Like many people, one of my pandemic pastimes has been watching too much Netflix. One of the shows I watched in entirety was the sitcom Superstore. In one episode, a stereotypical hippie takes a temporary job at the store and begins her shift without wearing any shoes. One of her coworkers remarks on the lack of footwear and she says she doesn’t believe in shoes. He responds with something like, “You gotta believe in shoes. Shoes are a fact. They exist.”
And it’s hard to argue with that. Sure, people might have differing views about the reasons they wear shoes, or what kind of shoes to wear. But the vast, vast majority of people agree that shoes are worthwhile things to put on one’s feet. Thanks to science, shoes have also improved over the years. Fabrics have been invented; shoes have been made fully recyclable; biomechanics have informed the way shoes help us run. And so on.
There are lots of things that have been progressed by science over the last few hundred years, and yet it seems science is getting a bad reputation lately. At a recent family dinner, there were exasperated sighs and rolled eyes about science. Given that two engineers and a nurse – among others – were in the group, I was a bit surprised until they clarified it’s the politicization of science that’s frustrating.
I agree. As if it wasn’t bad enough that politicians’ antics have weakened our trust in democracy, they’re also helping to bring about a loss of trust in science.
Of course, it’s yours and my trust to give. And here’s the good news: we don’t have to believe in simple, polarizing, good/bad explanations. We don’t have to agree that issues are uncomplicated just because someone pretends to have all the answers. And, finally, when approaches change because additional research brings us new conclusions, we don’t have to assume anyone was lying to us earlier.
There’s a key point: science changes. As an example, I would not currently agree to be treated by a doctor who wanted to put leeches on me to suck my blood and illness away. I would also probably get a new doctor if mine said cigarettes would help fix my sore throat. As more tests and more studies are done, we get new information — or more certainty about existing information.
Unfortunately, I don’t always like what the scientific information tells me. It’s pretty basic science, for example, that can explain why I’ve gained weight in the last 18 months. I’ve been eating relatively well and have been exercising as much or more than before. But I’ve also been drinking more alcohol. I could look online and conclude that my extra pounds have come from hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease. Or I could check social media and come up with a conspiracy theory…maybe my softening waist and expanding thighs have something to do with the Prime Minister and the Quebec dairy farmers!
Or, I could just accept that the most readily-available scientific explanation is the most likely.
Because yes, science changes, and even gravity is up for debate (check out this fascinating movie for more on that), but we should make decisions based on the best-available information at any given time.
I’m worried that we’ve forgotten what “best-available” means. Remember when we used to open actual, physical newspapers and the opinion section would be clearly labelled “OPINION” in capital letters? Well, that label isn’t written across your social media feeds…but it probably should be.
And remember when measles outbreaks in schools weren’t a thing because our parents got us vaccinated as tiny humans? This post is not meant to be about COVID-19, but it has to be said: the fact that hordes of usually-competitive scientists, companies, governments, and academic institutions cooperated on the vaccine process for the current coronavirus (a process that started at least a decade ago after the SARS coronavirus) and also found likely ways of treating cancer, muscular dystrophy, and cystic fibrosis during that process*…it should have us all celebrating. And instead, we’re arguing about it?!?!
Anyway. I don’t believe western science can explain everything; I quite like some mysticism and spirituality in my life. But I don’t deny that science has helped us learn a bunch of really cool stuff.
What we learn and what we do with the learning, however, are not always linked. One thing about smokers is they don’t generally argue that smoking is bad for them. They just choose to smoke anyway. Similarly, I know my pants would fit better if I changed some of my habits…I just don’t want to. Yet.
All that said, there’s an extra level of difficulty when science meets up with a need to make choices for many people (aka “policy”). While it doesn’t really affect anyone else if my pants don’t fit, it potentially affects a lot of people if an intensive care unit fills up and can’t accommodate new patients.
The many situations where we need to marry policy and science are exactly why we need open-minded yet critical-thinking, “maybe more” kinds of people. I saw an opinion piece recently that said, “Confirmation bias exists, and only fools think they are free of it…genuinely smart people look for answers from people who are smarter than themselves [in a particular subject].”
In other words: You can choose not to wear shoes. But don’t declare a disbelief in shoes. Shoes are a fact.
*While this wasn’t a post about COVID, you might want to check one of several sources I used to make the statement with an asterisk above. I really enjoyed this TED Talk and it was quite easy to follow.