Per Capita Davis: Sickness and the pandemic
It may be just my opinion, but it seems there’s a sickness that has taken hold in our country. There’s also a pandemic.
The pandemic attacks the lungs. The sickness attacks the brain. The pandemic interferes with breathing. The sickness interferes with thinking. The pandemic is a virus transmitted from the airway of one person to another, basically one at a time. The sickness can be transmitted from one person to thousands, even millions, almost instantaneously as it goes viral over the airwaves and internet.
There’s an urgent search underway for a vaccine for the pandemic. Although the sickness has been around for a long time there is as yet no known cure. In fact, it has seemed that those who are infected have been getting worse.
Somewhat perversely, the pandemic may be helping fight the sickness. The sickness has been an across-the-board loss of trust in science, scientists, government, the news media and experts of any kind by a significant portion of the population.
This disdain for brains of any sort has infected public policy, has been elevated recently into a sort of dogma, and significantly undermines reliance on data and facts as the foundation of public policy. Worst of all, its spread is being intentionally promoted as an exercise in political power and has negative implications for efforts to respond to the climate crisis.
And, honestly, this is not just a problem in the United States; it’s a global phenomenon.
Maybe that’s changing.
An April 6 article in the New York Times, under the headline, “Scientists Become Stars, as an Anxious Public Tunes In,” with pictures of Dr. Anthony Fauci, (U.S.), Dr. Christian Drosten (Germany), Dr. Fernando Simon (Spain) and Dr. Massimo Galli (Italy), claims that people are finding new heroes as the pandemic spreads.
The new celebrities “are not actors or singers or politicians. Instead, they are epidemiologists and virologists who have become household names after spending most of their lives in virtual anonymity.” These scientists, our new rock stars, “have become the most trusted sources of information in an era of deep uncertainty, diverging policy, and raging disinformation.”
Further, “After a long period of popular backlash against experts and expertise, which underpinned a sweep of political change and set off culture wars in much of the developed world, societies besieged by coronavirus isolation and desperate for facts are turning to these experts for answers, making them national heroes.”
A separate article (same newspaper, different day) addressed one of the most puzzling questions for me as I try to communicate about the climate crisis. How do people deal with bad news, or, more pointedly, the uncertainty caused by, on the one hand, universally dire projections and warnings by science and scientists, counterpoised by statements of denial and derision by some political leaders?
Getting a bit into the weeds, the article states that, “uncertainty about facts, numbers, and science is called epistemic uncertainty. It is caused by a lack of knowledge,” what the chair of the Cambridge University Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication refers to as “our ignorance.”
Getting out of the weeds and back to communicating about the climate crisis and understanding if uncertainty cultivated by deniers is a barrier to some people accepting it as a huge problem needing urgent action, the article looked at a study published in the March 23 Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences that explored, “The Effects of Communicating Uncertainty on Public Trust in Facts and Numbers.” The study was initiated in response to “the accusations of a post-truth society and claims that the public had had enough of experts.”
The take-away for me can be summed up as, “The study’s findings suggest that being transparent about uncertainty does not harm the public’s trust in the facts or the source” and that “people can handle the truth” about the level of certainty or uncertainty of scientific facts and knowledge. Paraphrasing some to edit it down to its basic points, facts are important in establishing and maintaining trust, and being trustworthy depends on honesty and transparency.
Our sickness, as it relates to the climate crisis, has been a willful ignoring of facts and the true urgency of the moment. That science and scientists are apparently returning to positions of trust in the population broadly is a very heartening development.
I harken back to the Women’s March in Sacramento following the 2016 election. Among the tens of thousands was a small contingent of science students from UC Davis walking and chanting together. Playing off the call and response chants of previous movements along the lines of, “What do we want? Equal pay for women! When do we want it? Now!,” they were instead chanting “What do we want? Science-based policy! When do we want it? After peer review!”
Maybe there’s hope after all. Perhaps we will learn from the pandemic as scientists race and cooperate across borders to develop a vaccine that will respond to the pandemic and apply this lesson to tackling the climate crisis.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to email@example.com.
Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise
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