Science has 2020 vision

Science can be scary. It’s an ominous, all-encompassing term that has little meaning to most people.

When most people think of a scientist going to ‘do a science’ they think of lab coats, beakers, and people in lab coats staring intently at brightly coloured liquids inside beakers.

And who can blame them? Science is just a generic term for a pursuit that we place our faith in to produce the wonders that propel and advance our society. Science is why we no longer ride horses to work, put asbestos in our walls, and why there’s human-shaped footprints on the moon.

We’ve grown quite accustom to being willfully ignorant of what science is currently up to. No average-joe tradie has had to wake up in the morning and consider how the latest climate change statistics is going to impact their ability to erect a fence. No tax accountant has had to wonder if the latest ABS census data is going to impede their ability to balance those spreadsheets.

For the large majority of us, science is just a generic term and profession which we can comfortably ignore and trust to push our global civilization in the right direction, lead confidently by nerds in white coats.

That isn’t the case anymore.

You can ignore climate change; you can ignore vaccines; you can ignore the new space race.

You can’t ignore Covid-19.

For the first time since I’ve been alive (and from what I’m told, since anyone has currently been alive) there is an unavoidable, global, science-based problem that is starting everyone in the face, and there is no avoiding it (unless you live in Tonga).

I honestly feel a little pity, and a whole lot of empathy for the people who have never studied science beyond the 8th grade and are suddenly now confronted with news headlines with terms such as “epidemiology”, “statistics”, “Fauci”, and “hydroxychloroquine”. It can be so overwhelming, even for those who are science-indoctrinated.

And yes, I know “science-indoctrinated” is precisely the kind of term that makes you think anyone who is ‘of science’ is a pretentious wanker with a pipe and tweed jacket, but it’s not that. There is a language and method to scientific thinking, and you have to be taught it. Just as your dad once taught you how to ride a bike, someone has to teach you how to ride the science train.

Now, no one is expecting you to mix a compound, or discover a comet, or cure Covid (though if you could, that’d be great, I desperately want to travel at some point in the next two years), but what you can do is learn some very crucial and useful skills that make this entire pandemic far easier to navigate. By far the most useful and crucial skill that I can come up with, is critical thinking.

Critical thinking is the reason why when you hear that North Korea has no reported cases of Covid-19, your immediate response is “lol, bet”. Critical thinking is the reason why when your mate tells you he has a girlfriend but she “goes to another school”, you tell him he’s full of it. Critical thinking is why when you see a Murdoch media outlet spruiking the latest fear-mongering campaign your immediate response should be, “Shut the fuck up Rupert, you mongoloid cunt”.

Critical thinking is not about being negative; it’s about looking deeper into an issue than what is apparent on the surface. It’s full of many layers of analysis, evaluation, skepticism, reflection, and all these other fancy words that’ll make an undergrad cry. In its simplest form, it’s a learned set of skills to consume and interpret any information and make reliable judgements.

And herein lies the problem – the entire population is now waking up every morning and no longer able to ignore the big science news of the day, for depending where you live in the world, that big science news is literally keeping you locked inside your home. You now have to wake up and read about the infection rates, the death toll, what new bill or law the Premier is trying to push, and how America is powering forward in the “let’s see how much of our population die” competition that no other county has seemingly informed them that they are competing in alone.

The sad reality is though, I could write piece after piece on the scientific method, how to think critically, how to evaluate for bias, and so many other tools that will help you understand and interpret all onslaught of confusing information we are inundated with these days, but it may be all for naught. For you see, there is an inherent desire for people to be skeptical on science, and even try to dismiss its findings entirely.

In a recent interview with 60 Minutes in the U.S, Dr Anthony Fauci (arguably the worlds most recognizable scientist today) was asked if was “an all-out war against science?”. His response was;

“There’s an anti-authority feeling in the world, and science has an air of authority to it; so people who push back on authority, tend to…push back on science.”

Now this piece isn’t meant to be political, so I’m not going to point fingers at any political figures who may have been trying to sow distrust in government systems of authority (but dear God can Nevada please count faster so he can leave). The fact remains though that the political lines in the sand have never been more pronounced, and along with it comes an intense distrust of anything that comes out of a politicians mouth. It just so happens that over the past 10 months a lot of what has come out of those mouths is cold, hard science.

It takes no imagination to appreciate how any distrust in your system of government (wherever you may live) can easily be translated to a distrust in the scientist of the world. Just look at how the World Health Organization’s reputation has been dragged through the mud, an agency who’s objective is “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.” I think we could all use some better levels of health right now.

Science isn’t partisan – you don’t get to have ‘beliefs’ or ‘opinions’; there are only facts, and facts don’t care whose butt sits inside the oval office. Just to be clear, there has always been this division amongst the population, Covid-19 has just shone the light on the area that we were blind to due to our willingness to ignore issues we knew nothing about.

Whilst perusing the turgid landscape that is my Facebook feed the other day I happened across some people discussing the mental health effects of Melbourne’s extended lockdown, and a perfect example of this distrust in action.

(TW: stupidity, ignorance).

I won’t mince my words; I was so incredibly, inexorably triggered by this impossibly impressive display of mental gymnastics.

Let’s be clear – it DOES make sense that high rates of depression and anxiety (which have been reported in Melbourne this past 6 months) could lead to an increase of suicides.. but it hasn’t, and whether or not you “find that very hard to believe” is entirely irrelevant. You cannot look at one set of statistics you like, and another you do not, and cry wolf that somewhere there is a shady politician sliding a corrupt research associate a bag with a dollar sign on it whilst he fudges the numbers for the set you dislike.

(I was going to write some paragraphs on Confirmation Bias here, but frankly this piece is sucking out so much of my soul, at this point it’s basically a horcrux. Google it.)

This pandemic has changed the world is ways we will be feeling for generations to come. Many of us realised we can work from home, while some of us learned to appreciate how much we miss aimlessly walking around Bunnings pretending to know what sort of sealant we need to fix the shower. It has also changed the way we interact with system of authority when it comes to public health measures, and how we decide what to believe and what to ignore.

I implore anyone reading this to take a few steps that can help make all of this far easier to digest.

  • Search terms such as ‘critical thinking’, ‘confirmation bias’, and ‘scientific method’,
  • The next time you want to “do your research” don’t use Google, use Google Scholar,
  • and, the next time a politician spews science at you, don’t think about what party he belongs to, or whether he has the North Face jacket on. Focus on the data, and be as critically impartial as you can.

To quote one of my favourite YouTuber’s;

“love with your heart; use your head for everything else”.

For now (at least in my small part of the world) things are getting better. We’re all learning to wear our masks when required, socially distance, and wash our hands. We can all take this chance to have a well deserved break… until the vaccines start rolling out next year… but we’ll cross that autistic bridge when we come to it.

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