America’s failed pandemic response is the house that science illiteracy built.
“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” These words immediately follow the most memorable of Charles Dickens’s opening lines, from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” A hundred years from now, I imagine an imitator of Dickens’s style writing A Tale of Two Americas, beginning it something like this: “It was the best—oh, who are we kidding?—it was the worst of times. It was the age of science, it was the age of denial.”
When future social commentators reflect on the theatre of 2020, what will they make of the paradox of a science-driven, science-consuming American Civilization in which an antithetical science denial movement flourished in sufficient numbers and with momentum enough to stymie an effective nationwide defense against an imminently real and dangerous viral threat? I’m of course assuming that a literate culture survives these calamitous times in order to view 2020 in hindsight. This year may come to signify, “the end of the world as we know it,” to quote an REM song, but I think we can agree that it’s not the actual end. If human civilization didn’t give up the ghost in 1918, a year in which we battled an even more destructive pandemic falling on the heels of World War I, I don’t see the planet going to the apes just yet.
I envy these social commentators of the next century. Not only will they not be wearing masks (presumably), but they get to view the 2020 tragicomedy from historical space, a thing you and I can’t do. Echoing Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot soliloquy, astronaut Michael Collins once mused, “…if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say 100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. The all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced.” An historian in 2120 will enjoy the privilege of critiquing our noisy arguments from 100 light years away, as it were. For us, the argument is literally right in front of our faces (or ineffectually hugging our chins), instruments of source control or mind control depending on who one asks. Presently, it may be enough to physically distance ourselves six feet from potential carriers of the COVID-19 virus (that is to say, anyone). Cognitively, there may be no distance far enough away from the politics of the pandemic. Our parents warned us not to sit too close to the TV. It’s never too late to follow their advice. Blindness takes many forms.
Speaking of warnings, public science educators of the past fifty years, from the late Carl Sagan to Michael Shermer and Neil deGrasse Tyson today, have admonished us (in the relatively unassuming way scientists are known to admonish) not to go to sleep on science literacy. Between the overstimulating and insomnious effects of ratings-driven TV as well as the Web’s bottomless clickbait news feed and dangled strings of shiny things, we find ourselves more than ever drifting off in science class (every day of our lives is science class if we are paying attention). Before 2020, science illiteracy remained only an abstract threat to civilization. Thus was our age of innocence. We’ve now arrived at the first of what are sure to be several precipices away from whose edges we have been warned. And judging by America’s COVID-19 response in relation to the rest of the world’s, we have already driven in excess of 150,000 (who can really say how many?) of our people needlessly into the chasm. Science illiteracy is bound to be recognized by historians as having, along with other troubling trends, crippled America’s ability to stand firm against the COVID-19 threat, an epiphany lost in the dizzying culture-war shell game on the table before us.
If one listens closely to any good science educator, one realizes that the point of basic science literacy is not to be able to conduct a chemistry experiment, identify constellations in the night sky or memorize the value of pi to the umpteenth digit. The first and most important goal of science literacy is to supply individuals with a roadmap for recognizing scientific claims while rejecting misleading and false assertions, something Sagan and Shermer have often referred to as a, “baloney detection kit.” The trouble with a science-illiterate person is that he doesn’t know real science when he sees it. When anyone donning a white coat, presenting a sham degree and using a smattering of science-speak can pass public muster as a scientist, we’ve set ourselves up as easy marks for any swindler wishing to lure us with claims that are merely attractive as opposed to true. What’s more, the present climate casts science and scientists in such a poor light that many hucksters no longer go to the trouble of putting on the scientist guise. They understand that as long as they’re peddling what appear to be the goods or even just the feel goods, we’ll flock to what they’re selling, credentials and methodology be damned. Furthermore, as unapologetic profiteers they’re unlikely to scruple about being used by anyone wishing to distract us from scientific truths that threaten their grip on economic or political power; we need only think of the hawkers of unproven COVID-19 curatives to understand how this operates.
“Truth is what works”: this is the core dictum of the philosophical school of Pragmatism, resonating with the long-established and well-narrated American preference for doing over thinking. We don’t wait for subtle truths to gradually unfold themselves to our intellects (in the fullness of time, as it were). Rather, through sheer will, the power of positive thought and useful mythologies such as, say, manifest destiny, we create “truths” that are in alignment with our agendas. As British philosopher Bertrand Russell critically put it, “To say that your belief is ‘true’ is another way of saying that you will find it more profitable than the opposite belief.” Useful in its frontier spirit context (conservationists and indigenous peoples have grounds to disagree), this headlong approach to bending nature to the American will has, like everything, its limits. The “truth” that COVID-19 is a liberal hoax is not, as over 196,000 American deaths (coroner’s reports are scientific documents) at the time of this writing can attest, working. The same goes for the “truth” that COVID-19 will just “go away.”
Today the effects of science illiteracy are no longer most tellingly measured in polls revealing how many Americans believe in such obvious absurdities as early men existing alongside dinosaurs (an actual diorama in the Creation Museum) or the earth’s being flat. The repercussions, we may say without hyperbole, are today being measured in body counts. In 2020, the potential penalty for science illiteracy suddenly became much costlier than mere public derision, and yet, as Michael L. Dougherty, Associate Professor of Sociology at Illinois State University points out in his public lecture, Science Denial, The Politicization of Science, and COVID-19, not even as costly as we should expect when the consequences of anthropogenic climate change denial come fully to roost (2020 has been quite the portent for that, too).
So how would an improved level of science literacy have helped us steer a different course through 2020? For starters, it might have afforded scientists more esteem in our eyes. Not our fawning, unconditional, unquestioning respect, but deference commensurate with the rigors of a scientist’s professional training and commitment to the value-neutral pursuit of science-backed truths. We would have understood that scientists, and not politicians, hucksters or conspiracy theorists were the best Virgil to guide our Dante through the hell of 2020’s epidemiological Inferno. In saying this, I am not indulging in naïve scientism, treating science as a new religion in whose omnipotence and redemptive powers we ought to place our blind faith and limitless hopes. Scientism too is a counterproductive residuum of science illiteracy; it sets science up to fail through the expectation that it ought to be able to perform miracles it never claimed itself capable of performing. It is a dangerous non sequitur to assume that just because science isn’t capable of magical outcomes it is on equal footing with every “competing” crackpot theory on the internet. We may have no miracle tool at our disposal, but this doesn’t mean that science isn’t still our best instrument by far for battling a pandemic. By analogy, not every aircraft has turned out to be a paragon of aeronautical safety, but we never think of turning aircraft design over to the next self-styled Leonardo da Vinci of the Internet.
In the near absence of a public understanding of science’s ethic as it relates to the nature of proof, its method is an easy target for all who vie with it for our attention. Contenders are eager to turn science’s intellectual humility, among its most attractive features, against it. A way that science avoids the trap of its findings becoming stale dogma is by remaining open to the possibility of being wrong (or at least being brought into better accord with reality through future refinement); science institutionally invites—requires, actually—criticism of all truth claims (or more accurately, claims based on high probability) as long as that criticism is scientifically framed. To audiences accustomed to false certainties bellowed through the bullhorns of religious and political rhetoric, intellectual humility is easily mistaken for stammering hesitancy. This perceived uncertainty, especially in a time of crisis, emboldens con (short for confidence) men to elbow to the fore with pushy hustle-culture claims that promise decisive action while scientists sit on their hands (testing vaccines and therapies, for instance). These same Johnnies-on-the-spot like to point out how science, in the midst of a global emergency, continues to conduct expensive experiments in esoteric fields and to announce discoveries that are of little public interest. Their intent is to caricature science as something that merely fiddles while Rome burns. (Again, in a more scientifically literate civilization, fewer fields would be considered esoteric and more scientific discoveries would be of profound public interest in the first place.) Science lumbers too cautiously, too slowly for our impatience; we are a people wired to hair-trigger motion sensors, poised to chase, at our peril, whatever idea is trending fastest on the TV or the Web.
By the time a looked-for scientific finding is introduced to the public, that public’s consciousness will already have been exposed to a barrage of misleading and potentially harmful ideas that may not rise even to the level of pseudo-science. Through what is known in psychology as the illusory truth effect, the repeated hearing of false claims puts science-backed truths at a marked disadvantage in the struggle to ascend against trenchant false comforts. In America, science-based claims that have already run the often years-long gauntlet of reproducibility and peer review still find themselves thrust into an elimination game with contestants under no obligation to fight fairly for the public’s score cards. In spite of a demonstrable conformance to reality (allowing, of course, for science’s narrow error bars), scientific claims are often required to square off against magical thinking that not only promises the moon (figuratively), but more importantly offers to dissolve ethical dilemmas (if climate isn’t really changing on account of human behavior, consuming beef and driving a gas-guzzler aren’t problems, now are they?) and obviate personal inconveniences (if COVID-19 is a hoax calculated to harm a political figure or party, wearing an uncomfortable facemask as a form of source control is a moot point). Ironically, applied science in the form of globally-available high-speed Internet technology has greased the rails on which science’s challengers come thick and fast and with like buttons.
“Are you not entertained?” was the condemnatory cinematic cry of the reluctant gladiator Maximus (portrayed by Russell Crowe in the film Gladiator). We are, no less than Maximus’s Rome, a civilization of entertainment junkies, requiring more and more decadent diversions as our already elaborate entertainments begin to grow old while they’re still new. A science-literate person is one who, by contrast, finds virtue in simplicity. He will have read, for example, that before Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe had, through a modern synthesis of theory and observation, set astronomy on a truer course, epicycles (smaller circles moving on larger circles) were used ad absurdum to make models of planetary astronomy “work.” He will recognize the use of a similar aesthetic in the recent proliferation of conspiracy theories that, as if they moved on epicycles of illogic, regard absence of evidence or expert debunking as “proof” of the conspiracy (e.g., “the aliens made the evidence disappear,” or, “Of course the government paid ‘scientists’ to debunk the UFO crash report”). Like Mars’s motion, for example, which to an Earth-bound observer seems sometimes to experience a slight setback (retrograde motion) only to continue smoothly on its way, so too with the course of most conspiratorial thinking. A single, uninterrupted, elliptical orbit for each planet is science’s parsimonious (and factual) solution to the problem of orbital mechanics. Likewise, a conspiracy theory that is simply debunked or for which supporting evidence is found to be wanting is science’s parsimonious (and factual) answer to nearly all conspiracy theory ciphers.
Unfortunately, in an age of conspiracy thriller novels, movies and TV series, many of us are unimpressed by realities we judge to be less strange than fiction; we are dissatisfied with nature that isn’t plucky enough to at least try to imitate art. William of Occam might have been handy with an intellectual razor (employed by scientists to avoid needless complication in their theories) but he would have made a poor playwright in any era, what with his insistence on the most straightforward plot. When considering conspiracy theories, we ought to remind ourselves that the urban dictionary phrase, “it’s complicated,” is code for entanglements best avoided. When theoretical physicist Laurence Krauss describes string theory as, “complex,” he is not being complimentary.
In an age of raconteurs intent on ensnaring swarms of social-media followers, spinners of complicated conspiratorial yarns that employ the usual stock villains (the government, the wealthy, people in the shadows, the deep state, secret orders who keep arcane knowledge locked away in vaults and databases) have become this age’s pulp fiction writers, smearing the line that once partitioned reality and fiction into a smudge of Rorschach inkblots. Henry David Thoreau identified their sort over a hundred and fifty years ago: “Men of ideas instead of legs, a sort of intellectual centipede that made you crawl all over.” Resisters preferring blander realities (in other words, reality) are derided by these types as patsies, duped into seeing only what the dark forces want us to see as they lure us to slavery or slaughter. Those who retell these colorful anecdotes, often embellishing them further, at proverbial water coolers and watering holes everywhere, are engaging in an activity aptly described by the social critic and beatnik philosopher Alan Watts as, “my game’s more interesting than yours.” While this attention-seeking, vanity-flattering, seductive form of one-upmanship produces carnivalesque written and oral urban mythologies without end, it carries our collective consciousness further than ever, first in one direction then in another, from objective truths. Even to eavesdrop too frequently on the telling of such tales (or to unconsciously take in their conspiracy-mongering headlines daily) is to muddy one’s mental picture considerably. We have it on good authority that if one mixes paint of all colors, one is left only with a dark splotch. If nihilism has a color, can it be anything other than a muddy grey-black? Not insignificantly, “a candle in the dark,” is how Carl Sagan thought of science.
With regard to our COVID-19 predicament, what if instead of jumping with both feet into the latest brain droppings (my apologies, George Carlin) of Twitter infomercialists urging us to down hydroxychloroquine, sacrifice our most vulnerable citizens to the “panacea” of heard immunity, or hope that it will just, “go away as these things do,” we were to simply mask up, social distance, and await a scientifically-vetted vaccine? Would this be the equivalent of rescuing civilization with tried-and-true water instead of the omnipresent and overhyped power-drink Brawdo ala the farcical dystopian film Idiocracy? As we reflect on the lineup of preposterous news stories from 2020, covering everything from hot zones to firestorms, we might recognize the sort of parade that needs badly to be rained on.
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