Opinion | What The Coronavirus Pandemic Can Teach Us About Listening to Scientists

(Photograph: Leon Neal/Pool via Reuters)

As the confirmed novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, cases surpass one million worldwide, and deaths rise to over fifty thousand souls, one small silver lining in these dark times is that people are finally taking notice of science and scientists.

2019 seems so distant now, so long ago, so pre-COVID-19. But if we cast our minds back to that year we may just be able to remember that it was also a tumultuous year in itself, albeit for what seems like much more trivial reasons, now. Brexit. Megxit. Impeachment of President Trump. How simple times were way back when.

One stark difference between then and now is that, as a scientist, it felt like politicians and, more importantly, the general public just weren’t listening to scientists at all, and were sceptical, at best, of science itself.

Ever since the mass debates around the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum of 2016, there has been an audible scoff from the general public in the U.K. whenever someone dares to utter the word “expert”.

“Well, what do they know?” I heard from many-a-rebutter. (A lot, is the answer to that question. It’s kind of their whole thing).

“They are just trying to scare us!” Is another I frequently heard in a vain attempt to rationalise the severity of any given situation. But, sadly, no, experts don’t usually go in for fear mongering tactics. If the facts sound scary, it’s probably because they are. Take heed.

“They are being paid to say those things”, is another common phrase spat out in defiance of the experts, and it’s a pretty huge accusation for academics. Most experts have the professional and moral integrity to tell you the facts, from their data. There are, of course, the small few who may allow their political or personal biases to cloud their judgement. However, if most of the experts are saying the same things, it’s worth taking note.

Our American cousins are also currently dealing with their own rejection of established science under the regime of one Donald J. Trump and his anti-science henchmen including, but not limited to, Vice President Mike Pence and vast swathes of the Republican Party. From Senators attempting to seriously pass legislation which would force doctors to perform surgeries that are medically impossible, to a concerted effort to suppress access to safe, legal abortions. None of which is based on real, established science, but instead wholly based in ideology and dangerous levels of misinformation.

But now, due to the very immediate and very serious threat of the novel coronavirus, politicians are being forced to finally listen to their scientific advisers, and the scientific community as a whole. Furthermore, policy and law is being ratified at breakneck pace, all in line with how science says we should proceed. Science and health advisers are even on television and in the media every day making announcements, updates, and giving advice. The whole world has finally turned its collective heads to the oft scoffed at and forgotten scientists and asking, “What do we do now?” and, “When will a vaccine be ready?”

When this whole pandemic epoch is finally over, it’s worth the public and politicians remembering who they turned to when things became serious. When things became deadly. They turned not to propaganda, and not to their chequebooks; they turned to science and did what was necessary, when it was necessary. Something the whole world is guilty of not doing for another contemporary crisis underway: climate change.

For over forty years businesses like Exxon and Shell have known the science behind the impending effects of fossil fuel CO2 emissions and the looming threat of serious and irreparable climate change. In fact, there have been many scientists dating as far back as 1896 who predicted the climate crisis we are facing at this very moment.

For over a century we had some idea this was coming. For over three decades the public and politicians have been made very aware of the imminent threat of climate change. And yet we all sat back and did nothing but scoff at the scientists who were screaming at the masses of businesses, politicians, and a public who refused to take it seriously; who refused to believe and act on the science.

And the scoffs are still audible to this very day.

Unfortunately, this attitude doesn’t end with climate change, there has been a huge rejection of science across many fronts in recent times, such as vaccinations, genetically engineered (GE) foods, traditional medicines, and much, much more.

It is my personal hope that after the dust settles on this devastating pandemic, that people begin to trust in science and in scientists again. That people won’t scoff when they hear the word “expert” but will in fact sit up and take notice. It’s not about obeying blindly or believing everything you read, but listening and consideration are hugely important. Many scientists don’t agree with one another but they do always listen and always consider the science.

It is my hope that politicians continue to listen and act on the science brought to them by their advisers and the scientific community as a whole. And if they stop, that the public will remind them of how we got through the COVID-19 pandemic. By listening to the scientists — the experts — and by basing our decisions and policy on the science.

It is my hope that once a vaccine is ready to be rolled out the masses, that people trust in vaccinations again and are reminded of the immense power of vaccinations to save millions of lives every year. And when people begin to forget this, others remind them.

Maybe, just maybe, people will begin to recycle more. Be more fuel efficient, and take more public transport. Push for more sustainable energy sources, and turn their lights off when they leave a room.

Maybe, just maybe, businesses will ramp up their efforts to become greener and safer for the environment. Maybe most of those who are working from home right now will be allowed to continue to do so, to help remove the need for so many vehicles on the roads and the need for the fuel they use.

And maybe — just maybe — our political leaders will continue to listen to scientists and create policies that protect the environment and help stave off the worst of climate change. To support cheap and reliable public transport to reduce the amount of vehicles on the roads. To push policy that makes cleaner energy sources the primary source of power in the country as a whole. To reconsider their resistance to GE foods, which could save hundreds of thousands of lives every year. And so, so much more.

There are a lot of ‘maybes’ in those paragraphs but I have hope that we, as a society, will push to make those maybes a reality, and come out of these dark times much more informed and much more open to science challenging our preconceptions and ultimately informing our personal opinions and beliefs.

Science isn’t good nor evil. Science isn’t political or financially inclined. Science is merely information. It is up to us whether we use that information or ignore it. Let’s not live in ignorance any longer.

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