State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Scientific Literacy, Technology and COVID-19

A few years ago, I was walking alone in a part of Paris I didn’t know and suddenly my iPhone and GPS stopped working. I had been on a sight-seeing break in between meetings and realized that I might be completely lost. But fortunately, since I was being an observant tourist, I started to recall my old pre-GPS method of navigation. I recreated a mental image of where I’d been and remembered that in the middle of my stroll, I had walked on a bridge that crossed the Seine. From there I regained my bearings and found my hotel. I thought, how fortunate that my life experiences predate carrying a portable computer in my pocket. But what if I hadn’t? Like anyone else, I would have asked directions from people on the street, but what struck me was how dependent I had become on technology for simple tasks that I used to be able to do on my own.

Civilization once replaced human labor with animal labor and then replaced animals with mechanical labor and now we are in a world of computer-controlled electronic automation. Everything around us, from our refrigerators to our autos, is controlled by technologies we use but do not understand. We live in a global and interdependent world, reliant on technology and scientific experts for our survival. Corporate decision-making and public policymaking require a growing degree of input from scientific and technical experts. While expertise comes from engineers and physical and biological science, decisions are largely made by people trained in law or business. Although the lawyers are sometimes experts in some element of law and the business folks often have some understanding of finance and its math, most senior leaders are a long way from their days of focused, analytic inquiry. They depend on but do not always know how to communicate with experts.

At the start of my professional career in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, I was struck by the relative lack of scientific expertise among decision-makers. I had been hired in part to staff a reorganizational analysis and develop policy guidance for citizen participation in Superfund toxic waste clean-ups. I had focused my doctoral studies in political science and public policy on organization theory and I had written my dissertation on public participation in environmental decision-making. Much of my work at the EPA was within my areas of expertise. But then at times, I was asked to participate in policy analyses that required an understanding of toxicology, hydrology, soil science and engineering. Needless to say, I learned the difference between something I was an expert in and something I was not. That experience taught me to stay within my lane and focus my work on something I truly understood. It also taught me the importance of learning to work across disciplines. We could not address environmental problems without drawing on many forms of expertise. Environmental policy and management require people who understand organizations, law, finance and business, but we also need engineers, environmental scientists, experts in public health and many other types of experts.

But decision-makers do not have the luxury that consultants, policy analysts and academics enjoy: They often don’t have time to search for expertise and slowly learn from experts. They need experts and expertise, but they often need them and their knowledge in a hurry. Sometimes they have to fly the jet plane and repair it at the same time. A recession hits, and lawyers must learn finance. A pandemic hits, and all of us must learn about the science of virus transmission. It is important that we have enough scientific background to know what we don’t know. For those who are experts in one area, it is critical to recognize that you need to consult with someone who is an expert in another area. For those who are not experts in a subject matter, but professionals trained in the methods of management, quantitative analysis, financial analysis, law or some other field, it is essential that they learn the critical importance of scientific expertise. They must not only know what they don’t know but must learn how to learn what they need to know to make decisions. They need to learn how to elicit competing experts and identify areas of scientific consensus that justify action. This requires setting aside personal biases and, during a crisis, personal interest.

There is little question that the White House is now conducting a master class in the cost of scientific illiteracy. Our elected leaders are well versed in the mantra of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Anything that interferes with economic growth is politically toxic. Shutting down the economy this past spring was something to get through quickly to minimize damage to the economy and the president’s reelection campaign. Medical and public health expertise was briefly heard in the White House briefing room but soon, it was overwhelmed by the political rhetoric of the president. Eventually, health experts were sent into exile after the president proposed the Clorox cure. A president with Donald Trump’s degree of scientific illiteracy could simply not share a platform with world-class medical experts. Unlike many other problems faced by political leaders, the facts of COVID-19 could not be denied. Politicos in and out of the White House worked hard to spin and attempted to minimize the danger, politicize masks and label prudent public health measures as attacks on liberty.

Nevertheless, as the disease spread, more and more people knew someone who had suffered from it. Elected leaders from President Trump to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed hard and continue to push to reopen schools in September. The damage of closed schools to child development and to the return to normal economic life has been clearly articulated by experts in the physical and mental health of children and economists. On the other side of the debate are medical and public health experts seeking to understand this new disease and reduce its impact on human health. The stakes are high, and it is very difficult to balance the claims of experts from these diverse disciplines. Moreover, the decisions on school openings will not only be made by government but by parents who may decide to keep their children at home.

The pandemic is an example of months of public decisions that needed to be made in the face of scientific uncertainty, by decision-makers who did not know what they didn’t know and didn’t fully understand the range of options opened to them. The opportunities to contain the virus in China, Europe and the United States were missed by decision-makers in each place. The methods used to reduce virus transmission have worked, but the economic cost of those methods resulted in re-openings that have caused the virus to come back to places that have driven it out.

I believe that we will eventually reduce this pandemic and return to normal life. But to maintain that normal life, we will need to do a better job of utilizing scientific expertise to address the negative impacts of our technologies. Climate denial and pandemic denial are examples of willful scientific ignorance. In a world as dependent on technology as the one we live, we should expect that technologies from air travel to food production will carry dangers we must learn to identify and mitigate. We listen to experts when they invent something new we think we will like, but we ignore them when they deliver bad news. We need a more mature and sophisticated approach to utilizing scientific expertise in decision-making. COVID-19 highlights the seriousness of the impact of our choices: over 150,000 Americans have died and millions of people are out of work. There is widespread hunger in America. This is no place and not the time for posturing and political bombast. The folks in Washington are clearly unable to deliver leadership, and so we will need to rely on our families, corporations, institutions, localities and states to continue to fill the void.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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