From ancient history to present day, there have always been foolish things that people have believed based on fantasy:
“The world is flat. If you go sailing to the horizon you will sail right over the edge.”
“Smoking cigarettes is good for you. It helps with digestion and makes you alert.”
“COVID is going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
What saves us from such nonsense is science. But we live in a moment when it seems like a lot of people have forgotten what science actually is.
Science is not opinion. It is real knowledge gained by having a theory, testing that theory with experimentation, and arriving at provable fact.
Most of us learned about scientific method in school. Here is a quick refresher: One morning you flip the switch on your coffee maker and it doesn’t turn on. You need to figure out whether it’s the coffee maker that’s broken or the electrical outlet, so you try an experiment. You plug the toaster into the same outlet. It toasts bread just fine. Scientific Conclusion: The problem is not the outlet, it’s your coffee maker.
Variations on this basic process are how we discovered that the world wasn’t flat. It is how we learned that smoking causes lung cancer. And it is how we know that COVID does not disappear like a miracle and that we need to vaccinate ourselves to prevent getting deeply ill and getting people we care about deeply ill.
We should consider ourselves lucky to have scientists on our side. On issues ranging from auto safety to climate change, they develop theories, construct serious and complex experiments, and learn useful things such as putting seat belts in cars keeps 15,000 Americans a year from dying horribly in car crashes.
But despite how much education, effort and time it takes for scientists to do this work, the nation is awash in people who think they know better – on the basis of something they saw on Facebook or cable news.
Consider the recent report from the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change. More than 200 of the most capable and credible scientific minds in the world wrote the report. It is based on thousands of scientific studies carried out over many years – measuring temperature changes in the ocean, carbon levels in the atmosphere, contaminant levels in car exhaust pipes and factory smokestacks, and hundreds of other indicators and causes of a changing Earth.
Their conclusions were unequivocal and devastating: The record heatwaves, wildfires, and flooding around the world are just a preview of what is to come, the result of humanity pouring heat-trapping carbon into Earth’s atmosphere for 100 years. And, the scientists warned, unless we act aggressively and immediately, large parts of the planet will become uninhabitable in our children’s lifetime.
Right on cue the nation’s voices of nonsense, equipped with nothing more than political ideology, announced that they knew more than all the scientists and all the research. Visitors to the FOX News Web site offered their responses on-line:
“This is an absolute joke- there is no such thing as man-made climate change- these ‘scientists’ have an agenda and have to justify their budgets!!!”
“How do they plan on taking care of the Earth's axial precession, the REAL driver of climate change?”
“I am old enough to remember when scientists used science to tackle a problem. Now they just call AOC and write their article.”
You also hear a lot from folks like this about how they are ignoring the experts and thinking for themselves. Thinking for yourself is good. I’m all for it. But thinking you are an expert in things you know nothing about is a very dangerous. Trust me, you do not want me fixing your plumbing or drilling your teeth.
Actually, nothing is further from ‘thinking for yourself’ than deciding what is fact-based on whether you think the messenger is on your political team. The COVID vaccines were developed under President Donald Trump who I didn’t care for much. That didn’t stop me from signing up for my Moderna shot at the earliest opportunity I could.
If some people want to dive down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory and nonsense we can’t stop them. But in a time when the dangers around us are deadly real – from extreme weather to a resurgent virus – the public decisions that we make need to be driven by hard science. Only a fool changes the outlet without trying the toaster first.
Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a columnist with the Lockport, New York Union-Sun & Journal. He can be reached by email at: JimShultz@democracyctr.org.