Eithne Dodd explains why ignoring scientific facts can be so dangerous.
IN 2007, a few highly regarded economists suggested that there was a property bubble in Ireland, that it would burst and, when it did, Ireland would go into recession. In response to this our then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern wondered aloud why people who think like that, these people who are “cribben and moanin’ . . . don’t commit suicide”.
Ahern later apologised for his “bad choice of words” but still fully ignored the prediction. In 2008, the property bubble burst and, just as was forewarned, we went into recession.
It is a sad trend in history that when scientists, experts or academics have research or beliefs that are in contrast to the popular vote, they are often dismissed. Unfortunately, their dismissal often leads to worse outcomes in the long run as the 2008 economic crises can testify.
The American President Donald Trump allegedly banned scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) from talking to the press and performing outreach via news outlets or social media. It is unclear if these ‘gag orders’ will remain as both have scientific integrity policies designed so that their research and findings are free from political interference. All federal agencies have similar policies but all may be under threat from their new president.
But even before Donald Trump ran for the presidency, others already had the idea that silencing unpopular scientific facts helps get you to or keep you in high office. This is never truer than when it comes to environmental science.
Ten years ago, Stephen Harper, the former prime minister of Canada, introduced guidelines preventing scientists from discussing their research with journalists. All requests for interviews had to have been approved by officials before scientists could speak to reporters, thus ensuring that the only science news that is heard is the science news the Canadian government wants to be heard.
Harper’s government also got rid of over 2000 positions, many of them in the field of environmental science. It is almost needless to say that this harmed the quality of scientific progress being made. In an interview with Global News in 2015 a scientist named “John Smith”, to protect his identity, called the quality of publicly available information on what scientists in Canada were doing “bullshit!”
“Yeah, they may have fielded x-number of media inquiries, but did they give answers that were meaningful?…Did they give answers that provided an objective perspective on what had been done and what had been found?”
Smith went on to make the point that it had to be scientists that journalists spoke to in order for the public to really understand scientific issues. “You show me a minister who’s got enough background to actually explain the complexity of some of the information we have to convey and I will jump off a bridge,” he said.
Unfortunately, claims of silencing of expert opinions and research that aren’t in line with the popular politics of the day are often dismissed. At best those experts are merely shut up. At worst, they are removed from sight. Galileo is the obvious example here.
Of course, there are also those who don’t bother silencing scientific facts and just flat out deny them. Ireland’s own Danny Healy-Rae is famed for such insightful statements as “God above is in charge of the weather and we here can’t do anything about it” and citing the story of Noah’s Ark as proof that climate change does not in fact exist. Lots of people are guilty of making erroneous statements, possibly in order to gain more publicity. Look at Michael O’Leary for example.
The Healy-Rae brothers are two independent TDs, who will likely never be in power, but whose names are known all over the country. How many other independent TDs can you name that are neither in your constituency nor in government. After Ming Flanagan and Mick Wallace, I’d say most people get stuck.
Of course, while it may work out for the politicians, it’s rather detrimental to the people they supposedly represent.
However, there might be cause for some hope. When Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada in 2015, he reversed the restrictive policies on scientists and while it may have taken the church 300 years to admit that Galileo was right, they did. Science is an important part of our society, and the public deserve to know about it. Thankfully, in the world we live in now, news travels much faster and that means scientific facts can too.