People rejecting facts is a problem around the world — but New Zealand’s pre-eminent scientist is unaware of any hard evidence to show it’s on the rise here.
In its annual report, the Environmental Protection Agency pointed to a “groundswell” of opposition to perceived bureaucracy and “a growing scepticism” about science and the role of experts.
New Zealand had its share of science-deniers, the EPA stated, who opposed fluoride, 1080, vaccination, genetic modification and much more, with their views reinforced and nurtured in the “unmoderated milieu” of the internet.
The Prime Minister’s chief science advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, has been giving talks overseas and published discussion papers about the “post-truth” issue.
Was anti-science really now a big problem?
“I think that is true,” he said.
“But whether it’s true in New Zealand or not, beyond that general statement, it’s difficult to know.
“Where is the formal evidence of it? Beyond the work that’s been done by internet scientists around this, I’m not sure there is any specific data on New Zealand.
“But I think there’s no doubt that our society is vulnerable to the same pressures that have been well documented in other countries.”
Sir Peter noted the term “alternative facts” had been coined by US President Donald Trump’s administration, which much of the global concern has centred on, but he couldn’t say whether worries were greater among his American counterparts than others.
He agreed social media, with its targeted algorithms and echo chambers, was polarising people “rather than being pulled to the centre”.
The traditional or mainstream media, too, had become more polarised, he said, and many people had now turned to social media newsfeeds instead.
“There has always been and there always will be a group of people who think there are conspiracy theories about fluoride, or 1080, or GM, and so on, and I think climate denial has gone a long way backward in the last eight years, as far as I can see.
“I mean, post-truth has always existed. What is different is the speed of it, and the ease of it, and the polarisation that it brings in a different way now.”
At the time scientists took to the streets as part of April’s global March for Science, several leading New Zealand scientists told the Herald of concerns about anti-intellectualism, but said they hadn’t encountered any heightened public push-back themselves.
Public surveys have shown Kiwis still understood the value and importance of science, but also found many still found it difficult to understand.
“It is no longer sufficient to simply say ‘trust me, I’m a scientist’,” says science commentator Professor Shaun Hendy. Photo / File
Prominent science commentator Professor Shaun Hendy said science denial was a problem and it continued to dog our attempts to grapple with issues like global warming.
But he pointed out the Nielsen survey also suggested Kiwis’ trust in science was actually growing, not diminishing.
“While social media does enable disinformation to be distributed more widely, I think that the EPA’s discomfort with social media has more to do with its democratisation of scientific expertise,” said Hendy, a former president of the NZ Association of Scientists and author of the 2016 book Silencing Science.
“It is no longer sufficient to simply say ‘trust me, I’m a scientist’. We have learned the hard way that scientific findings can be biased by industry funding and political agendas, so the public now have much higher expectations of transparency in science.
“Indeed, many of the EPA’s critics are fellow scientists — social media means that debates between scientists no longer take place behind closed doors.
“While it can be frustrating for scientists that the public will no longer take our findings or decisions on faith, ultimately increased transparency leads to better science and is be good for society.”
What Kiwis think about science
• Kiwis are interested in science and technology and think it is important not just for them personally, but for society, the environment and the economy, according to a 2014 Nielsen survey of 3000 people.
• 90 per cent of those surveyed agreed that science is an important subject for people to study at school and 83 per cent agreed that it was a worthwhile career to pursue
• 59 per cent consider science important to their daily lives.
• 42 per cent of people say they get too little information about science, suggesting there is still a significant deficit in knowledge based on lack of access to information about science and technology in a suitable format.
• A reasonable proportion (35 per cent) agreed that science and technology are too specialised to understand and 51 per cent agreed that there is too much conflicting information about science and technology “making it hard to know what to believe”.
• 62 per cent agreed that scientists need to listen more to what ordinary people think, suggesting a bit of a disconnect between the work scientists are doing and the priorities of average New Zealanders.