We’ve all sighed in resignation, spluttered in indignation or rolled our eyes in straight-out derision when someone reveals a belief we find ridiculous, like that chlorophyll supplements are re-energising or that wifi causes cancer. Our dismissal of their crazy notions feels righteous, because, after all, we have science on our side – only fools argue with facts. Science is the one institution that should be wholly trustworthy, based as it is on evidence, on only believing in results we can see and recreate.
How is, it, then, that even in the educated echelons of society, we’re still in constant disputes of how much we can trust science, or which science to trust?
It’s true that science is all about being willing to rewrite the accepted rules if any contrary evidence is found to disprove them, and that there’s been more than one occasion where science hadn’t advanced enough to recognise the dangers in something it touted as perfectly safe, like that time when we thought putting radium in chocolate and makeup was a wonderful idea.
But the idea of people outside the scientific community refusing to believe the testimony of experts is not only ridiculous, but dangerous. Yes, challenging ideas and questioning assumptions is important. Yes, further research may change currently accepted facts. That does not excuse the cherry-picking of what scientific truths you may or may not believe in, a phenomenon becoming all too common in a socio-political culture insistent on allowing everyone their ‘voice’, regardless of qualifications.
Of course, people are generally not consciously trying to promote ‘alternative facts’. Sometimes their misbeliefs are rooted in partially-understood concepts where context or disclaimers have been conveniently forgotten, or their information comes from a source with enough graphs and statistics paired with information written in professional-sounding terms to appear trustworthy, despite not necessarily following appropriate scientific method.
While this isn’t too much of an issue if it’s your neighbour warning you that drinking tea will make you anaemic (it won’t, not by itself) or a single housewife not buying GM food for her family, it can have much wider consequences and become a grave issue. On an individual level, extreme diets founded on inaccurate information, like the Paleo lifestyle, can be personally dangerous, not to mention expensive. GM food is vilified worldwide, potentially undermining the vital role it could play in managing famine and unpredictable harvests. Climate change obviously affects the future of literally every living being, and suffers hugely, just like Tinkerbell, from people not believing in it.
Problems like global warming urgently need to be addressed, and for that they to be acknowledged and funded. When significant proportions of the population, or even just individuals significant in decision-making, do not trust the science and facts laid out before them, these problems do not receive the attention and support necessary for them to be resolved.
Most of us have constant access, grace of the internet, to almost all the knowledge of the human race. Our actions, small though they may seem, can affect our health, the lives of the others, and even the fate of the planet. We need, perhaps now more than ever before, to be encouraging trust in experts and in science. We need to be criticising those who propagate information from unreliable sources or incomplete facts, even if it regards a relatively minor topic, because we cannot allow the belief of inaccurate ideas to become normal. Every time we ignore a qualified scientist so as to interpret information in a way more pleasing to our personal ideologies, we are making it that much easier for dangerous misinformation to become widely believed.