By Larry Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
Donald Trump retweeted a post claiming: “This week the CDC quietly updated the Covid number to admit that only 6% of all the 153,504 deaths recorded actually died from Covid. That’s 9,210 deaths. The other 94% had 2 to 3 other serious illnesses and the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age.” Trump’s inaccurate characterization of the 190,000 COVID deaths has since been pulled down but not before it spread wildly across Trump-land.
Increasingly, well-intended Americans, bombarded by false information, are struggling to separate pseudo-science from the real thing. The CDC report actually suggested that only 6% of the deaths caused by COVID-19 didn’t have any complications or underlying chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease. They did not experience the far-too-common medical complications from COVID such as heart damage, kidney failure, or sepsis. COVID-19 still caused the other 94% of deaths. Many chronic and otherwise manageable conditions and unexplained complications can make COVID-19 suddenly deadly to many.
A recent article in Live Science clarifies the matter as COVID is occurring across America with a vengeance. “When you look at the number of excess deaths this year in comparison with previous years, it’s staggering,” Dr. William Hanage, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, told Live Science. That’s an estimated 228,200 additional deaths in the United States, according to the Weinberger Lab at the University of California, San Francisco.
Our society, as advanced as it seems, is not very scientifically literate. Few today have even a rudimentary understanding of scientific principles, let alone a solid grasp of the many complex issues facing the planet’s inhabitants. In an increasingly globally interlocking world, there is an ever-widening information gap between what scientists in their respective disciplines know and what the public understands and is willing to accept.
Science seeks to help us understand how things on earth work as a means for solving the many challenges we face. Far too many Americans generally do not appreciate the complicated issues like climate change or health risks like COVID-19. They care little about how the world works and are ill-informed about scientific subjects. A few years ago, a documentary film discovered that most new Harvard graduates interviewed could not correctly explain why summers are warmer than winter. This is not just a Harvard problem.
In our 21st century society, many have moved away from meaningful connections to nature. They have little comprehension of the natural world. Few can accurately name the common trees in their neighborhood. Fewer can identify common wildflowers or local native bird species. This lack of knowledge about the natural world makes even the most basic science education extremely difficult. In Earth Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues, Calvin DeWitt tells of the Hanunoo tribe of the Philippine Islands. Researchers discovered that the average adult in the tribe could identify 1,600 different native species of plants and wildlife. They also knew how to use these species for food, construction, crafts, and medicines, and they knew where to find them. Similar studies with other indigenous people have produced similar findings. Unlike indigenous people, modern civilization has nearly disconnected from its vital roots in nature.
Another part of the challenge is in science communication. Peer-reviewed science is found in journals that sit behind expensive paywalls, and science in its raw form is hard for most to digest. Academic institutions reward scientists for publishing in peer-reviewed journals while often discouraging them from publishing more readable pieces in the popular press.
Many Americans do not understand the importance of specific scientific processes, including the scientific method, and fail to ask the right questions:
- Was the conclusion from a controlled study?
- Were the results statistically significant?
- Is this speculation, theory, or published credible science?
- Was the study published in a peer-reviewed journal?
- Have other studies confirmed the findings?
There has been a deliberate effort to trash science when it conflicts with political agendas. In 2005, Chris Mooney wrote a prescient book entitled The Republican War on Science detailing how, for some years, the Republican Party has deliberately fostered “flagrant misrepresentations (that) goes far beyond mere dishonesty. It demonstrates a gross disregard for the welfare of the American public…” That effort has culminated in a rejection of science as many Trumpsters (a large subset of registered Republicans) choose to believe about COVID-19 or the climate crisis whatever fits their often-baseless political narrative. They are not interested in the facts of the matter or the underlying scientific evidence. They believe Trump’s every tweet and utterance. Far too many would rather bury their head in the proverbial sand ignoring the dangers of COVID-19 or the growing destruction caused by the climate crisis that is currently amplifying record-breaking, sweltering heat and extensive forest fires across the American West.
There may be little hope of disabusing his true believers who persist in not wearing masks, social distancing, or taking other recommended precautionary measures. Still, we should endure by bearing witness to the impacts of COVID-19 and the climate crisis. We must speak the truth by correcting inaccuracies, fact-checking, and posting correct information in a world of misinformation, disinformation, and dangerous lies. It can be draining, but we must stand up. Masks are not political statements, so whether Trumpsters believe in science-based guidance or not is irrelevant. Facts are stubborn. A virus cannot be swept away with political nonsense. Should society irrationally abandon authoritative science and turn once again to superstitions and myths, hen America will drift into the tyranny that created the Dark Ages.
Truth is a cornerstone of any ethical system, and it can be lost in the cacophony of divisive noise. In all matters of significance–material, relational, spiritual, or otherwise–we must seek to discover and embrace truth, regardless of where it may lead. In good conscience, we must seek truth by pursuing available science to understand the threats to all living things. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said it best: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” However, scientific truths can be hard to accept and even harder to address.
Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of the climate crisis and the pandemic, politicians are vehemently challenging both threats because they force change in our thinking and daily behavior in fundamental ways. Any policymaker who has not discovered the truth about climate change or the pandemic has not sought the truth. Willful blindness is a matter of placing political expediency over ethical leadership.
We often take certain things for granted in life. For me, it was the difference between personal opinions and scientifically verifiable facts. I never thought I would have to march with thousands of others to defend the very notion of science itself. Yet on May 15, 2017, upon hearing that President Trump was cutting NOAA’s climate science funding and replacing EPA’s science advisory group with his hacks, we marched for science.
A Ben Franklin impersonator appropriately led our march in Philadelphia. Franklin was one of America’s first scientists. Among his scientific advancements, Franklin charted the powerful Gulf Stream enabling ships sailing for Europe to cut their travel time significantly. Franklin also launched the American Philosophical Society in 1743 to pursue “philosophical experiments that let light into the nature of things, tend to increase the power of man over matter, and multiply the conveniences or pleasures of life.” Franklin understood that the advancement of science and the application of knowledge would greatly benefit society. He also believed that curiosity and experimentation would lead to a better understanding of the nature of things.
In a modern social system, as in Franklin’s day, science-based decision-making has been central to nearly every societal advancement. We all depend upon science to provide critical answers to the most vexing health and environmental threats. Science and innovation will underpin the winning nations in the future as it has in the past.
Can we afford to lose our scientific edge and ignore or discount climate scientists and health professionals’ warnings? Can we tolerate textbooks that avoid well established but objectionable scientific conclusions about climate change? Do we sit quietly by when leading scientists and innovators are verbally attacked? When a highly vocal chorus of ill-informed Trumpsters repeatedly reject fundamental truths and pursue myths and alternative facts concocted by those who obfuscate, we must ask, perhaps we are a society encountering the very boundaries of human enlightenment. I, for one, certainly hope not, but that is no longer a given.