In many ways, the most important scientific battlefields have become forums and meetings of local authorities. During the first year and a half of the pandemic, while I and many others participated virtually in local district council and education board meetings, a misinformed group appeared in person and dominated the public comment section of these forums. The savage conspiracy theories of the members of the group remained completely untested, as this vocal minority put pressure on the elected officials to oppose the accepted science. They constantly called for the dismissal of our senior local health officials. We were naive to believe that these efforts would fail.
In October 2021, my local health council in Harford County, Maryland, terminated senior health officer, David Bishay, from his position. At first I didn’t understand how a council of health professionals might think it was doing a bad job. He followed the science during the pandemic, worked with schools and even started new initiatives in our district.
Then I learned that according to our county code, our health council is actually just our county council, which parades around under another name. It currently consists of seven men, including a bait carver, a special investigator, a fire chief, an insurance salesman, a real estate agent, a farmer and a financial adviser. While these are all good professions, I’m not sure they have the expertise in public health to make decisions that affect the health of my community.
Instead of basing their decision on science, they base it on the noisy minority of residents and the gross misinformation they publish. Bishai, the health worker who had to and would take us through the worst of the pandemic, was sacrificed as political capital. Our community has suffered because of this.
He is among the more than 500 United States health professionals who have been dismissed or resigned from their position in the last two years. While many of these people were recruited, they were caught in the middle of local guerrilla political battles. We, the citizens of this country, are the ones who paid the price through a prolonged pandemic and one million people who died from COVID. In this year’s midterm elections, we need politicians who believe that their work depends on the voices of the scientific, expert community, and to do that, we need more scientists to become politically active, even if science is fundamentally is apolitical.
Although the ultimate anti-scientific movement is directly to blame for this problem, the real question is: Why don’t all of us scientists stand up at once and defend our professions? Is this our stereotypical introversion? Are we afraid of confrontation? Or it is a consequence of our own arrogance – that we knowing we are right and therefore everyone else just has to come for a ride? It is unethical to allow politics to influence the way science is interpreted, but isn’t it just as unethical to allow science to be misrepresented to society?
My fellow scientists, we need to change the way we communicate with the public, and we need to get more involved. Most Americans believe this scientists need to be involved not only in gathering facts but also in shaping policyand at the federal level we do that.
And yet we tend to forget that calculated seven million American scientists and engineers can have a much greater impact closer to home. We need to be much more active in the personal and virtual forums we traditionally avoid, such as local council and education council meetings. We can’t just watch these meetings; we need to talk in the minutes.
About 86 percent of Americans receive news from a digital source, and many of these sources come with a comment section. Studies show that the comments section may have more influence than the article itself. While many platforms have tried to implement fact-oriented bots or other methods of controlling misinformation, such strategies play a role in many of the conspiracy theories that spread in the first place. These forums need our strong counter-arguments based on scientific facts.
The pandemic public health crisis has clearly demonstrated the importance of sound, fact-based voices in local political arenas. We have all watched videos of angry citizens at these meetings protesting against masks, vaccines and even the existence of a pandemic. It was even forged Saturday night live.
It is important to recognize that leaders across the political spectrum will pursue different policies after interpreting (or ignoring) a set of facts. This is expected and understood. However, if we do not all start these discussions with the same facts, it is impossible to discuss strategies and establish policy in good faith. When our leaders believe that their work depends on the voices of a misinformed minority, they may feel pressured to succumb to these groups. And if they themselves believe in these lies, they must be removed from office.
Scientists need to be more organized to exert local influence throughout the country. In response to the anti-science movement in Harford County, we formed a group known as Citizens for science where science and citizenship merge. In just a few short months, the group has grown to more than 400 members. These members write to local politicians, appear at local government meetings, and openly discuss and discuss science-based strategies. This group continues to grow with more people who believe that science-based facts are important in civil society.
The primary elections are underway. The newsletter you will see in November is already being decided. In many jurisdictions, such as mine, local elections coincide with midterm mandates and groups such as 3.14 Action have helped fund, recruit and train STEM policy specialists.
This does not mean that all scientists have to run for political office in order to achieve change. But it is important for all of us to encourage those who make science-based decisions to apply for these offices and support their campaigns.
The evidence has been attacked. Why do we allow these important scientific discussions to be dominated by the ill-informed, unscientific minority? Now is the time to collectively defend science again.
This is an article for opinion and analysis and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.