WHEN SCIENCE BECOMES INCONVENIENT

By Allan Maynard, MSc.                                  

December 2019

In April of 2019, scientists accomplished what was previously thought to be impossible, capturing an image of a black hole’s silhouette – a black hole that was thousands of light years from planet Earth. It was a stunning discovery that most people could not even comprehend. Yet it was generally accepted. Often however, science will reveal a truth that causes humanity great discomfort. What do we do when discoveries go beyond a ‘wow’ moment and force us to reexamine what we have become used to or even the way we live?

The benefits of science have become so ubiquitous that we can fall prey to taking these amazing advances for granted. Globally, life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900. Communication is now almost instantaneous. Many killer diseases, such as smallpox, which killed over 300 million people in the 20th century alone, have been eradicated. We can identify sub-atomic particles and simultaneously understand vastness; that our planet revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy that is one of a hundred billion galaxies in the universe.  

Even within our day-to-day routines we benefit constantly from the advances of science – our morning hot coffee, our transportation to and from work, our ability to communicate and be entertained at concerts or watching live streamed movies in our living rooms.  Our lives are convenient and improving because of advances in science. 

Despite the obvious advantages science is providing, there can be selective skepticism and even distain of some scientific discoveries.  For example, fluoride is not added to most water supplies in Canada despite overwhelming evidence as to its safety and obvious benefits for dental health. Referendums have been carried out in many cities, with plans to fluoridate defeated by wide margins. The voters simply did not believe what the science concluded. Why?

In recent years a more dangerous skepticism has emerged – an unwarranted fear of vaccinations. Social media sites and web pages are rife with vaccine myths and conspiracy theories designed to mislead parents and scare them away from vaccinating their children. This, in spite of the fact that few scientific advances have had as much impact on public health as vaccines. Before widespread vaccination, diseases like polio, smallpox, diphtheria and whooping cough killed thousands of people a year. Those who survived were sometimes left with lifelong disabilities. The most recent myth is that the vaccine for measles and mumps causes autism. This fear originated from a now widely discredited research paper published in 1998. The paper was based on a weak study of only 12 subjects. However, over the next two decades, multiple studies looking at hundreds of thousands of cases show vaccines do not increase a child’s risk of autism even when the child is at an increased risk of autism already. And yet, despite such overwhelming evidence, vaccination rates are down and measles cases are on the rise. How can this be rationalized? 

There’s no doubt that we live in a bewildering world and we have to decide what to believe and what not to believe. And that does not come naturally to us. Consider the case of Galileo in the early 17th century when he proclaimed that the earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun. This was heresy. He was rejecting the doctrine of the church but also asking people of the day to believe something they could not see. A person standing on the famous bridge in Florence (Ponte Vecchio) could observe the sun seemingly moving around the earth. Moreover, that is precisely what he or she would have been told by the church leaders. Galileo’s findings were abhorrent to the church and he was put on trial and forced to recant. His students though, had the last word. After his death, Galileo’s finger was removed and pickled for eternity. Today the middle finger sits in a small glass egg among lodestones and telescopes, the only human fragment in a museum devoted entirely to scientific instruments. The middle finger points upwards to the sky, eternally defiant to the church that condemned him.

With the case of Galileo – and indeed Charles Darwin who followed centuries later, the science was very inconvenient. It upended the beliefs of the day. In the last number of decades, science information is upending more that just beliefs – it is upending many of the pillars of our economy. The tobacco industry is a multi-billion dollar (over 600 billion) global enterprise. It is thus not at all surprising that the industry would fight hard against the scientific evidence that linked cigarette smoking to health issues such as lung cancer and heart disease. Confronted by compelling peer-reviewed scientific evidence of the harms of smoking, the tobacco industry, beginning in the 1950s, used sophisticated public relations approaches to undermine and distort the emerging science. The industry campaign worked to create the appearance of a scientific controversy. The main thrust was to create doubt by countering the science with junk science that seemed, at least to the general public, to be plausible.  The public relations firms hired by the industry did not have to prove that smoking was harmless nor disprove the peer-reviewed science about the health risks. They only had to create doubt. And it worked for almost 2 decades. This strategy of producing scientific uncertainty undercut public health efforts and regulatory interventions designed to reduce the harms of smoking. 

In her book “Merchants of Doubt”, Naomi Oreskes coined the term “The Tobacco Strategy”, referencing the strategy employed by the tobacco industry aimed at stopping or at least delaying any regulation on sales or consumption of cigarettes. The “Tobacco Strategy” is for “maintaining the controversy” and “keeping the debate alive”. It doesn’t matter if there really is an argument going on or not. All that matters is for people to have that impression.

This strategy has been adopted in many other situations when scientific evidence becomes inconvenient and upends multi-billion dollar industries. It is not convenient for the National Football League to accept the link between head injuries and the incidence to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. It is not convenient for ‘Big Sugar’ to accept the link between diabetes to the over consumption of sugar.  It has not been convenient to the marine industry to be forced to face the truth about industrial fishing methods depleting fish stocks worldwide. In these and other cases, the status quo was in jeopardy and denial strategies were put in place. 

For the fossil fuel industry, climate change denial is a multi-million dollar endeavour. After all, trillions of dollars of assets will have to be left in the ground as the world moves towards renewable energy and away from energy based on fossil fuels. It is well documented that the public relations firms used to undermine climate change science are the same kinds of companies (along with their so-called ‘scientists’) that were hired to deny the truth linking lung cancer to cigarettes, industrial discharge to acid rain and CFCs (chloro-fluoro carbons) to ozone depletion.  In these cases they have been soundly proven wrong and they are in the process of being proven wrong about climate change.  They fight science with junk-science but their message sticks. The denial reports, even though wrong, become the salvation for politicians who lack the courage to confront the global warming threat, or even worse must bow to the wishes of mega-donors. This seems to especially be the case now in the United States where climate change denial is higher than any in any other developed country. No wonder the president was able to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord with barely a whimper (along with some alarming praise) from members of the Republican Party. 

The well-funded obfuscation of science represents a unique challenge for communicating scientific consensus that upends important economic engines. Scientists are not uniquely trained in this way; the signature practices include detailed research, double-blind studies when needed, peer review and publication. Most are not prepared to have to fight against well-funded think tanks or have to convince politicians who simply don’t want, or even worse are not able to deal with, the truth. 

“Never have human societies known so much about mitigating the dangers they faced and yet agreed so little about what they collectively know,” writes Yale law professor Dan Kahan, a leading researcher in science communication. His and other groups have been increasingly studying science communication, to better understand what does and does not work for discussing different scientific topics. Language and how the topic is framed can make a big difference. It is also important to understand the audience and ensure that people’s values are not unduly attacked. Certainly it is important to use all available communication tools – especially social media to influence knowledge and belief. Moreover – emphasis away from the negative aspects and towards the positive is vital. For instance, studies show that, in tackling climate change, co-benefits such as reducing deaths from air pollution and boosting technological innovation may lower the net costs of climate action to zero or even lead to a net economic benefit rather than a cost, studies show.

In looking back at many of the issues now being resolved – especially with success stories such as the fight to save the ozone layer, it is clear that the truth does and will win out in the end. It takes time and the need to develop effective strategies to communicate inconvenient science. 

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