Anti-intellectualism delays action on emergencies from pandemics to climate change.
On the final day of 2019, China first reported cases of the COVID-19 virus. As the crisis grew in Wuhan, the World Health Organization started to warn people with increasing urgency. It started with advice on hand washing and coughing into your elbow. But by mid-February the WHO was talking about the need to “maintain social distancing.” (see Feb. 13 version of the site).
The experts in pandemics — epidemiologists, infectious diseases doctors, and ministers of health — were sounding the alarm many weeks ago. They told us that exponentially growing infections could overwhelm a health care system much faster than we realize. And yet many countries, including the U.S., were caught flat-footed. Thank goodness some of the most recent countries to get infected have gone to extreme measures faster — Hungary closed universities when it only had 13 known cases.
Every day of delayed action greatly increases the risk of the virus getting beyond our control. But we seem to have a problem in some countries and cultures with listening to what experts are telling us. Some leaders feel a need to demonstrate that they are in control and know everything. The US president has declared that he knows more than anyone about trade, borders, renewable energy, drones, terrorism, and much more.
But in some circles, they’re doing more than just ignoring the warnings. Media outlets like Fox News and talk radio giant Rush Limbaugh have questioned and mocked scientists for blowing it out of proportion, and have spread conspiracy theories. It’s hard to overstate how dangerous this all is.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen this pattern before with our other enormous challenge, climate change (even though the timescales are different). Many of us working on climate issues have watched this same story play out for years and even decades.
The basic science on how carbon dioxide traps heat and can change our climate stems from the 1800s. And concerns about fossil fuels surfaced more than a century ago. Even the oil companies knew there was a problem in the 1970s. But the pace of warnings picked up dramatically in late 1980s with NASA scientist Jim Hansen’s testimony to Congress in 1988, Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature, and the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has issued reports at 5-year intervals with increasingly dire warnings.
The ultra-fast pandemic and the slower burn of climate change share one key attribute that worries scientists: the math of exponential growth. When something grows at a non-linear pace, everything can look fine for a while…and then suddenly explode. In two weeks, the US went from 15 cases of COVID-19 to 1,500. If we don’t “flatten the curve” of growth, in just a few weeks, we’ll see tens and hundreds of thousands of sick people.
So, this is a plea to start listening to experts.
But a few points on this:
- I’m not talking about blind faith: we can bring healthy skepticism and critical thinking to the table. But we should take their knowledge and concerns seriously.
- We need to understand their language. When climate scientists say something like increased sea level is “very likely” with a 95% confidence interval, that’s them saying “nothing about the future is 100% clear but, seriously guys, this is going to happen.”
- We should distinguish between people in adjacent or similar fields and the real experts in the problem we’re dealing with. I’ve found that the most stubborn climate denial often comes from people or organizations with some science or technical background. They say things like “I understand models, and they can be wrong.” True, but if you don’t know anything about climate models — or with today’s crisis, epidemiological outbreak models — why should we listen to you?
It’s worth asking the go-slow, it’ll all be fine crowd a simple question: why wouldn’t we heed these warnings? That is, what are the worst outcomes if we listen…or if we don’t. What if we shut the country down for some weeks and then the outbreak peters out? That’s fantastic. Perhaps it was an over-reaction, or the social distancing did exactly what it needed to do.
Of course, there are human and economic hardships to locking down a country, but there are no perfect scenarios left for us anymore — it’s economic pain or unimaginable suffering as the virus reaches nearly everyone (which, by the way, would cause massive economic disruption also). Most countries in the exponential part of the outbreak curve, like Italy, have clearly made the decision that extreme measures are worth it.
The same goes for climate change. Imagine we shift quickly to a cleaner economy. We’ll have better air and water, more efficient buildings, high-tech cars that cost much less to run, millions of green jobs, more livable cities, and more. If it turns out that climate change wasn’t going to be all that bad, who cares?
But we can only go down the paths that are best for us if we stop muddying the waters of public discussion. So I have one other plea: Please, journalists and media, stop treating every topic as a debate requiring views from “both sides.”
Some complicated issues have multiple ways of looking at them, and some really have just one. Climate change, as a broad scientific phenomenon, has had very little dissent for years now. HBO’s John Oliver famously made this point 6 years ago by staging a “debate” between three mock climate skeptics and 97 people in white lab coats representing scientific consensus.
If you want to have discussion about our biggest challenges — and we should — please at least let it be with the right, knowledgeable people. When the US government published an important scientific report on the scale of climate change, networks invited Rick Santorum — a former Republican Senator with no scientific training — to opine on the merits of the report. Networks most often let pundits pontificate instead of inviting well-spoken climate scientists like Katherine Hayhoe or Michael Mann to give us real knowledge. The networks do it for ratings of course — last year I was stuck on an airplane for hours sitting next to a well-known news anchor who told me as much.
But with challenges that threaten all of our well-being, don’t these networks also need to serve the public trust?
The debate worth having on big problems is how we address it, not whether we should. We need this to happen at lightning speed on the outbreak. The consensus best practice, based on the global health experts knowledge and experience of the countries best managing the crisis so far is the following: expand testing rapidly, be completely transparent in government and data collection, and adopt extreme social distancing immediately.
As of this writing, the US is really only doing the last one, and that social separation is being led by states and towns, not the federal government like it is all over Europe and Asia. Businesses, local governments, and citizens should all be demanding more of our leaders: more listening to experts, more humility, more humanity, and more action.
We’ll only avoid a world of hurt if we do.
Everyone stay safe, and for now, please stay home.
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