The Cost of Science Denial: a Divided Army in the Battle for our Life on Earth

Photo credit: NASA

You’ve seen that picture before: A sphere of mostly blue, white, and brown, surrounded by the dark vastness of space. The Blue Marble, it’s called. That first photograph taken by the Apollo 17 crew as it headed to the Moon, while the sun bathed the Earth from behind the spacecraft with its relentless rays. This was the first time we were able to see our home from our backyard, in its full glory, with its greenish-brown land masses lacking artificially drawn borders. 18 years later, as Voyager 1 was about to cross the edge of our Solar System, it turned around to take one last picture; one from across the last street in our neighborhood. Instead of that bright and beautiful globe, this photograph showed a miniscule pale blue dot. The beloved American astronomer and astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, once wrote:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

The two photos couldn’t be more opposite from each other, yet both are a humbling reminder of how small our egos are compared to the infinity of the universe, and the immenseness of our ignorance.

However, we do know a thing or two. If you’re familiar with the scientific method, you’ll know it consists of the following steps: Make an observation, ask a question, form a hypothesis (or testable explanation), make a prediction based on the hypothesis, test the prediction, and use the results to make new hypotheses or predictions. Then, as the body of evidence grows, we can establish theories and build mathematical models that we can apply in solving practical problems. This is the method that has led Civilization to be at its freest and richest in its history. You can thank it for the phone in your hand and all the appliances you can’t live without; for the food on your plate every season, and the allergy medicine you take when you venture outside, or the cancer treatment your mother is receiving and that is buying you extra years by her side. And hopefully, you will thank it for the vaccine that allows us to reunite and hug each other again. Science is not mystical, nor is it out of our reach. We reap its fruits and benefits every day of our lives.

However, many Americans do not realize this. They will mistake a theory with a hypothesis. They will also assume scientific consensus means a bunch of dudes in white robes got together and voted on establishing what the truth should be (or were paid to do so.) They will shrug when they admit having no clue where a certain country is on the map, and almost proudly say they never paid attention to geography class. As Steven Pinker puts it in his book Enlightenment Now: The case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress:

“People are by nature illiterate and innumerate, quantifying the world by ‘one, two, many’ and by rough guesstimates. They understand physical things as having hidden essences that obey the laws of sympathetic magic or voodoo rather than physics and biology. (…) They infer causation from correlation. They think holistically, in black and white, and physically, treating abstract networks as concrete stuff. They are not so much intuitive scientists as intuitive lawyers and politicians, marshaling evidence that confirms their convictions while dismissing evidence that contradicts them. They overestimate their own knowledge, understanding, rectitude, competence, and luck.”

And these things matter a lot. They matter because for the 50 years Earth Day has been celebrated, science denial has taken a hold of the political spectrum. Skepticism on the validity of expert’s advice seems to be on the rise. The American people are not dumb, but they are being robbed of the possibility to make informed decisions on the very issues that affect them directly: their health, quality of life, and their future. The people who gamble and make profit with those three things are the ones taking advantage of a faulty education system, and on top of making us blind and indifferent, they are turning us against each other.

It is impossible for any person paying attention not to find striking similarities between the climate crisis and the covid-19 pandemic, and almost the same levels of denial, funded and dispersed by almost the same people: reticent politicians and skeptics — with a lot of their interests at stake — pushing the conspiracy theory that both are Chinese hoaxes, or other arguments based on cherry-picked facts, twisted to their own convenience. But picture for a second a world where water is scarce and there are wars over it; or where food production is halted due to unprecedented droughts, freezes, or floods; or where entire ecosystems are disrupted and new, more dangerous viruses emerge, and we are forced to stop our lives more and more frequently.

These threats are already here, and Covid-19 has exposed how deeply interconnected we are as a species, sharing this unique planet that is not unfamiliar with drastically changing its environment at the slightest alteration. However, during the reign of men, also known as the Anthropocene, it actually depends on us to keep things stable, because we are the ones causing the disruption. And yes, that is the scientific consensus, which means that thousands of women and men have tried to prove each other’s hypotheses wrong, in the many branches of science that study the natural processes of the Earth, and almost all of them have been surprised to find the same trend, like a giant arrow flashing and pointing to a sign that says, “It’s you, dummies.”

But we can fix this. We aren’t powerless individuals in a rotten system. We can identify who the gamblers and profiteers are. We can organize and demand change. We must inform ourselves about the current solutions that are already on the table and support them. One way to do that is by calling our representatives, and if that doesn’t work, by replacing them at the ballot if they are being guided by mere partisan ideology, rather than objective, widespread evidence. We should ask: How are companies and politicians being held accountable for overlooking the damage they’re doing? Are we rejecting solutions simply because they oppose our worldview and make us uncomfortable? Can we see beyond our own prejudices and care more for fellow Americans? How can we work together and take care of the people and communities that are most at risk of suffering the worst consequences of these crises? Could our diets be better in a way that improves our health, and depends less on food production that is highly polluting? Is keeping some of our cultural traditions worth the suffering of others?

I have heard innumerable times the argument that experts and scientists are not perfect; they’re biased. But we also need to understand there are ways to reduce bias, and asking questions is one of those ways. Once we start asking questions with the desire to seek truth and not confirmation, we can learn and form new ideas. Before you know it…your ideas will be changing the world.

Earth Day is far beyond a mere celebration. It is a movement, an active fight to protect what we hold most dear: our lives, our families, and our country. It is war against a common enemy that threatens our existence, and that should unite us, not separate us; A war we must win against ourselves, by using the weapons of science, empathy, and reason, if we want to continue thriving on this beautiful Blue Marble; on this tiny pale blue dot that is our home.

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