Scientists and Experts Know Things: We Should Listen to Them
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…