This week, I was directed to the commencement speech Barack Obama made at Rutgers University on 15th May, during which he defended the virtues of free speech, promoted scientific inquiry, highlighted the pitfalls of anti-intellectualism and the importance of science informing policy:
“Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science – these are good things…we traditionally have valued those things. But if you were listening to today’s political debate, you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from…in politics, and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about.”
This drew laughter from the audience, understandably, but one has to wonder how far this anti-intellectualism runs. First of all, it’s important to understand what anti-intellectualism is. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a hostility, or indifference, to culture and intellectual reasoning. As a scientist, I have been brought up to question the world around me, and develop strong arguments to defend conclusions I have drawn. To think that people would refute science in favour of uninformed hearsay worries me, and will no doubt worry you too. We should absolutely question science, as unfortunately, science is not always correct. Famously, the Earth was considered flat for hundreds of years, and that the rest of the solar system orbited around us. We now know better, as the nature of science is to evolve and to build upon the theories of our forbears.
Thankfully, over the years, science has become more robust as the industry understands it is coming under close scrutiny by the public and other scientists. Alarmingly, politicians seem to be fuelling the anti-intellectual fire by ignoring, or not believing, the scientific evidence.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is a vehement denier of climate change, despite an absolute mountain of evidence confirming that our planet is indeed warming. Closer to home, in 2015, politicians in the UK decided to implement culling activities of badgers following several trials in 2013/14, in the hope of stemming the outbreak of bovine tuberculosis, disregarding more effective plans outlined by a panel of scientists. More recently on 23rd May, North Yorkshire County Council granted permission for Third Energy to commence hydraulic fracturing activities in Ryedale, North Yorkshire, with a growing body of scientific literature suggesting that fracking is not safe notwithstanding.
Whilst, on the whole, science informs policy and provides foundations for our knowledge, it is worrying that there appears to be a trend in political circles to deny the science in favour of their own beliefs. One can only hope that Barack Obama’s words will ring in everyone’s’ ears.