Science and technology are now a bigger part of our lives than ever but global faith in them has frayed even as policy makers struggle to deal with pressing problems from climate change to saving the Murray-Darling to managing public health.
It is partly the result of a general distrust of big government and big corporations. In the wake of the blatant lies about the Watergate conspiracy and Vietnam, people started to believe that elites were lying to them about everything else. So within a few years, they sucked up the conspiracy theory that the moon landings were faked, too. Today, even in the US, opinion polls suggest about 10 per cent of people do not believe that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
A series of catastrophes and cover-ups have also hurt the reputation of science. The disaster at Chernobyl, now screening on television screens, shook faith in nuclear power. There are plenty of other examples from thalidomide to breast implants to the importation of cane toads where bad or incomplete science has made things much worse.
Money and power also increasingly compromise scientific truth. While the myth is that scientists cogitate for the common good, like Albert Einstein in his office job in Switzerland, in reality scientists sometimes fake or exaggerate or skew results either to further their careers or after taking cash from corporate sponsors or governments.
Yet at the same time as doubts spread, science is becoming more central to burning debates ranging from the plan for the Murray-Darling Basin to assessing the impact of the Adani coal mine.
Unfortunately, in these debates, many people are happy to use scientific method only when it suits them. Some of the right wing people who will pay tribute to NASA for Apollo 11 will then turn around and embrace loopy, climate-denial conspiracy theories rather than NASA’s current position that human activity is the major cause of dangerous climate change. On the other hand, some on the alternative left might believe in climate change but embrace crank theories about vaccines or wellness therapies.
Unfortunately, while people turn to scientists to solve all these great problems, on complicated policy issues such as climate change, or water, or genetically modified crops, even the best independent science rarely gives simple answers.
Good scientists, aware of the limitations of their knowledge and of the available data, will usually give a carefully hedged range of possible outcomes. It is not nearly as interesting as a conspiracy theory.
Yet, we did put a man on the moon. Science works.
There is no good alternative to the painstaking scientific process of collecting data, developing theories to explain the patterns and then testing the theories against the evidence.
Sure, science has biases and makes mistakes but it is far better than the predictions of dilettantes who pick and choose facts based on their psychological foibles, political prejudices or vested interests.
The challenge is to rebuild faith in science and use it better. Unfortunately in Australia the CSIRO and academic scientists have been starved of funds and are increasingly supported by corporations or other vested interests. A good start would be to fund and defend independent scientific bodies.
Schools and public information campaigns should also promote an understanding of science and counter quackery on vaccines and health.
Australia, in particular, should also rediscover a belief in technology as a way of solving problems, whether it be electric cars or renewable energy or artificial intelligence and web-based technology to provide health and education services efficiently to a growing population. Addressing privacy concerns and controlling the tech monopolies will be a crucial part of this process.
Scientists should also be able to express their opinions with a maximum of transparency and a minimum of spin. In one topical case, it would help if the Murray-Darling Basin Authority published and defended in a timely manner all the data and scientific assessments on which it bases its findings.
Also, here is one simple idea. Politicians should stop simply lying about science. They should stop, for example, saying that carbon emissions are falling when they are rising.
- The Herald’s editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here