By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on May 14, 2020.
Do you know of any effective incantations, spells or potions to help us in this time of crisis and uncertainty? No? If there is a silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic, it might be to reassert in people’s minds the role, importance and prominence of science in our lives. Science provided the answer to what the virus was, is the basis for vaccine development and is the mechanism for direction on how to cope. Hands down, science trumps magic, effectively deals with ignorance and calms hysteria.
The coronavirus will not be beaten by necklaces of garlic, snake-oil salesmen with fake cures or the limp pronouncements by partisan politicians. What will head it off will be the patient research and testing of anti-viral treatments and antibodies coupled with the calm determination of our provincial and federal medical health officers.
But we can’t turn science on or off depending on our whims, biases and our tribal affiliations on social media. Of course, you are entitled to your opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts. Science is the ultimate arbiter of knowledge.
“The good thing about science,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist and science spokesman, “is that it’s true, whether or not you believe it.”
In science, a theory is an established body of knowledge about a subject, supported by observable facts, repeatable experiments and logical reasoning. It is a formal explanation of some aspect of the natural world, tested and verified with evidence. Science can be described as observation, hypothesis, experimentation, repetition and finally conclusion. By contrast, much of what we are deluged with is a conclusion based on unsubstantiated, untested anecdote, the weakest, worst and most biased kind of information for decision-making. Examples include:
– Climate-change deniers who base their conclusions on exceptions in the research instead of looking at the overwhelming body of evidence. More than 97 per cent of experts in climate science have concluded that climate change is occurring and it is human-caused.
– Because it suits their narrative, many in the off-highway vehicle community refuse to accept the research results indicating their activity impacts watershed integrity, water quality, fish and wildlife populations and other recreational users. This perceptual blindness works its way into partisan politics, despite the unequivocal nature of the science.
– Most of us, including politicians, industry and recreationalists cheerfully ignore the science of cumulative effects, the additive impact of doing too much, too often, on an already busy landscape. We have often exceeded critical ecological thresholds and the outcomes are enhanced risk, reduced system resilience, diminished opportunity and costly restoration.
Science seems ever under attack, by those who do not like the message, feel it impairs their freedom, limits their business and doesn’t match their ideology. History provides us a rich treasure trove of examples of groups, corporations, business and, sadly, politicians, who have predictably damned the messenger.
Then, there is the corrosive effect on science, occurring primarily in social media, to create an alternative reality where facts are, if not irrelevant, at least optional. It is the place of substitution of unfounded opinion for evidence. There is faith in that for which there is no factual support; disbelief and denial about occurrences and events for which there is. The numbing thing about the tribalism inherent in social media is your group routinely provides the conditions that spare you the need to think and so you get out of the habit.
The complex mechanisms of the modern world depend on the certainty of science, just as the medieval world was governed by religious dogma, ritual and faith. Reliance on fears, irrational explanations and faith gave way to deductive reasoning, multiple observations and objective, evidence-based analysis divorced from preconceived notions and outcomes.
To step backwards, relying on opinion and unsubstantiated intuition, rather than evidence is a retrogressive step in today’s age.
It’s not that science compels us to take a course of action; science can tell us what’s happening (or is likely to happen) but it can’t make the decisions on what to do. In any decision we have to weigh the benefits, the costs and the consequences. Science ensures an honest accounting that can’t be swept under a rug of bureaucratic euphemisms.
When we ignore, trivialize or subvert science it leaves many people unprepared and unable to discuss or understand the damage exerted on the atmosphere, the landscape, habitat for wildlife or on our individual health.
So, does science matter? When we come out of this pandemic, we might reflect that science matters because it can guide us, point us to the truth and our lives will continue to depend on it.
Lorne Fitch is a professional biologist, a retired fish-and-wildlife biologist and a former adjunct professor with the University of Calgary.