Fight the power: oppose governmental suppression of scientific literacy

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When we hear about governments that censor science and literacy, we’re likely to presume said governments are totalitarian dictatorships or fundamentalist regimes. But such governmental censorship also occurs in countries with democratic processes like, say, the U.S. (D’oh!), which is beginning to look a lot like Turkey. Think that sounds far-fetched?

Think again.

The Turkish government, led by Erdoğan, recently fired, and in some cases jailed, hundreds of university professors and will be cutting the teaching of evolution in secondary schools. Meanwhile, the United States government, led by Trump, has fired the majority of scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency and appointed a secretary of education who, along with the secretaries of energy and of housing and urban development and other cabinet members, actively opposes the teaching of evolution in schools. To boot, the current US president has made multiple anti-science statements including tweeting: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Why are both of these governments so anti-science? Because one surefire way for a government to control their population is to take away the ability to access information and the capacity to understand it. Tackling science and the media, together, is a dangerous form of governmental control. It’s also surprisingly simple—just as easy as one, two, three:

1) Undermine faith in the media and scientists so that the public does not trust the information coming from them (for example, call media you don’t agree with “fake news” and science “biased” or “opinion”).

2) Curtail access by the media to government officials so that the media is unable to directly engage with and challenge official statements and actions (such as by making tweeting an official policy platform or barring cameras and certain members of the press from press conferences).

3) Remove critical scientific knowledge and access to instruction from the educational systems (like basic ecological and evolutionary facts) so that the public do not have the skillsets to understand the world around them.

These are patterns emerging in both Turkey and the U.S. today. The antagonism to teaching evolution and the constant rejection/ignoring of scientifically supported data on health and the environment are clear examples.

Scientific knowledge is built on refutation of assertions through testing and verification of actual data. As such, strong science education is a challenge to easy control of a population. Suppressing scientific knowledge and research and removing evolution from school curricula undercuts the ability of the pubic to access and assess information about their own lives and the society around them.

Recently, scientific investigations into global and local ecosystems have demonstrated that toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases are altering global ecologies such that the arctic ice sheets are melting at the fastest rate known in history (and prehistory) causing sea levels to rise. This phenomenon, along with warming global sea temperatures, is changing the ecology of thousands of small aquatic species, which alters the evolutionary pressures on them affecting their life cycles and their bodies and behavior. In turn, we see a cascade effect on all of the other species that rely on them, such as humans, salmon, seals and whales. We’re not just talking about sea life here, these organisms are a critical part of the human food chain. So we must understand the reasons why sea temperatures are increasing, and more specifically, how these changes are affecting other species and what the connections are between the species and ecologies affected. To do so we need basic science to examine the ecosystems and how they work (or don’t), and we need to understand evolutionary processes to be able to model potential downstream effects of these changes. This is not possible if the scientists charged with this research are fired or constrained. And it is utterly useless if the public has no capacity to understand the basics of the information the scientists provide.

It becomes worse still if the scientists are able to do the research, publish and present the results only to share this crucial information with a populace that has been convinced that the “science” of climate change and evolution is just “opinion,” or “fake news.”

The biological and ecological patterns of connections between living things is not opinion, it is reality, i.e. supported by verifiable facts, and it is a reality that is rapidly being altered, in large part by human actions. This reality is what the governments of the US and Turkey aim to cover up via their suppression of scientific knowledge and activity. We mustn’t let that happen. Access to scientific education and information, including evolutionary understandings, helps us to challenge lies and to make the world a better place for humans and many other species. Without it, we’re all doomed.