The bump on your toe is probably cancer; levels of Arctic sea ice are both decreasing and increasing; the world is either 6,000 or 4.5 billion years old…
Because you’re online, you already know this: Google (or Mad-Libs your search-engine-of-choice) is able to vomit up “scientific” data to support, even “confirm,” nearly any private theory you want. And the truth—yes, the truth-truth—is that a lot of that data will be accurate, but a lot of it will not be.
You probably don’t have toe cancer.
Much screen-ink has been spilled over the fake news and pseudoscience that are returned to us by our searches — the information (let’s call it) that answers our sincere queries in a manner algorithmically aligned with our preferences, and our community’s preferences. Though for the word “preferences,” you might as well substitute “biases”…
Data as filtered by what calls itself the media, as opposed to data as filtered by an individual, should be better, but isn’t. After all, the statistics on CNN, on FOX, and in The New York Times—someone Googled them too. That’s what the media has become: someone Googling for you. And yet whenever the media presents statistics, it somehow never manages to remind us that statistics are inherently uncertain. The field of statistics is literally the study of uncertainty, of possible or probable likelihoods (or unlikelihoods), which are ten-out-of-ten times presented as the personally-applicable percentage chances, the Vegas odds that X or Y will (or will not) happen to YOU.
For many of us, to read the daily news is to assess our personal risk-levels and yet we rarely recall—and the media never mentions—that the true challenge is not to enumerate the risk, but to live with it; to stake out the resilient middle ground between denying danger altogether (and, say, refusing to wear a mask in a crowded train or bus) and finding nothing but danger everywhere (and, say, wearing a mask and gloves when alone in the middle of the woods).
The way we assess risk is inextricable from the way we process fear, and it is one of the many factors that determines our paranoia and susceptibility to conspiracy. Anti-vaxxers fear the vaccine (which saves lives) more than the disease (which ends or impairs them); climate-denying politicians fear the economic consequences of climate adaptation more than… the end of the world, which, you know, might have some impact on the portfolio.
One of the more interesting and urgent questions for me is how to deal with good research that also happens to be bad news—especially when it comes to Covid and the changes in our climate.
Coronavirus variants are multiplying; sea levels and temperatures are rising, unseasonable storms are more powerful and frequent than ever before, unprecedented wildfires are spreading, and “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.” If you don’t want to hear about this stuff, you have a choice: you can either look at the other side’s “data” that says the opposite, or you can toss your phone into the ocean… which is littering.
When we decide the situation is so bad that there’s nothing to be done, we succumb to a kind of civic paralysis. An overwhelming concatenation of negativity, communicated as constantly unfolding catastrophe, leads even the most conspiracy-immune into apathy—and willful ignorance. And now here’s the baddest news: it leads us into apathy and willful ignorance whether or not we believe the science.
Take climate scientist Steven Chu’s nihilistic troika:
people who accept climate change and think it is caused by humans
people who accept climate change and think it is caused by nature
people who don’t accept climate change at all
What do all of these people have in common? They can usually agree on the “fact” that nothing can be done.
With Covid-19 persisting into ‘21, and this fall marking the second anniversary of our new lives, this mutant strain of “science denialism” has become its own pandemic—one that leaves us in denial about our ability to implement change.