As the presidential election nears and the covid-19 crisis continues, the world is watching in real time as leaders on the left and right cherry-pick fragments of evidence and blur the lines between fact and fiction to score virtual applause and polling points.
Americans desperately need certainty and clarity, yet it seems new “scientific” findings are released on a daily basis, many of which only confuse and divide us without delivering fact-based data that can be trusted or utilized.
Social media and 24/7 cable news have created the public’s expectation (and perhaps even the demand) for access to any new scientific developments immediately. And, when perceived delays in reporting those facts occur—delays that are absolutely necessary for scientists to verify the accuracy of initial findings—or when those results don’t align with our own perceptions, we become frustrated and doubtful of the findings.
Our collective need for instant gratification has altered our perception of science, and the discovery of scientific evidence does not fit well with this culture. Instead, science requires patience, objectivity, and reasonable doubt as the process aims to disprove just as much as it aims to prove.
When policymakers apply tested and trusted scientific findings to public health and economic challenges, the result is sound policy, innovative technological advances, and the solving of practical problems. But when science becomes weaponized, either through impatience, incompetence, ignorance, or greed, the results can be disastrous.
Such is the situation we find ourselves in today. The politicization of covid-19 by both political parties has left average Americans scratching their heads, searching for the truth, and questioning the capabilities of elected officials to effectively deal with the issue.
Inconclusive science has fueled panic-laden decisions, leaving businesses and communities reeling and their storefronts shuttered with little explanation or data about what it would take to reopen safely.
Public hope is now focused on the world’s pharmaceutical companies—an ironic twist, given the vitriol these companies have faced over the past decade—and their ability to develop an effective treatment or vaccine that will restore our lives to their pre-pandemic state.
And, while covid-19 is the most recent and perhaps glaring example, the weaponization of science is not a new phenomenon. An entire segment of the legal industry is devoted to weaponizing science through mass tort litigation designed to bring money not to victims, but to the lawyers themselves. The judicial system often substitutes emotional opinions for overwhelming scientific evidence when such cases make it to the courtroom, further diminishing the role of science as a trusted tool for decision making and instead establishing it as a tool of culture and politics.
The more that science becomes ideologically motivated and subject to a need for instant gratification, the more Americans will lose faith in those making the decisions—or the scientists themselves. When pharmaceutical companies use greed as a driving force to announce premature findings for a vaccine can you blame citizens for not trusting the vaccine?
It is time to catch our breath and realize that science takes time and does not have political preferences. Public policymakers and business leaders must stop weaponizing science and instead allow objective, independent, and unbiased scientific facts to be presented, allowing citizens to choose for themselves how to interpret the data. Until we reach that collective understanding, Americans will be unable to decipher fact from fiction.