The adage that “science doesn’t care what one believes” has never been more relevant than in today’s emotionally and politically charged environment, where facts are often refuted simply because they neither agree with what people want to be true nor fit policymakers’ agendas.
Rejection of basic scientific principles has led to the popularization of urban myths such as the link between child vaccination and developmental disorders. People are willing to risk the lives of their children on what was often thought of as an urban myth, trying to find a nonexistent causality between their personal circumstances and what a celebrity has told them. They give up long-standing scientific principles for rumors and speculative thoughts supported by loosely-credentialled medical professionals and public figures. This refusal to accept science is not without consequence; when the line between what people believe and scientific fact is blurred, lives are unnecessarily put in danger.
All too often in today’s politically charged climate do we see opinion overtake scientific fact, where decisions are made for the purpose of satisfying political donors and securing reelection instead of recognizing what science has shown. Emotions are being favored over logic. Politicians want to believe in what they agree with, so instead of understanding and accepting what has been proven scientifically, they blindly push forward their agendas. For example, the myth of “clean coal” pushed forward by the current presidential administration is completely ridiculous. Burning coal for energy is an enormous contributor to climate change, but instead of supporting sustainable and renewable energy sources, a false narrative is created to placate a small number of people for political gain.
On April 22, 2017, more than a million scientists, activists, and concerned citizens took to the streets around the world to protest a number of anti-science policies and actions during the first few months of the Trump administration, such as the appointment of a climate-change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the placing of a gag order on environmental scientists from disseminating climate change findings, and the censorship of words including “science-based” and “evidence-based” from Centers for Disease Control reports. “What do we want? Evidence-based science! When do we want it? After peer review!” was a popular rallying cry. The goal of the March for Science was for scientific findings (which by their very nature are nonpartisan) to be considered in making governmental policy. Organizers of the March stated that “American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas endangers the world.”
The advancement of science is an arduous process. The scientific method is so rigorous because it is designed to ensure that scientific findings are legitimate, weeding out ideas that do not merit further consideration. One of the most crucial aspects of science is that it builds upon the work of others—most papers cite dozens of previous papers that assist the researchers in making their claims and performing their studies. It is not possible for someone to concoct a frivolous experiment to “prove” a claim and have their findings published in a reputable journal. Rather, every scientific finding must be analyzed by a board of their peers to determine if the paper is worth publishing. Only after rounds of peer review can a finding make it to the general scientific body of knowledge. Scientific findings can and should be treated as fact not only because they are checked so heavily but also because they are concurrent with previously accepted bodies of work that follow the same process.
Far too often, scientific topics such as climate change are presented as opinions, and are debated on major television networks as one person’s argument against another. No matter what the motivation is for having the debate, this practice is very dangerous and is responsible for the dispensation of misinformation en masse. Non-scientists create false narratives that rely on cherry-picked information and emotional appeal to present their arguments. This can trick the uninformed viewer, who must decide between a potentially complicated or nuanced scientific argument or a set of lies that while untrue, reassures them that there is no problem. In the case of climate change, it is very easy to erroneously have the mindset “if it’s happening, then it’s not going to affect me.” This leads to the trivialization of the issue and is a distraction from the issue that actually should be debated, “What steps should we take to combat climate change?”
Science deals in facts and facts alone. People disseminating opinions that directly contradict what has been shown scientifically should be corrected, and those who adamantly refuse the science for the propagation of their agendas should be ignored. The deliberate refusal of facts has led to the dangerous trend where news that contradicts people’s opinions leads to the labelling of the news as fake without regard to its validity, and instead “alternative facts” are presented. This is a social trend that must be immediately stopped and countered if we are to avoid entering a “post-information age” where we believe only what we want to and don’t care about the actual science. And if that means challenging our previously held beliefs, so be it. The body of credible scientific knowledge supersedes the opinions of those who refuse to accept it in their world-view. As renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”