Revisiting the war on science


In 2016 I wrote about the war being waged on science. I wrote about it because I wanted to correct perceptions about how it is used, its short comings and its strengths. I wanted to show how my own perspective on science matured. It is 2019 now, and although there has been a change of Government, I still have the distinct impression that a good many politicians in Parliament are suspicious of the purpose of science and those who conduct research.

My impressions stem from looking at the commentary of politicians at both ends of the spectrum. Green M.P. Marama Davidson has just gone on the Twitter record as agreeing with a Prof Steinberger that western science, culture and philosophy is somehow crap because it has failed to emphasize not messing with the environment.

At the other end, A.C.T. Member of Parliament David Seymour, various National Party Members of Parliament as well as rural interests in New Zealand First, are in constant denial about the effect of dairy farming on water ways. They also seek to undermine our efforts to contain waste

All parts of Parliament have at some point or another talked about engaging science as a means to develop the economy. Nanotechnology, biotechnology, green tech are just a few. Yet these same Members of Parliament whilst talking up the importance of science, as soon as they realize its evidence testing of theories has debunked or undermined something the believe in, it is suddenly on the outer again.

Perhaps the mistrust comes from offshore locations such as the White House, which is in open denial about any environmental research that comes out and points to the state of one component or another of the biophysical environment. Paid for by heavy industry and other business interests, the White House of President Donald Trump has effectively crippled efforts by American researchers to better understand what humans are doing to the environment. The data sets collected by agencies such as the United States Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are of world wide value. The same goes for the data streams that come in from N.A.S.A. satellites.

There is a perception among many people that scientists are some sort of nonsense artists, who use their craft as a form of smoke and mirrors to make it appear that they know what they are talking about. A lot seem to not understand that a theory is only as good as the person who formed it, and that if the scientific community decide it is improbable it will fail.

At the time of my 2016 article there were two quite good examples of peoples misconceptions about science. At one level for example reading articles about the discovery of gravitational waves, or research into the Alpine Fault, some of the misconceptions are as alarming as they are laughable. In the international context, commenters on a Fox News article on Facebook went to considerable lengths to somehow incorporate religion into the news that a long time Albert Einstein theory that gravitational waves exist. They tried to suggest that a higher being was somehow at work. In the New Zealand context the misconceptions have to do with the Alpine Fault. When an the news website Stuff put up an article on Facebook last week, a substantial number of article readers commented that they thought the scientists were playing with peoples lives by drilling into such a big fault. Aside from being wholly wrong on a number of levels, it also pointed to the lack of understanding about the whole research programme,  even though the people making the comments had – presumably – just read read an entire article devoted to it.

In the case of the gravitational waves being discovered, the comments are all the more incredible since Einstein’s genius is beyond dispute. But on the other they are not so surprising given that the target audience are generally not trained to trust theories that are tested by the scientific community, especially if it does not fit a preconceived view of the world. In New Zealand, despite having seismic activity comparable to California, and a new found urgency in the post-Christchurch earthquake environment, to find out what we can about our faultlines there is a credible body of ignorance. Despite much effort to publicize the research, including public meetings, public notices, media releases and journalistic research, it seems that there is much work still to be done educating the public about the necessity of the research. This is even though one day it might save thousands of lives.

I feel for scientists. They are just humans trying to do a job that at times is misunderstood, never really properly funded and sometimes deliberately turned into a political football. Is it any wonder so few want to be scientists when we treat the existing ones like this? It might not be an intentional war, but sometimes I get the impression people who do not know better are waging war against science. And that is sad. And wrong.

And three years later in 2019, I don’t think much has changed.

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