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Will the coronavirus change how skeptics think about science?

Scientists, scholars and medical professionals say false and misleading information and a lack of preparedness for the coronavirus has made a bad situation worse. But does the world's lack of preparation for the outbreak have a silver lining? Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University and author of “Why Trust Science?” joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Global threats like coronavirus and climate change brings their share of skeptics and deniers. Harvard University science historian, professor Naomi Oreskes, studies how undermining public trust in science can lead to poor decision making. She's the author of several books including "Why Trust Science?" and I recently spoke with her from her home in Boston, Massachusetts.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Naomi, we're at a time when science seems so crucial in understanding and dealing with this pandemic, but at the same time, we also have an enormous amount of skepticism towards the institution of science, towards the institution of press and government. Has this happened before. And how do we deal with it?

  • Naomi Oreskes:

    For a historian like me who studies science and studies public understanding of science and also trust and distrust in science, the current situation is unique in our lifetimes and tragically so, because as we know, back in January, there were already medical and public health experts saying that this virus would not stay in China, that it would come to the United States, and that an early response would be essential to controlling it. That advice was essentially ignored. The result is a rather late and scrambled response. And now we are seeing a very dire situation in which thousands, possibly tens or even hundreds of thousands of American people will die. Deaths that could have been prevented had we listened back in January to what the scientific and medical experts were telling us.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Some of that also seems to be rooted in our own psychology of not wanting to accept bad news.

  •  Naomi Oreskes:

    I think it's true that in general, humans are reluctant to accept bad news. No one likes bad news. But of course, that's why we have leadership. Part of the reason we need leadership is to help compensate for the gaps in our own understandings, the gaps in the way we behave. And in this case, we had leadership from the medical community, from the public health community. But we didn't have the political leadership that was necessary to accept and implement the advice that the public health community was offering us.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What about the growth of the skeptical community, of vaccines, of interventions? There are still people even today who automatically say, you know what, this is nothing more than a bad case of the flu.

  • Naomi Oreskes:

    Well, if there's any silver lining in this situation, I think one one potential silver lining is that people will now recognize the essential role of vaccinations and public health and safety. We live in a world where many of us no longer remember what it was like when polio was a terrible threat. Many of us grew up with vaccinations for measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox. So childhood diseases are something that we don't really have a personal memory of. And then under that sort of situation, it's very easy to become complacent. And I think we have good evidence that the American people have become very complacent. And so this is a wake up call. This is a reminder that infectious diseases are still with us. And the strongest things we have to fight them are preparedness, which has been woefully lacking in this case, and vaccinations, which probably vaccinations. If you wait until people are sick, it is too late. It takes time to develop a vaccination and it takes time to test it. Typically, at least a year, sometimes longer. And so this is also why preparedness is so important.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Have there been instances in the past where policymakers have been convinced to do things differently as a collective? Because, for example, preparedness, we are in sort of a just in time perfect deficiency economy and society where we don't necessarily value that excess capacity.

  • Naomi Oreskes:

    Correct. So what we're seeing here is that the just in time mentality, which might work perfectly well for inventory in a factory or for automobile parts, simply does not work when you're looking at a public health threat or an environmental threat. The good news is that we do actually have positive examples from a past that we can draw on to think about how we can do different things differently going forward. The example I know best and have worked on in my own research is the history of the ozone hole. In the case of ozone, scientists back in the 1970s recognized that certain chemicals that were in refrigerants and hairspray could destroy stratospheric ozone. That ozone is essential for protecting life on earth from deadly ultraviolet radiation. But the huge difference then compared to now was political leadership. Our political leadership at that time was willing to accept the scientific evidence, did not disdain experts as eggheads or worse. And so that advice was taken seriously. And the result was an international treaty. It was implemented. It's worked. And we are alive here to tell the tale because we listen to scientific information. It's a reminder of the role of political leadership and the importance of scientific expertise.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Naomi Oreskes, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Naomi Oreskes:

    Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you. Stay safe.

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