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19 February 2021

Nasa’s Mars landing is a reminder that good science depends on good politics

While the Perseverance rover may open our eyes to new truths about the universe, on Earth the war on fact continues.

By Martin Rees

The successful landing of Nasa’s Perseverance rover on Mars last night is a moment of scientific triumph. The mission could uncover profound truths about the Red Planet and our place in the universe.

But we should not content ourselves that science is celebrated and accepted everywhere. The past year has demonstrated the ways science can be sidelined whenever it is politically expedient.

Most of the differences between the modern world and the ancient one can be attributed to science. The scientific revolution introduced an entirely new attitude toward what could be considered fact. It wasn’t enough any longer to just state what you thought; you had to explain why you thought it, and exactly how you had reached your conclusion.

In particular, the founders of modern science, among them those “ingenious and curious gentlemen” (as they described themselves) of the early Royal Society advocated that there was only one way to discover scientific truths about nature: by patient experiment, observation and reasoning. This same approach is employed today, not only by scientists but by lawyers, detectives and anyone whose work involves categorising phenomena, forming hypotheses and testing evidence.  

But the desire to suppress or even stifle intellectual freedom and scientific thinking are equally durable. Such attempts fail in the long run, but they can nonetheless have a chilling effect on progress in science that can last for decades.

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One infamous example was that of Galileo Galilei. Following his trial by the Inquisition, in which he was found “vehemently suspected of heresy”, the scientist and philosopher René Descartes wrote to a mathematician friend:

“I inquired in Leiden and Amsterdam whether Galileo’s World System was available, for I thought I had heard that it was published in Italy last year. I was told that it had indeed been published, but that all the copies had immediately been burnt at Rome, and that Galileo had been convicted and fined. I was so astonished at this that I almost decided to burn all my papers, or at least to let no one see them.”

The great poet John Milton, who visited Galileo in 1638, wrote that the Inquisition’s restrictions on “philosophic freedom” in Italy meant that “nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian”.

But just as science persists, so does the denial of science. Donald Trump, who claimed climate change was “an expensive hoax”, and that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”, denied the alarming conclusions of thousands of climate studies worldwide. As the Trump administration began the process of withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and attempted to freeze fuel efficiency standards imposed on new vehicles, it also took aim at the science itself, suppressing research that showed the effects of climate change on the US, removing scientific advisers and restricting the data that government agencies could use to make decisions on public health and the environment.
 
In March 1616, the Tuscan ambassador to Rome wrote that “the Roman climate is getting very dangerous [for Galileo], […] for the present Pope [Paul V], who abhors the liberal arts and this kind of mind, cannot stand these novelties and subtleties; and everyone here tries to adjust his mind and his nature to that of the ruler.” Four centuries later, little has changed in the relationship between power and truth.  

[see also: Harvard’s top astronomer says our solar system may be teeming with alien technology]

The Covid-19 pandemic, too, has been characterised by the dismissal of scientific opinion. On 22 January 2020, Trump said in an interview that the disease was “totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” Even in March, in a meeting with Leo Varadkar, Trump continued to brag: “The United States, because of what I did, and what the administration did with China, we have 32 deaths at this point. Other countries that are smaller countries have many, many deaths.” That was less than a year ago. At time of writing, the United States has more than 25 million cases and is nearing 500,000 deaths.

Nor was this attitude limited to the Trump administration. Boris Johnson was slow to recognise the grave risks involved, and even after the pandemic had become impossible to ignore, his government did not succeed in putting together a rapid, effective response.

All scientific theories are provisional. Knowledge has to be constantly reappraised as fresh evidence becomes available. But only science can promise a continuous mid-course self-correction, even on simple things: when we were young, milk and eggs were good; a decade later, we were warned off them because of cholesterol; today, they are recommended in moderation. This is not consistent with politicians’ need to be right, and to stay right.

But it is never a good idea to bet against the judgement of science. To do so when human life (as in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic) or the future of the planet’s biosphere (as in the case of climate change) is at stake is unconscionable.

CP Snow’s 1959 lecture on the “Two Cultures” bemoaned the failure of scholars in the humanities to appreciate the “creativity” and imagination that are essential to the practice of science. Science should surely feature in everyone’s culture; it’s not just for potential scientists. There are two main reasons: first, it’s a real intellectual deprivation not to understand the natural world around us, and to be blind to the marvellous vistas opened by Darwin’s theory of evolution or by the breakthroughs in modern cosmology – the chain of emergent complexity leading all the way from a “Big Bang” to stars, planets, biospheres and human brains able to ponder the wonder and the mystery of it all. It is essential to marvel at the intricate web of life on which we all depend, and to understand its vulnerabilities.

Second, we live in a world where more and more of the decisions that governments must make involve science. Obviously Covid-19 and climate change are at the forefront of our minds today, but policies on health, energy, the environment and space-related existential risks all have a scientific dimension. But these policies have economic, social and ethical aspects as well. And on those aspects, scientists speak only as citizens, and all citizens should be involved in democratic choices.

If there is to be a proper debate, rising above mere sloganeering, everyone needs to be informed, to have enough of a feel for science to avoid becoming bamboozled by propaganda and bad statistics. The need for proper debate will become even more acute in the future, as the pressures on the environment and those resulting from misdirected technology become more diverse and threatening.

The US has already rejoined the Paris agreement, but the war on facts waged by Trump is far from over. There remains little agreement on what defines a reliable source, and it seems that we may have to take up Galileo’s defiant call (apocryphal as it may be) “And yet it moves” as a rallying cry: a reminder that, in spite of what you may believe, the facts do remain the same.

We have been there before. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt prophetically wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Mario Livio is an astrophysicist and author of Galileo and the Science Deniers.

Martin Rees is the Astronomer Royal and was master of Trinity College, Cambridge University, from 2004 to 2012.