When I saw the statement repeated online that theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge would be dead by now if he lived in the U.K. and had to depend on the National Health Service (he, of course, is alive and working in the U.K., where he always has), I reflected on something I had written a dozen years ago, in one of my first published commentaries:
“The increasingly blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling. Our democratic society is imperiled as much by this as any other single threat, regardless of whether the origins of the nonsense are religious fanaticism, simple ignorance or personal gain.”
As I listen to the manifest nonsense that has been promulgated by the likes of right-wing fanatic radio hosts and moronic ex-governors in response to the effort to bring the U.S. into alignment with other industrial countries in providing reasonable and affordable health care for all its citizens, it seems that things have only gotten worse in the years since I first wrote those words.
English novelist George Orwell was remarkably prescient about many things, and one of the most disturbing aspects of his masterpiece 1984 involved the blatant perversion of objective reality, using constant repetition of propaganda by a militaristic government in control of all the media.
Centrally coordinated and fully effective reinvention of reality has not yet come about in the U.S. (even though a White House aide in the past administration came chillingly close when he said to a New York Times reporter, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”). I am concerned, however that something equally pernicious, at least to the free exercise of democracy, has.
The rise of a ubiquitous Internet, along with 24-hour news channels has, in some sense, had the opposite effect from what many might have hoped such free and open access to information would have had. It has instead provided free and open access, without the traditional media filters, to a barrage of disinformation. Nonsense claims had more difficulty gaining traction in the days when print journalism held sway and newspaper editors had the final word on what made its way into homes and when television news consisted of a half-hour summary of what a trained producer thought were the most essential stories of the day.
Now fabrications about “death panels” and oxymoronic claims that ”government needs to keep its hands off of Medicare” flow freely on the Internet, driving thousands of zombielike protesters to Washington to argue that access to health care will undermine their fundamental freedom to have their insurance canceled if they get sick. And 24-hour news channels, desperate to provide ”breaking” coverage at all hours, end up serving as public relations vehicles for any celebrity who happens to make an outrageous claim or, worse, decide that the competition for ratings requires them to be anything but ”fair and balanced” in their reporting.
“Fair and balanced,” however, doesn’t mean putting all viewpoints, regardless of their underlying logic or validity, on an equal footing. Discerning the merits of competing claims is where the empirical basis of science should play a role. I cannot stress often enough that what science is all about is not proving things to be true but proving them to be false. What fails the test of empirical reality, as determined by observation and experiment, gets thrown out like yesterday’s newspaper. One doesn’t need to debate about whether the earth is flat or 6,000 years old. These claims can safely be discarded, and have been, by the scientific method.
What makes people so susceptible to nonsense in public discourse? Is it because we do such a miserable job in schools teaching what science is all about—that it is not a collection of facts or stories but a process for weeding out nonsense to get closer to the underlying beautiful reality of nature? Perhaps not. But I worry for the future of our democracy if a combination of a free press and democratically elected leaders cannot together somehow more effectively defend empirical reality against the onslaught of ideology and fanaticism.