If everyone denies the facts, are they still facts?
Hi, Ari here with a new piece about facts, with some thoughts from Neil deGrasse Tyson. You can subscribe for all my writing here:
Maybe look up, though
The world is facing many problems, but to know that, you would have to have some grasp on the facts. Without that, you might not even see a given problem, and you can’t even try to fix what you don’t think exists.
From COVID to climate change, the breakdown of basic facts is a barrier to solutions. In journalism, we report on this stuff; in politics, people fight over it. In art, we sometimes see the challenge at a broader altitude, which brings me to the movie “Don’t Look Up.” (Spoilers ahead.)
The movie is about a comet on track to wipe out earth. And it’s about what happens when—unlike the typical “script” in these action films where heroes rally to protect earth—many people just deny the comet is coming. They deny it, so they certainly don’t support action or sacrifice to stop it. (Since it doesn’t exist.)
You can see the comparisons to climate change, or COVID, or an increasing roster of societal ills caught in political denialism.
When the comet gets close enough to see, the denialists would seem to be out of options. But they’re not.
In a satire that only feels a touch past some current problems, a bunch of Trump-y leaders demand people refuse to “look up” to check, even once, if there’s a comet up there hurtling towards earth.
Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson compared the plotline to a science march:
“Why science should have to march—that’s a whole other question to be addressed—but during the science march, one of my favorite posters I saw someone hold up was, ‘Every disaster movie begins by someone in charge ignoring the warnings of a scientist!’
So this movie—allegory I think is too soft a word. Allegory is, usually, there’s a hidden message. There’s nothing hidden about this movie. A comet is going to take us out. And how are we all going to react?”
It’s a central frustration in the film, and thus in modern life.
The idea is that the comet is a “stress test” for people’s ability to accept baseline information, and how a society that “self-governs” can deal with it. In that sense, Covid may be a closer emergency corollary to a comet than (seemingly) far away climate change.
In the film, denialists and indoctrinated cranks oppose the science and any reasoned debate. They are unreachable.
Then there’s a group of people who do understand that the comet is coming, but who selfishly think they can avoid its wrath, so they are not committed to collective action. (Are they wrong? I will avoid spoiling the answer.) And even against this existential crisis, we see politicians and business people react basically as usual -- fixated on short term interests (as if the world is not about to end), or acting out of greed (as if the world is not about to end), etc.
Now that may not be just “today’s society and politics.” Some people’s imaginations are small enough—combined with the pressure and economic structure of modern life—that it’s difficult to truly see the bigger picture.
Tyson notes that “in school, we are taught that science is this satchel of facts -- you learn it and regurgitate it for the final and then you go home,” he says. “Later on, you learn that one of those facts got modified,” he notes, which can lead to misplaced skepticism. “It’s because you didn’t learn science as it should have been taught, as a way of querying nature, as a means of decoding what is or is not true in this world,” he says, that spawns so much second-guessing.
He’s talking about the “epistemology” of truth. How do we establish what is true, and what is a product of our own invented society?
And do we have a way to distinguish between lower and higher order risks—including ones that can kill millions, or even wipe out a continent?
These Tyson lines are from our recent interview, and he offered one more thought as hopeful as it was stern, so I’ll give him the last word:
“There is no enterprise humans have ever conducted that rivals [science’s] ability to establish what is objectively true and not. If you don’t see that, we’re all in trouble.”
There are those…and we know who they are…who deny science fact simply because it differs from their stubbornly held preconceived notions otherwise known as faith. Faith relies on a need to believe, fact/truth doesn’t.
I teach biology at a major university. There are so many aspects of biological science that students (and society) push back on because of their feelings and beliefs. Evolution is a big one, and one might think that a refusal to believe in evolution doesn’t matter. Well, mutations in a virus and how well it transmits matter. Climate change matters if organisms can’t evolve to live in a warming climate. Of course, if one doesn’t believe in Covid-19 I guess its mutations in it are irrelevant. I resent being ruled by superstitions and beliefs based on nothing. Evidence matters.
Also, just because an individual was able to make tons of money in crypto does not automatically make them an expert in anything else.
Why are we so afraid of listening to people who actually know what they’re talking about?