LONDON – On April 22, scientists from around the world will mark Earth Day by participating in an unprecedented “March for Science.” The aim of the march will be to “celebrate and defend science at all levels – from local schools to federal agencies.” For the rest of the world, it is important to understand why the usually sedate community of scientists will be leaving their labs and offices to take to the streets in a global demonstration of concern.
The answer was signaled in November 2016, when Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” its “Word of the Year.” In an era in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” scientists like us cannot afford to stay silent any longer. So we will be marching to return scientific “certainty” to its rightful place in public debate.
“Post-truth” describes well a year in which disregard for facts became a pervasive feature in world politics. As a candidate, US President Donald Trump denied the overwhelming evidence for climate change, endorsed the discredited claim that vaccinations caused autism, and asserted that compact fluorescent light bulbs can cause cancer.
But Trump does not have a monopoly on post-truth politicking. Policymakers in the US and Europe have trafficked in equally outrageous “expert views” on the consequences of their opponents’ positions on topics ranging from genetically modified foods to nuclear energy to Brexit. Recent social media attacks on a measles-rubella vaccination campaign even surfaced in India, fueling a mix of conspiracy theories, safety concerns, and questions of motivation – and demonstrating the extent to which lives can be imperiled when facts are ignored.