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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Science Denial and the Pandemic

Air Date: Week of

In an airport, people wear masks in an effort to prevent coronavirus spread. (Photo: Chad Davis, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The coronavirus pandemic appears well-managed in countries like China and South Korea that moved swiftly, with the science as their guide. Countries that initially downplayed the threat, such as Italy and the United States, have seen spiking death rates as healthcare systems are overwhelmed. Harvard History of Science Professor Naomi Oreskes joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss why some governments fail to follow the science when responding to major crises like pandemics and climate change, and how acceptance of science makes governments better able to prepare and cope with these global disasters.


CURWOOD: A decade ago, Harvard History of Science Professor Naomi Oreskes compared climate change denial to tobacco danger denial in her book Merchants of Doubt, penned with Eric Conway and later made into a documentary film. The two then wrote a science fiction novel, The Collapse of Western Civilization, that explored a future when denial about climate science in Western countries kept them from responding to the climate crisis, while an authoritarian China did. Science denial continues today with the novel corona virus crisis. US president has often delayed action and failed to heed the warnings of his healthcare science advisors, while China’s leadership has taken more timely and successful actions. Professor Oreskes joins us to discuss the role of government and its relationship to science in this pandemic. Welcome back to Living on Earth.

ORESKES: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here with you.

CURWOOD: First, before we get into the present moment, why did you write the collapse of Western civilization a view from the future?

ORESKES: We wrote the book for two reasons. The first was that after Merchants of Doubt was published, I got a lot of requests from people saying, Would you please explain why people don't accept climate science? And I thought, wow, I just wrote a 350-page book about that. So obviously, we need to find a way to say it again, in a different form. So the idea was basically to take that question and to answer it in a different, shorter and really sort of more fun format. But in addition, Eric, and I had been talking for a long time about what we saw as a central irony in the story of Merchants of Doubt. And that was that the people we were studying the people we refer to as Merchants of Doubt, they were fighting to protect the freedom that they were defending American democracy, American freedom, and individual liberty, against the encroachment of big government. But the irony we believed was that by delaying action on climate change, they actually made the problem worse. And they increase the odds that the kind of course of government that they hate would in fact, actually come to pass as we had to deal with the unfolding crisis. And so the idea was to write a story that would make that point.

CURWOOD: Now, in your view, we've seen China take massive measures for the coronavirus, what is it about China that allows that nation to tackle something like a pandemic so differently from other countries?

ORESKES: Well, I'm not an expert on the history of China. But I think one aspect of this is pretty obvious. When you have a large scale problem, like a pandemic that doesn't respect the borders of towns or cities or provinces or states, then you need a centralized response and a political system that centralizes power is going to be more able to respond to that than one in which power is very distributed. So even though we might dislike centralized power in certain ways, there are certain kinds of problems for which centralized power is really important and may, in fact, be the only way to address the issue.

CURWOOD: Well, President Trump would like to think that he has centralized power in his hands. Why has he been less than effective, at least in the view of many in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak?

ORESKES: Well, the President personalizes a lot of things. But the reality is that he actually was very unwilling to use the authority that he had. So right when this problem first became identified, back in January, he didn't want to empower the CDC or the National Institutes of Health to take a strong response. He also didn't want to use the powers that he had as president United States, to compel the private sector to manufacture ventilators or to manufacture face masks. Now three months in he is finally doing that and suddenly we see the private sector, GM Ford is being enlisted to do this sort of work. But the President was extremely reluctant to do that. And I think stemmed from the basic conservative view the conservative reluctant to use the power that the federal government has. And so in this case, the consequence of that reluctance is that the virus essentially went out of control. And now tens of thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands of Americans will die, Americans whose lives could have been saved if we had acted more quickly and with more organization in the early stages of this disease.

CURWOOD: So China was able to tackle the pandemic with very direct measures. What limits these kinds of measures in other countries?

ORESKES: Well, I think the really important point to make here is that you don't have to be a communist country to have an organized coherent response to a challenge. And the clear example of this is South Korea. South Korea is also a democratic country like the United States, but it's a country that has been willing to vest more authority in the centralized government. And it's also a country that acted on the advice of scientific experts early in the problem, whereas here in the United States, we have a president In who has shown his utter disdain for and disrespect for science, he has been disdainful of the scientific evidence regarding climate change. He has been disdainful of the evidence regarding the safety of vaccinations against diseases like measles. And he is hostile to science. He has attempted to cut the budgets in many scientific agencies. He has attempted to prevent scientists from traveling to scientific meetings. And many of us who track science who study science who do science have been worrying for a long time, that if you undermine scientific agencies and the federal government, that this will have consequences. And now I think we are seeing those consequences in a very, very vivid way.

CURWOOD: To what extent is your view that governments can respond to the pandemic without sacrificing democracy or freedom, but they must pay attention to reality, science?

Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis during the Coronavirus outbreak. (Photo: Chad Davis, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

ORESKES: Exactly. I think you just set it as well as I could. Exactly. We don't have to be communists we don't have to be totalitarians, we don't have to be autocrats. That's the myth that some conservatives have promoted for the last 30 years, that somehow there's no way to solve the problem of climate change without succumbing to totalitarianism. But the experience of South Korea and to some extent Germany as well shows no, it's not about being totalitarian. It's about paying attention to evidence, respecting facts, respecting expertise, and then mobilizing the resources that you have in line with what the expertise is telling you. And the other really important thing that this experience shows and I think it really validates what Eric Conway and I predicted in the collapse of Western civilization. I mean, look at what's happening now, we've lost huge amounts of freedom, the idea that we were somehow protecting our freedom by disrespecting science, we've now seen how bankrupt that idea is. I mean, I'm stuck at home and so are what is it? 200 million Americans, we've lost tremendous amounts of personal liberty, and we don't know how long this is going to go on. We've also lost income, we're seeing trouble endless amounts of damage that could have been avoided if we had been willing to listen to and act upon the advice of experts.

CURWOOD: So China, and it's very much command and control economy and Germany and South Korea, different countries that you say are able to deal with the coronavirus more effectively because they believe in science. What's the solution for societies to get to governments that will operate on that basis? Because there many other places that the virus is going crazy, a lot of democratic places.

ORESKES: I think there are two things that we need to do here in the United States. The first is I think we need to rebuild our scientific institutions and in the process of rebuilding them as institutions, we can also rebuild trust. We've had 30 years in this country of decreasing support for scientific institutions, particularly federal scientific agencies, like the CDC, like the US Geological Survey, like NOAA and in the process of cutting back the budgets from Of these organizations, we've also seen these organizations subjected to a lot of hostility, a lot of criticism by political forces in Washington, DC, if we roll the clock back and think about the 1950s, when I was born, and when money was flowing into science, it wasn't just that the government was putting money into science. It was also that the government was telling us a story about why science mattered. So if you think about Dwight Eisenhower and the early years of the space program, or john Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who carried the space program forward, why did the American people believe in the importance of the Apollo program, it's because we were told a story, a good story, a true story, about how science could help build America, how to build our economy, how it could help build our educational systems, and how we could do cool things like put men on the moon. So I think we need to recapture that commitment to science and to scientific institutions and to scientists. The other thing though, that I think is equally important is to rebuild trust in government because the bashing of science has been linked in a very specific and direct way to a general argument against the government, particularly the argument against so-called big government. And this is something that began in the United States under Ronald Reagan, who's admired by many people and was an excellent president in certain ways but he did something that I considered to have been deeply, deeply damaging. And it's summarized by his slogan is that “the government's not the solution to our problems the government is the problem. For 40 years, we have heard that argument made by political leaders on the conservative side of the spectrum, so much so that a lot of ordinary people don't understand why we even have a CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, much less why we really need to count on them now in this current moment. And so that's about rebuilding trust in government and governance and making the point that sometimes we actually do need big government. We don't want the government telling us what to do with our lives on a day to day basis. But we do want the government to be there for us when we need it and it won't be there for us. We can't just say, oh, suddenly there's a crisis, suddenly we have to have government. No. If you want the government to be there when you need it. Well, it's got to be developed in advance.

Naomi Oreskes is co-author of the novel “The Collapse of Western Civilization”. (Photo: World Economic Forum, Courtesy of Naomi Oreskes)

CURWOOD: To what extent do you think that the anti-government approach by many has led to such a low public opinion, say the United States Congress? Sometimes in the polls are done Congress, men, and women rank under used car salespeople.

ORESKES: Yes, exactly. And I think it's not a coincidence. If you grow up in an environment in which you're constantly hearing people say the government is bad, government is corrupt, government is inefficient. Well, chances are, you may begin to believe that those things are true. And the idea is that well, they can become true because then of course, if you put people in control of the government, who don't actually believe in governance, then they're not going to do a good job in building the institutions that we need. And so we have a lot of dysfunction in Washington DC right now, and so people aren't wrong. When they see that dysfunction. People correctly perceive that Congress is dysfunctional, but that is function is a product of 40 years of public policies of essentially anti-government policies.

CURWOOD: So, Professor, what's the role of infrastructure and all of this?

ORESKES: One important lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is the role of infrastructure. One of the reasons we've done poorly in dealing with the pandemic in this country is because the infrastructure that we needed to deal with it was not as well developed as it needed to be. So we've seen in the past few weeks how we haven't had enough masks. We haven't had enough ventilators. We haven't had enough personnel available to do the testing. This is all infrastructure. It's the equipment, the organization, the people, the institutions, the buildings that are necessary to address problems. And so this really shows us why you can't simply wait until a crisis is upon you to mobilize the necessary resources. I mean, here's an analogy that I was thinking about just this morning. Almost all Americans except whether you're conservative or liberal, you accept the need for an army, you accept the need for the armed forces because you know that if we were to be attacked, we wouldn't be able to mobilize an army overnight. And we certainly wouldn't be able to build battleships and airplanes and aircraft carriers, we know that we have to do that in advance, we have a notion of readiness when it comes to military matters. But many of us don't have a similar notion of readiness when it comes to public health and medicine. And yet, it's exactly the same. If we're not ready in advance, we will not be able to protect ourselves from a viral attack. And similarly, and this is the analogy that then I make to climate change. So if we think about what's coming down the road and climate change, we could be prepared for it, there are a lot of things we could do, one not to stop climate change entirely, but to lessen it to a very great degree. And to be ready to deal with it when it comes. And right now, we are doing almost none of those things. So we are very, very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because we're not building the infrastructure now that we need. And the specific infrastructure that I'm most interested in is energy infrastructure. So we could replace fossil fuels. with renewable energy, probably at least 70 to 80% of our energy needs could be met with solar and wind power. But to do it we need infrastructure and particularly, we need energy storage infrastructure because we have to be able to store power for example, at night when the sun doesn't shine. that technology exists, but it doesn't exist at the scale we need. And right now, it's kind of expensive. So we need government research and development to try to bring down the price. If the government were to launch a major infrastructure effort, something along the lines of the Apollo program, I'm confident that within 10 years, we could have an effective energy storage infrastructure that would allow us to use renewable energy as our dominant form of energy in this country. But right now, we're not doing that. And that means that 10 years from now, we may very well be in a climate crisis, not that different from the coronavirus crisis that we're in right now.

CURWOOD: So if you were writing a book about these times from the future, maybe a novel like you did before looking at how China was able to deal with the climate and others weren't, what would be the plan. line?

ORESKES: Ah, well, if I knew that I think I would already be working on it. But I think it would be a happy story about how this crisis became a turning point. And how because of this crisis, because these issues became truly matters of life and death in front of our eyes, that the American people began to wake up. And they began to realize that there's a reason we have government. And there's a reason we have scientific institutions. And there's a reason why we spend money preparing for crises that may not happen. Nobody knew for sure that COVID-19 would happen. A lot of people predicted that something like this would happen. And of course, nobody knows absolutely, positively for sure exactly how climate change will play out. But we know that climate change will play out and it will be very damaging. And many of the kinds of damage that will occur, we can predict, even if we can't predict exactly when or exactly where. And so my happy ending story would be that this was a wake-up call and that people began to see the need to rebuild our scientific and governmental institutions and to rebuild our faith and expertise, and rebuild our faith in so-called big government, but realizing that it's not really that it's big government, it's that its efficacious government.

CURWOOD: Naomi, Oreskes is a professor of the history of science for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. Thank you so much, Professor, for taking the time with us today.

ORESKES: Thank you. It's been a pleasure speaking with you.

CURWOOD: And stay safe, please.



Our coverage on Oreskes’ book, The Collapse of Western Civilization


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