There has never been a better time to be alive, at least for most people in developed societies.
Life expectancy is double what it was two centuries ago. Many diseases that used to kill indiscriminately are under control. Prosperity is at levels that would have been unimaginable for earlier generations. Spectacular advances in mobility and communications have made the world small and vast at the same time. Much of this progress can of course be attributed to science and technology.
And yet we live in an era in which mistrust of science is rampant and where the slightest doubts can easily be manipulated. Otherwise well-informed parents refuse to immunize their children because they’ve heard stories that the most common vaccines can cause autism. Major American politicians reject evolution, while others propound the far-fetched theory that women who are raped cannot conceive. The most flagrant example of such irrational scepticism nowadays involves climate change: if one scientist in 100 quarrels with one aspect of a global trend for which there is copious evidence, the entire premise is discredited.
Why such ignorance at a time when education is more accessible than ever, when literacy and numeracy are high, when accurate information on any subject is only a click away?
There are no easy answers – but some culprits. Mass media, once seen as the key to a more informed citizenry, have been transformed into businesses with no purpose other than to entertain. Even those that purport to inform will stoop to sensationalism at the earliest opportunity – witness the hysterical coverage of Ebola by some of the world’s most respected news organizations.
By creating an all-too-level playing field for information, the Internet has done as much harm as good. It has become the 21st century version of the medieval town square in which gossip and rumours were whispered without regard to truth or consequences. The Internet raises no barriers to access: anyone can say pretty much anything, which is great for free speech but terrible for science. The result? The bad drives out the good, allowing fear to trump rationality. Instead of getting smarter, we’re getting dumber.
In this environment, scientists have a critical role to play. They shouldn’t just be talking to each other. They have a duty to reach beyond their community and defend what they know to be true, otherwise we might as well still be living in the Dark Ages.
Henry Muller, Editor