Science under siege
The March 2015 edition of National Geographic carries a most disturbing headline; “The War on Science“. Superimposed over an image of a worker rearranging a diorama of the moon landing at the Kennedy Space Centre are the words “Climate change does not exist, evolution never happened, the moon landing was fake, vaccinations can lead to autism, genetically-modified food is evil“. All nonsense of course, but that’s the very point of the story.
It’s 2015 and it’s never felt like science has been under so much attack. And for what reason? Why are sections of the population turning their backs on the very system of thinking that has made the greatest contribution to human development and understanding?
The story in National Geographic was written by Joel Achenbach who usually writes for The Washington Post. His story started with the controversy surrounding a plan to fluoridate water in the Oregon city of Portland, one of only a handful of large American cities that have not taken this progressive step. Achenbach described the paranoia that opponents exhibited about “chemicals” in the water supply, despite fluoride’s proven safety record and widespread use across most of the developed world. In many ways, it was the paranoid fringe who held the debate.
Achenbach’s story then went on to describe the other paranoid or delusional conspiracies that anti-science proponents pedal on the internet, from the notion that genetically-modified food is inherently unsafe through to the dangerous myth of vaccination causing autism. The article appears to ascribe two chief causes; that humans have an innate predisposition to trust intuition over evidence and that the internet makes the transmission of anti-science theories much easier than in times past.
Both of these causes are real and even in the scientific community we need to be careful that evidence always trumps intuition. Confirmation bias is a real risk, but a good scientist will be aware of this and ensure that objectivity rules. Additionally the modern preference for multidisciplinary research and the system of peer-review, where research is subjected to external criticism, helps to ameliorate the risk of conformational bias in research. Either way, the use of the internet to spread false ideas about the nature of research or researchers has lead to the preposterous notion that science itself is one big conspiracy.
In fact, we could very well describe this period as the “Age of the Conspiracy Theory” for the proliferation of dangerous and ill-informed myths that propagate across the internet. Despite what could possibly be described as the best access to education in human history, subsections of the community gravitate to simplistic and often baseless stories to account for how the world seems to be. This isn’t a new phenomenon at all, but its prevalence appears to be on the rise.
Achenbach’s National Geographic piece was written from an American perspective. As the article notes, the United States is distinguished as having a particularly large proportion of the population sceptical about evolution, climate science and the merits of the scientific method. Yet even here in Australia, I see parallels with the phenomenon described in the US, which is of great concern.
One issue of particular resonance in Australia is the myth of Wind Turbine Syndrome. I am prepared to call this a myth because there is currently no scientific evidence or even a reasonable explanation of how wind farms can cause illness. (If credible scientific evidence is produced to the contrary, I will willingly admit my mistake). Yet, the proliferation of anecdotes about alleged wind farm-related illnesses led the former State Government of Victoria to place a ban on the construction of wind farms across large sections of the state. The basis for this decision was nothing more than hearsay; a poor basis for policy decision-making. Then again, this is the same government that also fulfilled an election promise to hunt for “big cats” in the central part of the state after 60 years of “sightings”. (The result: no big cats found).
Wind Turbine Syndrome is typical of the sort of fear that can surround new technology. Remember when we all worried that mobile phones and televisions could cause cancer? Wind Turbine Syndrome is a “communicated” disease; spread via the nocebo effect by being talked about. Wind Turbine Syndrome is a strong candidate for definition as a psychogenic condition.
The mistrust of science in this debate is the biggest concern of all. In the end, if people want to believe that wind farms cause illness that is up to them, but what concerns me is that the presentation of evidence gathered using the scientific method is dismissed outright. People would rather trust their gut feeling over any reasonable and considered explanation. When this sort of ‘intuitive’ decision-making extends into politics and government is when it becomes really dangerous.
Many Victorians may have been frustrated at the previous government’s wind farm ban, but in the end it simply stalled some investment in renewable energy. A far more pernicious anti-scientific thinking can be seen at the federal level in Australia.
When Prime Minister Tony Abbott was in opposition, he famously told a local newspaper in rural Victoria that “climate change is crap“. He has since changed his view, but the underlying scepticism of his government towards science has remained.
Once coming to office, the Prime Minister abolished the position of Minister for Science and cut $114 million from the budget of Australia’s peak scientific research organisation CSIRO. Consequently, nearly 900 science jobs were abolished. Additionally, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation suffered a cut of $27.5m, the Australian Institute for Marine Science had $7.8m cut, the Australian Research Council lost $75m and the Cooperative Research Centres scheme had its funding frozen with a $10m cut to come in 2017-18. The government also abolished the Climate Commission and attempted to abolish both the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
Whilst one can argue about the pros and cons of reducing government expenditure to reduce debt, the attacks on Australia’s scientific infrastructure is more directed than general budget savings measures.
Only last week, the Minister for Education Christopher Pyne openly threatened the jobs of 1700 more scientists if the senate didn’t pass his university fee deregulation bill. A government that valued science would not turn its scientists into hostages as a bargaining chip for unrelated changes in education policy. Likewise, a government that valued science would not make so many policy decisions that destroy Australia’s scientific capability.
Science is slow and painstaking. Science is also very expensive, but the economic and social rewards for investing in science make the whole endeavour worthwhile. Sacking thousands of scientists and cutting funding to research programmes is relatively quick and easy, but rebuilding that capability is far more challenging. The damage that is currently being done to Australia’s scientific capability is profound and will be long-lasting. A quick restoration of funds would not quickly restore expensive programmes that have lost research momentum and key personnel.
Amongst all of this, the biggest question of all is “why”? There are a number of climate-change denialists in cabinet. One wonders whether the savage attacks on science are, in part, a deliberate attempt to stifle public discussion about climate change.
By cutting funding to programmes and sacking scientists, the government is communicating to the broader community that science has little value to Australia and that scientists are expendable. As Australia heads further into the 21st century – a technological age – the nation risks being left behind both economically and socially by other countries in the region. Such moves also signal to the young that science is not a viable career decision and in the longer term the nation will effectively be starved of new scientists.
Whilst it may be tragic but understandable that portions of the population turn their backs on science for peculiar individual reasons, it’s far more dangerous when such anti-scientific sentiment is officially coming from the national government. Such an approach only encourages a deep scepticism of science that can extend in all sorts of undesirable directions, such as discouraging vaccination of the young. It is the role of government to demonstrate evidenced-based decision-making and thus instil public confidence in science.
Without question, scientific research and discovery are going to solve many of the problems of the 21st century. By starving our research institutions of funding, we’re dealing ourselves out of the better future that we deserve as a nation.
Climate change is real, whether we want to hear that or not. The polar ice caps will melt and cause land inundation whether we accept this reality or pretend it doesn’t exist. The only difference is that if we embrace science, we have a real chance to ameliorate these pending threats and secure our future prosperity.
Otherwise we can pretend it’s all part of some grand conspiracy and do nothing, but we’ll all be much worse off as a result.