The U.S. is devolving and becoming increasingly insular.
One presidential candidate wants to build a wall around Mexico to keep out immigrants (Trump); another posits that evolution is "satanic", the Big Bang Theory is a "fairy tale", and that a Muslim shouldn't serve as a U.S. president (Carson); another (who's a physician) didn't debunk the myth of a link between vaccines and autism in a recent debate (Rand); and yet another (who's a woman) supports a government shutdown to defund Planned Parenthood's mammograms and AIDS screenings (Fiorina).
This while Germany and other nations took in thousands of Syrian migrants and refugees, with few questions asked. And this while the Pope visited U.S. shores, respectfully asking us to see the bigger picture and accept our responsibility to help humanity and protect our Earth. Tackling climate change head on and ensuring the health of our most vulnerable with vaccines were imbued in the Pope's entreaty. Seems Europeans are more compassionate and scientifically enlightened than Americans.
In Mashable this week, Dan Rather wrote an incisive article saying, "Ignoring science isn't just a Republican problem. It's an American problem." It's true, many Americans are science deniers, questioning the latest scientific consensus on evolution, climate change, vaccines and many other critical issues. Remember when NASA shuttle landings warranted ducking out of school or work to watch on a restaurant TV because they were so exciting? How did we lose our love of scientific inquiry and exploration? In part it's because Americans no longer respect experts, let alone scientific ones. It's also because we don't understand and appreciate the brilliance of the scientific method.
As an organic and self-correcting collective, science mostly gets it right. Scientists are constantly evaluating science and its contributing data. That's why science and medical journals are peer-reviewed. Does your profession require that something you want to say or do must pass muster with a group of your peers? Imagine hundreds of other competitive carpenters looking at your carpentry and weighing in to confirm that you put every nail in the right place! And beyond that, for science to stand, it must be replicable. It requires duplication of results by many different scientists with separate studies and methodologies -- over time. Imagine those carpenters building similar houses and confirming (or not) that your work was sound -- placing your work under constant scrutiny for generations!
The scientific method has built-in checks and balances, like the protective devices that the Founding Fathers attempted to insert into our infant democracy. So this carefully-structured scientific method yields some of the most trustworthy sources of information out there. Way more trustworthy than a random blogger, your neighbor, or any other self-proclaimed expert. Yet in this era of social media, people tend to believe and share these personal opinions more than experts'. The appetite for short-form media and "gotcha" politics has reduced complex subjects into polarizing positions, creating the new virtual TV show, Are you Smarter Than a Scientist?
Many people resisted the idea of the Earth being round or humans landing on the moon, but in the end, the science prevailed. The same applies to today's science denialism issues. Science doesn't care whether you believe it or not. It's not a belief system; it simply happens. So rising water levels and the other consequences of climate change will continue to occur. The daily news is replete with evidence of climate change in many realms -- from weather and endangered species to agriculture and the economy. Mountains of science from around the world shows global warming is real and is caused by human activity. Yet many people still fall prey to armchair pundits who try to disprove climate change without even knowing the difference between weather and climate.
And when too many people don't vaccinate, we'll continue to get outbreaks of preventable deadly diseases, just like we did earlier this year with measles at Disneyland in California, and in other pockets worldwide. The science shows that high rates of vaccination preserve herd immunity in a population and reduce the number of outbreaks of many deadly diseases -- essential to protecting the very young and old and cancer patients who can't be vaccinated. And, eons ago, sound science disproved the tired old saw of a possible link between vaccines and autism. The original Lancet paper was retracted and the latest science shows the influence of genetics in causing autism, perhaps occurring in the womb.
Science is iterative and requires a consensus of the larger scientific community based on their ongoing analysis of the cumulative data. The scientific method is a forward-moving and elegant mechanism. And, scientists' work is part of that rigorous process. Doesn't it make sense to listen to the best and brightest in science, and in every field of inquiry? In the end, that will make us all the smarter.
Anne Zeiser is a film and media professional and a science geek. At the upcoming Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival she'll be talking about the power of transmedia projects in science, the environment, and conservation to engage and inspire audiences. She's also the author of Transmedia Marketing: From Film and TV to Games and Digital Media, about transmedia storytelling and engagement in media and entertainment from Focal Press in the American Film Market® Presents book series.