Throughout history, there have been conflicts between scientists and various sections of society. Traditionally this conflict was situated between science and religion, as science made new discoveries it brought religious truths into question. For example, in 1633 Galileo was convicted of heresy for daring to say that the earth was not the centre of the universe, he spent the remainder of his life under house arrest for it. Centuries later, The Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin in 1859, was banned at Cambridge University for challenging the idea that God created all living species.
Even in the twenty-first century, the discord between research and society is ever-present, although the dividing line is now more political than religious. Research with world-changing potential is being produced every year, yet it is not taken on board by governments and policymakers in order to improve society. Research, which if implemented would help mitigate climate change, reduce the number of people living in poverty and greatly improve public health. But unfortunately, in order for world-changing research to change the world, it requires those in power to have a willingness to accept and welcome change. And even more unfortunately, those in power have nothing to gain from change, thus the status quo continues.
On June 3rd, 2016, just weeks before the Brexit referendum, Michael Gove, then justice secretary, was quoted in an interview saying: “the people of this country have had enough of experts”. The experts he was referring to were from varied backgrounds including economics, medicine and business. There was an almost unanimous agreement between researchers across all disciplines that leaving the EU would have a detrimental effect on the UK. Although for a certain elite group of the UK, there was a lot of money to be made from Brexit. Hence there was a concerted effort to discredit the experts and smear the credibility of the research institutions that gave evidence which might obstruct the desired outcome.
Four years down the line, Brexit is still incomplete, and it is still too soon to make a call on the accuracy of the expert predictions. Although as the situation pans out, it certainly appears as though the experts were not far wrong. Despite their accuracy, there is no glory to be had for these experts, the uncertain fate they predicted has become the reality of a nation.
It was not expert knowledge that swayed the electorate, but emotional rhetoric. Appealing to the iconic NHS, fear of immigration, and those ‘unelected Brussels bureaucrats’ did the trick. My point here is not to criticize anyone who voted to leave the EU, nor to be just another ‘remoaner’ complaining that the vote did not go my way. However, the way government officials have worked to turn the public away from experts is highly concerning. If we can’t trust the experts, then who can we trust?
Following this recent acute example of ignorance to experts, there are numerous other examples where ideology and emotions take president over research and evidence. This is seen explicitly in relation to drug reform, where nations around the globe continue to pursue the ‘war on drugs’. A war that was first declared in 1971 by President Nixon, a war that has been raging for 50 years and is still no closer to a victory than the day it began.
Independent researcher bodies studying the impact of illegal drugs on public health have continuously sought to reform policy and end the war on drugs, because it clearly isn’t working. In 2009, Professor David Nutt, the then-chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (UK), was sacked for publishing research that stated LSD, ecstasy and cannabis were less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco. Prof. Nutt had publicly called for the decriminalisation of illegal drugs and improvements to education in order to reduce the harm caused to society. However, his expert knowledge and the findings of professional research were not welcomed by the British government. This is a case of a medical professional being removed from their position because the findings of their research did not align with the ideology of the government.
In 2006 with the release of Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, we saw one of the first attempts to comprehensively communicate climate science to the general public. It won multiple prizes and awards with a 90-minute slideshow presenting the science of climate change and the risks posed to society. It explained how the way we are living is having a significant impact on the planet and this will lead to serious problems. However, despite evidence that a massive change was necessary, things went on as before.
But the information present by Al Gore was not new. The knowledge that burning fossil fuels releases CO2 which has a warming effect on the planet has been around since the late 1800s (IPCC, 2007). Then in 1938 research showed that this warming was already happening, and caused by human activity. However, as the title suggests, the truth is just too inconvenient to face. Scientific evidence is mounting, yet the pressure to change is still facing strong resistance around the globe.
As I am writing this article, COVID 19 has spread around the world to create a global pandemic. Whole countries are in lockdown, record unemployment is sweeping nations and people are dying. Research is being produced that could help us out of this pandemic, but the distrust of science and research institutions that has been farmed in the minds of the public for generations is coming home to roost.
Evidence for reducing the spread of the virus by wearing masks has been hijacked by populist leaders as a political battle. The choice of wearing a mask is becoming a symbol of personal liberty and state oppression, not a tool to reduce virus transmission. There is also scepticism as to where the virus originated, with conspiracy theories growing in popularity. Research from Oxford University has found some people pointing the finger to the virus being a Chinese made biological weapon, while others say it is a creation by Bill Gates as part of a grand plan to microchip populations all around the world.
As a global community, we have never been more in need of scientific research to help solve a problem. While the science has not generated any simple solutions, the mitigation techniques that have been put forward require public engagement. After years of undermining experts, we need them now more than ever, but there is limited will to accept the help they can offer. Even the best knowledge is useless if it is not implemented by governments and acted on by those who are required to act. The ignorance that has been cultivated in society has become a significant obstacle in the path to overcoming this global problem.
I am not calling for a technocratic dictatorship where expert rule replaces the democratic process. But we are living in a complicated world, which is getting ever more complicated as the years go by. The people with the most understanding of an issue should have the most influence on its outcome. Contrary to the ideas of science-sceptic societies and evidence dismissing politicians, we need experts now more than ever.