The War on Truth Part One: Believe What you Want | Jack Smith
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
(Thank you to Tom Smith for providing this original illustration)
At the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the United States, Vice President elect Kamala Harris put the following question to the nominee, “Do you believe that climate change is happening and it’s threatening the air we breathe, and the water we drink?” Judge Amy Coney Barret’s answer, representing what should now be regarded as a tradition of political denial on the matter, was an example of a now prevalent threat and attack on science and scientists:
“you have asked me a series of questions [up until now] that are completely uncontroversial, like whether Covid-19 is infectious and whether smoking causes cancer, and then trying to analogize that to eliciting an opinion from me that is on a very contentious matter of public debate and I will not do that. I will not express a view on a matter of public policy, especially one that is politically controversial”.
Barret’s refusal to answer and her choice to describe climate change as a matter of debate are expressions of the wider politicisation of climate change specifically, but also the knowledge and conclusions that we, as environmental scientists, produce through our work generally.
Now that I am one year into my PhD, the many implications of being a scientist are becoming more and more apparent. Recently, my reflections on these implications have centred on the politicisation of science – perfectly illustrated by Judge Barret’s answer – and how this politicisation represents a burden that will, whether we like it or not, and to greater and lesser extents, fall on our shoulders. A burden that we do not discuss formally and which, perhaps, we should begin to give more attention.
The tradition of climate change denial has its origins in the work of public relations firms to protect the tobacco industry after smoking was proven to cause lung cancer. The connection between the two is brilliantly historicised in a series of short podcasts by the BBC. ‘How They Made Us Doubt Everything’, explains how the PR industry successfully lobbied and campaigned to turn issues of expert consensus into subjective “debates” in order to protect the vested interests of their clients, leading to the false climate “debate” that’s still very much with us, and laying the wider foundations of the deeply polarised world in which we now live. Scientists themselves have not been immune to this as compromised scientists in search of funding were bought by the likes of the tobacco companies to give “expert advice” to the contrary of the forming consensus.
Representing a perfect example of the manner in which the media has taken to facilitating the polarisation of false debates through a misguided “balance” culture, see this incredible clip of George Monbiot rebuking the climate scepticism of the botanist David Bellamy with nothing more than casual reference to the scientific evidence:
The subjectification of everything is diametrically opposite to the methods and ambitions of science, which aims, at times very successfully, to ascertain objective truths. Although hardly a perfect set of principles and methodologies, science represents the best and most successful approach we have to discovering facts (or as close to "facts" as we can reach) and intelligent inferences about our complex universe and our complex selves. At the heart of science lies the intellectual reflexes of empiricism, the philosophy that knowledge is obtained through our senses and gains validity from them, not solely through a priori argument i.e. that knowledge must be proven with sensible evidence. It is this central aspect of science which is the real victim of the historical machinations of PR firms. Exacerbated by wide-spread internet access, social media bubbles, and YouTube rabbit holes, many people around the globe have replaced proof with gut instinct and “feeling”; beliefs are now chosen rather than informed because of a sustained and powerful attack on the (it turns out) actually quite vulnerable empirical tradition.
The dangers that the phenomena of chosen beliefs present became apparent to me during a drunken taxi ride home from a friend's a few years ago. The driver insisted that our world is ruled by a secret alliance of Muslims and Jews who wish to bring about a new world order. As an obnoxious and deeply unreasonable empiricist, I demanded evidence, to which he said he had read this information online, adamantly citing all kinds of confused pseudo-history and insisted I need only “look it up”.
What does it mean for us as student scientists and researchers to enter into a world that seems to be increasingly anti-science and anti-empiricism? And how does such a world treat those who have made the distinction between truth and falsehood their business?
In the second part of this post, I discuss these questions and their relevance to ourselves as PhD students and budding scientists.