The global COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the unpreparedness and inability of many countries to effectively manage complex risks and ensure community resilience. An important dimension of this dangerous flaw is the sharp divide between those who rely on science to shape policies and actions, and those who undermine or dispel science when inconvenient to their viewpoints and agendas.
The divide has manifested itself in myriad ways, through anti-mask protests, arguments that the coronavirus — which causes the COVID-19 disease — is either a hoax or created by Bill Gates or the Chinese military, or proclamations about untested or potentially deadly “treatment regimes.” The divide is fueled by the rhetoric of politicians and interest groups who use social media to make unscientific claims or attack science in order to promote their political agendas, having little regard for whether the outcome will lead to a resilient, fragile or collapsing society.
How Will COVID-19 Change Our World?
These issues, generally defined as science versus ideology, have long been present throughout history. Historians of science point to Galileo’s battle with the Roman Catholic Church, the Darwinian evolution debates, reoccurring vaccination arguments, Trofim Lysenko’s purge of geneticists or the recent Ebola crisis as situations where scientific facts clashed — sometimes disastrously — with cultural values, subjective belief systems or political ideology.
Once again, the safety of citizens, the validity of our institutions and the viability of our social and economic structures hinge on how we cope with this dangerous polarization. If left unresolved now, these issues will fester and grow as mighty barriers to successfully addressing this and future existential crises such as the next pandemic or climate change.
A Better Understanding of Science
The approach of distancing science from public discourse because it must remain an independent source of expertise, while well-intentioned, does not work. Certainly, scientific findings must remain untainted and uninfluenced; however, scientists are citizens and part of their communities. Engaging scientists in a conscientious and compassionate discussion within the community — through a process of social learning — is critical.
To be effective, this must start with a better understanding of science and more effective communication of its findings. Science is a process deliberately designed to reduce uncertainty and identify risk. These are exactly the elements we need to understand in order to manage a pandemic or the threats associated with climate change. Scientific ideas or hypotheses are proposed and repeatedly challenged by testing. Eventually, on an evidential basis, ideas are rejected or accepted and continually refined. It is this dynamic and “ever-questioning” nature of science that has moved knowledge forward. Today’s facts may be disproven and replaced by new facts.
This evolving aspect of science unfortunately provides opportunities for populists and other opponents to selectively choose “their facts” or to reject scientific evidence in total because of what seems contradictory or unsettled. As an example, improved knowledge as to how the coronavirus spreads led the World Health Organization (WHO) to change its directive on the use of masks in June. Many saw this not as the rapid advance heralded by scientists, but as evidence of confusion and inconsistency in science. This presented an ideal opportunity for protests against the use of masks and dismissal of scientific evidence by interest groups.
By contrast, nine months into the pandemic, most scientists see this time as a golden age of rapid breakthroughs in applicable knowledge and technology. We are witnessing an unprecedented global concerted scientific approach to beating the coronavirus, which includes the development of a vaccine.
Many scientists are baffled by what they see as a rejection of scientific facts by the public and politicians. However, policies such as lockdowns and mandatory mask-wearing, while effective at containing the virus in the short term, are seen as repressive by many because they come with a huge price tag, including unemployment and cascading economic collapse across the globe. Reactive policies, even when based on science, are unsustainable whether in a pandemic or managing climate change. Long-term solutions require a commitment to investing in prevention, preparedness and resilience building. This must include realigning the tensions between science and ideology.
Social learning is a tool that can help us resolve those tensions and lead us toward a more resilient future. Social learning defines learning as a cognitive process that takes place in a social context. To tackle the public health crisis and other global threats like climate change, the context here must include scientists, citizens and policymakers working together. By learning from each other, we can develop solutions that are scientifically rigorous but co-produced collectively and therefore integrated into community values and needs.
Whether it is the pandemic or climate change, the communication and engagement of science through social learning offers a pathway out of the science-ideology divide and should be rapidly embraced. We do not have time to waste because the future of the people and the planet is literally on the line. All sides must be willing to do something novel: engage in this process of group learning for resilience.
*[This article was submitted on behalf of the authors by the Hamad bin Khalifa University Communications Directorate. The views expressed are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the university’s official stance.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.