Are We in an Anti-scientific Revolution? Listen In and Find Out

06/05/2015 03:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Are we living through an anti-scientific revolution? A new CBC radio documentary explores that question in depth, and you can listen in on Sirius XM or at the links below.

On the political right, there are the well-funded climate-denial groups and paid disinformers backed by big extraction-industry corporations. And there are the passionate religious-conservative foot soldiers and Republican Party faithful who rail against and try to water down the teaching of evolution (the underpinning of biology and modern medicine) in public schools and science textbooks, and the pro-lifers who worry that vaccinating girls against the HPV virus, the chief cause of cervical cancer, will somehow encourage them to become promiscuous. And it seems that candidates for president have to declare their disbelief in man-made climate change, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is real -- and they are only taken seriously if they do this.

But the left has its own anti-science issues. Worry that vaccines somehow cause autism is one, even though that has been roundly shown not to be the case, yet anti-vaccine parents callously put entire populations at risk by not vaccinating their children. Another example is the belief that GMO foods are somehow less healthy to eat, even though the scientific literature shows overwhelmingly that that is not the case. Other liberals worry that our cellphones may be causing brain cancer, even though massive epidemiological evidence, as well as a high-school-level understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum combined with a little chemistry and biology knowledge can show why that's not the case.

And when it comes to nuttiness and vehemence, the anti-vaccine crowd can be just as vicious, mean, and nasty as the climate deniers -- as I know from personal experience when they tried to ban my book Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America when it was up for an award.

Why is this happening? It's partly because of the sophistication and specialization of modern science and technology. When science becomes so advanced that a bit of technology, like, say, your smartphone, becomes indistinguishable from magic, it becomes less a matter of knowledge and more a matter of belief, and once that happens, science becomes equated with opinion and loses its standing. This is made worse by journalists who believe that there's no such thing as objectivity and so hold science and opinion as opposing viewpoints of equal merit in their stories, a tactic that veteran TV news journalist Don Shelby calls "false balance."

"Whenever the people are well-informed," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "they may be trusted with their own government." But when science becomes so complex that it's beyond the knowledge or bandwidth of most voters, can they still be trusted with their own government? This is a question that I have worked on and written about for a long time.

And because of the ideologically driven or corporate-influenced people we choose to elect, scientists around the world are increasingly restricted in what they can research, publish and say -- constrained by belief and ideology from all sides. Historically, science has always had a thorny relationship with institutions of power. But what happens to societies that turn their backs on curiosity-driven research? And how can science lift the siege?

Last year I started speaking with CBC IDEAS radio producer Mary Lynk about some of these issues. This is not a partisan problem, as you can see. The issues exist on both sides of the conservative-liberal divide, so it's not fair to say, for example, that it's all Harper in Canada, or, here in the US, that it was all Bush. It is a broader social issue that we need to find a way to stop before we lose our democracies, and it is incumbent on each of us as responsible citizens to step up, inform ourselves, and take the steps necessary to restore science and evidence as the basis of our public policies, to toss the bums out who don't get or are actively opposed to evidence from science, and to build better tools to combat the significant PR resources that vested interests wage against science to get their way.

Now there's a national three-part radio series that takes on some of these issues. You can listen to this important discussion across North America on Sirius XM, on CBC radio, or via podcast at the below links.

"Science Under Siege, Part 1: Dangers of Ignorance": ​Explores the historical tension between science and political power and the sometimes-fraught relationship between the two over the centuries. But what happens when science gets sidelined? What happens to societies thatturn their backs on curiosity-driven research?

"Science Under Siege, Part 2: The Great Divide": Explores the state of science in the modern world, and the expanding -- and dangerous -- gulf between scientists and the rest of society. Many policy makers, politicians and members of the public are giving belief and ideology the same standing as scientific evidence. Are we now seeing an anti-scientific revolution? A look at how evidence-based decision making has been sidelined.

"Science Under Siege, Part 3: Fighting Back": Focuses on the culture war being waged on science, and possible solutions for reintegrating science and society. The attack on science is coming from all sides, from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. How can the principle of direct observation of the world, free of corporate or any other influence, reassert itself? The final episode of this series looks at how science can withstand the attack against it and overcome ideology and belief.

Ed Holder, the Canadian Minister of State (Science and Technology), was unavailable for an interview for this documentary series. A statement from the ministry was given instead -- "highlighting some of the federal government's programs and policies on communicating federal science and our support for scientific research."

CBC and Mary Lynk are to be commended for this groundbreaking, thoughtful, and critically important public service to citizens of democracies worldwide, and I am very pleased to be a part of it.