Public Trust in Science, the Corona Virus Pandemic, and Big Money
Presenter: Barrie Webster
First, the good news: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the culture of science.
“The speed and volume of discovery over the past year have been remarkable, with researchers managing to unravel the molecular details of the virus, understand how it spreads and who is most at risk, and invent tests, drugs, and vaccines to tackle it. The public has seen what scientists can do under pressure.” Chemical & Engineering News, 2021.01.25.
“We’re going to have a huge surge of interest in things like immunology and fields related to viruses and vaccine development.” Malika Jeffries-EL, a chemistry professor and associate dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Boston University.
“Hopefully, this will be seen more unambiguously as a triumph for science.” Ed. Science
On the other hand, Jeremy Levin, CEO of Ovid Therapeutics and Chair of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization has said, “I think the denial of the validity of science and the politicization of it will be held against us for decades to come.”
Many of the public generally do not grasp the fact that good science iteratively corrects itself. This makes it appear that policy makers keep changing their minds and that science does not know where it is going. This misconception is reinforced by the belief that there should be certainty in science much as there is in the minds of the evangelical religious.
With respect to face masks, it appeared that guidance from the science shifted, destroying the credibility of science in the minds of many. ‘Officials first advised against wearing them out of concern that supplies would become stretched and that the priority should be that health-care workers get masks. Then, as scientists learned more about the airborne transmission of COVID-19 and the ability for asymptomatic people to spread the disease, they urged people to wear masks to protect others. Later, scientists learned that masks also provide protection to the wearer.’ If you are a scientist, this makes perfect sense, but if you are a member of the public who doesn’t grasp the way science works, it looks as if scientists don’t know what they are talking about.
Some blame the scientific community for not having done the hard work of explaining how the scientific method works. Others attribute this problem to the deficiencies in the education system.
Biden is reforming the approach to science in the US: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2021/01/new-biden-scientific-integrity-policy
The climate denial advocacy interests are based not just on attempted discrediting of science, but also on a fear of lost revenue if climate science is believed. And there is big money behind this, especially in the US. American investigative reporter, Jane Mayer, describes this powerful lobby in her book, Dark Money, the hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right (2017): https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/books/review/dark-money-by-jane-mayer.html
In Canada, a costly example of the lack of trust in science at the government level comes from Alberta where the lack of respect for climate science and economic forecasts has led to the ridiculous War Room (Canadian Energy Centre) to root out those who would dare to criticize the fossil fuel industry. Robyn Urback’s satirical op-ed puts it in its place.
Low planning capacity is evident in the ability of many countries and states to deal effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that science is held in low opinion is evident in this situation. As stated on the second page of this article in the most recent Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor,
“Countries around the world have been unable to handle a pandemic, one that scientists had long expected to strike, in part because of concerted efforts to undermine and eliminate democratic planning capacity.”: https://monitormag.ca/articles/no-plan-big-problem
Beyond this, over the last 60 years, there has also developed a whole industry on creating doubt in the minds of the judiciary and society to emphasize the uncertainties in science and deflect regulatory changes that might interfere with business interests. Science is by nature never 100% certain and this industry exploits this scientifically conservative view by weaponizing it against good scientific justification for regulatory policy. David Michaels’ book, Doubt is Their Product – how industry’s assault on science threatens your health (2008) tells a sordid story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubt Is Their Product
And you thought the loss of faith in science was due largely to the influence of religious folks. Well, you are not totally wrong, but it appears that a much more likely fundamental driving force is Big Money.
How does it look to you?