A tale of two worlds: social media and truth - Part II

Thursday 30 December 2021 12:10 PM

[Part II of IV … see Part I]

Part II

Premise #3: All opinions are equal, and it’s therefore always a practical and preferred 
possibility for any objective truth to be established through open 

‘democratic debate’ in which everyone gets consulted all the way
(Anything less and battlelines may be drawn.)

This perplexing belief is a relatively new one in our culture, especially when applied to scientific or technological matters. The premise builds on the former two. The more people buy into the notion that there’s a big secret overarching ‘elite’ plan for control at work in the world, the less trust we have in anyone with authority over us. At least two groups are then in the frame of suspicion: governments and experts. The former because they are able to regulate our world and our lives and seem minded to do so. The latter because they claim to know stuff that may affect both. All further heightened when the former seem swayed by the latter.

That, it seems to me, is why science has become a fierce battleground in a relatively short time. We all studied science at school, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But love it or hate it, growing up in an age of extraordinary technological progress enhancing our lives, most of us learned to respect scientific disciplines as a public good, and their practitioners as great contributors or even occasionally heroes.

But two current day developments in particular have changed the familiar rules and shifted the familiar goalposts. They are climate change and still much more recently the coronavirus. Both came seemingly out of nowhere and suddenly, to take centre stage. Both are heavily dependent on and driven by science and scientists. The expert solutions to both have dramatically disrupted human lives, livelihoods, families, businesses, careers and economic systems, locally, regionally, nationally and even globally. And still further disruption is assured. Then to top it all off, the disruptions have been implemented by all levels of government through regulation on unprecedented scales (in modern history at least), all in consultation with, yes - experts. So now the experts, it seems to some, are taking from our lives not adding to them.

Two demographics in particular are conflicted, anxious and battle ready — big industry leaders and libertarians, especially but not only in the US. It’s from those two demographics that most aggressive denial of scientific findings, anti-science sentiment, and even personal attacks on scientists have arisen. For industry barons it’s their enormous profits and shareholder interests that are on the line, and that they will fight for by any means. The favoured and most effective means since the 1980s has been the commissioning and funding of free market ‘think tanks’ to produce and disseminate intentional misinformation about the scientific foundations, so that governments and voters would resist all moves for systemic and behavioural change. The strategy was perfected on behalf of Big Tobacco initially before being applied to other profit-affecting medical scenarios, and then all stops out to defend oil and coal profits from the implications of the science of climate change.

The second latterly anti-science demographic are libertarians, in particular US political and social conservatives, driven by the twin doctrines of free market capitalism and ‘small government’, the two held to be indispensable to a prosperous democracy. A doctrine further impassioned by a popular conservative interpretation of the historic US Constitution, centred around the potential for even an elected government to drift into tyranny, the just remedy for which being some form of popular uprising. To adherents of this doctrine, any significant government regulatory advances are grounds for serious twitchiness at the very least. Until relatively recently this doctrine was either unknown or an academic curiosity beyond American shores. Now however, in this digital age of competing metanarratives, creeping anxiety and distrust, less moderate conservatives the world over are universalising and absolutising this belief set, while seeing ‘government tyranny’ behind every ballot box. The more so in countries like Britain and Australia where American cultural ties and influences have been the strongest.

I’ve touched here on the science denial phenomenon. It’s a very important subject for our times. Doing it justice would require another written piece or three. Fortunately it’s being and been well researched and addressed by several leading scientists and communicators. Of special note is Dr John Cook. John happens to be an Australian and also a Christian believer. His faith convictions about truth and creation stewardship are prominent among his motivations. Any of the alarming number of Christian disciples taking up with gusto the premises addressed here, would do well to reckon with this.¹

To return briefly to the opening words of this premise: “All opinions are equal”. When a whole culture or sub-culture has stopped trusting experts, considering them in fact the enemy, what then becomes the ground of what’s true and real? In the current climate of angst at least, the answer seems to be “everyone’s opinion”. Throw it all open to ‘democracy’. That’s now the authority. Though preferably ‘my’ opinion, unless ‘yours’ has been shaped from watching the same suite of YouTube videos I saw. And so it’s an outrage that the ‘opinions’ of scientists are being favoured over mine and yours, particularly in the shaping of public policy and implementation. Such arrogance, indeed tyranny. I have just as much chance of being right as those scientists.

This ‘democratic opinion’ benchmark comes from the public arts of politics and economics. It’s served our culture well over centuries of democratic discourse. It’s native to those fields of thought because there are few absolutes. Few things are objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. And indeed the open exchange of ideas may advance the public interest. The problem with asking science to get into line with that approach is that science and technology (or ‘STEM’ as educators now bracket it) are evidence-driven disciplines, not thought-driven. The heart of scientific endeavour is not the debating of opinions or ideas (though scientists undoubtedly have their share of both, as the humans they are). Rather it’s the study of observable physical world evidence. Fundamentally, scientific findings are led by external, verifiable evidence, not internalised ideas.² That’s been the case at least since the deeply Christian Isaac Newton brought the “scientific revolution” to full flower in the seventeenth century. Findings may well have practical implications in public politics or economics (and the current bones of contention do have both, and in spades).  But no political or economic opinion has shaped them.

    Impasse #3: Anyone who wants science to be democratic needs to find another universe.


¹ In very brief, Dr Cook and others have derived the mnemonic ‘FLICC’ to summarise the core strategies employed in the denial of science. These strategies have been most prominent and extensive in the denial of climate change. But they’ve been getting quite a workout this year and last in libertarian resistance to Covid safety measures, especially vaccines. Without elaboration here, ‘FLICC’ stands for: Fake experts; Logical fallacies; Impossible expectations (of science); Cherry-picking; and Conspiracy Theories. I might add a further ‘C’ from my own observation - Character attacks. (Though it’s really a subset of conspiracy theories). Readers might reflect on where or when any of these have been seen at work.

² It’s not that scientific findings aren’t open to challenge or questioning (‘scepticism’). Much the opposite in fact. However it’s evidence not mere ideas that drives the scepticism.

(parts III and IV to follow)