the theory. I won’t go into detail here, but eugenics as a social movement in many countries has been practiced by governments, institutions and individuals as the basis for many controversial policies and actions, not to say deadly crimes against humanity.
When money beats science. Ask Geoff Dembicki, author of “The Petroleum Papers”
“The Petroleum Papers” is based on hundreds of confidential documents showing how oil companies have been concealing the truth about their negative impact on climate change. Subtitled “Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change” it is written by investigative journalist Geoff Dembicki
The book discloses how the major oil producers did studies showing the the destructive effects of their work, but did not make any changes. He accuses them of green-washing, using environmentally friendly language while continuing to carry out environmentally destructive actions.
During his research, the author attended a conference in 1991 that was connected to Koch Industries, (who are estimated to have over $1 billion in crude oil refining assets) and had been organized to make attendees believe climate change was not real. A climate-change denial conference.
When “The Petroleum Papers” came out in 2022, it was highly praised, considered “an essential read” by The Washington Post.
Publishers Weekly says “The petroleum industry is guilty of a Big Tobacco–style public cover-up, according to this vivid exposé.”
This is a striking, depressing example of how money can stifle scientific truth. And we all suffer as a result. Big money driving political decisions and harming the whole earth. The argument for continued use of fossil fuels is not black and white. Killing science is.
The thwarting of science will always be a human failing
“The thwarting of science will always be a human failing”. What a great title from the Financial Times, followed by a subtitle that sets the tone:
From India to Britain, we have always managed to get in the way of our own inventiveness.
Simon Schama, a Financial Times contributing editor and author of ‘Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations’ writes about how we humans are caught between the need to advance our knowledge and our more primitive reactions of unreason.
(The article requires a subscription or a gift link.)
The author gives us an overview of how vaccinations have often been resisted in spite of medical proof. In our lifetimes, vaccinations have been and are politicized, wrapped up in conspiracy plots. We may suffer seriously if a Covid-like pandemic occurs again.
The first paragraph sets the tone:
“Should the prediction of Geoffrey Hinton, godfather of AI, that our imperfect ‘biological intelligence’ will be superseded by the artificial version be realized, then it will be because of the paradox in which humanity seems fatefully trapped. We are at one and the same time a marvel of infinite ingenuity, but also a bundle of barely evolved primitive impulses: harrowing fears, conspiratorial suspicions and needy gratifications. All too often the latter get in the way of the former; unreason thwarting the hard-earned achievements of science.”
How do we see scientists?
Scientists as strategic decision-makers
Kim Stanley Robinson’s scientists often appear as the most appropriate people to direct public policy on important environmental and technological questions. Politicians are often ignorant on these points.
“The scientist being a better public official than politicians is interesting because of the assumption that they will rely mostly on data and logic and inductive reasoning to make their decisions and better serve the society they represent”. Red Mars
Scientists as poets
In the short story collection How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu, the story “30,000 Years beneath a Eulogy” is a moving tribute to scientists. The daughter, Clara, is described as follows:
“…the daughter who fell in hole and died, She was always talking about how the unknown past would save us. For a scientist, she dreamed more like a poet or a philosopher.”
“How High We Go in the Dark” is the title story in a series of stories that are extremely human and make us realize the impact of events that we cannot imagine today. The series was written over a ten-year period before our recent pandemic, and raises points we have not yet considered but should.
Science, source of spirituality
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Thought leaders? Not for all of us.
Based on 200 people from countries around the world, we will see varying levels of trust in scientists 20 years from now.
Well over half say we’ll see scientists as thought leaders and sources of validated information and guidance. A very small proportion say we will largely consider them irrelevant, not trustworthy. Another group stands in the middle range, with neither high nor low expectations. The remaining people did not respond: lack of opinion perhaps?
Think about it: explorers, rock stars, change agents
Three people in the 2043 survey from three very different countries talked about scientists in unusual words:
“Scientists are the explorers of humanity.” (Australia)
“Climate scientists, epidemiologists and data ethicists will become the new scientific rock stars.” (United States)
“The role of scientist as agents of change in the society will continue into the future.” (Nigeria)
They bring together the dimensions we talked about here. They go beyond what we are used to. They discover new truths about our world, that we are not the center of everything. They understand how we evolve, they see beyond a single generation and how we are connected to other lives.
Many dare to stand on a stage, single out and publicly criticize people who are harming the earth and therefore harming us.
They discover and promote ways to improve our well-being and our health across a global population.
They serve as a “candle in the dark” as said Sagan. We must work together to keep the candle burning and to spread the light farther and farther.
Photo: Scientists for Future in Berlin at Fridays for Future demonstrations that were part of the global climate action movement. Christian Lue, Unsplash.