The Optimistic Futurist: Denying the need for change
I have spent most of my adult life studying why society fails to act on new information to protect lives and health. As we gain knowledge about how the human body interacts with external pollutants, my sense of urgency grows, as does my frustration.
History is full of attempts by citizens and authority figures to stifle the spread of new knowledge.
In 1632, Galileo wrote a book claiming the earth revolved around the sun, not the sun around the earth, as was the official viewpoint. He based his beliefs on close scientific observations through a new invention — the telescope. Because he had better scientific equipment, his observations caused him to challenge the commonly held beliefs of the time. Those who disagreed with him wanted Galileo’s ideas taught as a theory, rather than fact-based science — something he refused to do.
In his late 60s, he was sentenced to life in a prison for teaching this controversial idea. Nine years later he died, still in custody, having paid a heavy price for trying to introduce scientific fact into public dialogue.In Galileo’s case, he was not issuing a warning, simply challenging a widely held belief with new evidence. When it comes to warnings, the same set of defense mechanisms swing into action but with more casualties.
Take the sinking of the Titanic. The captain ignored a daylong series of warnings from other ships’ captains who had sailed the route the day before him and had only narrowly escaped a collision. They told him that dangerous icebergs lay ahead. The Titanic’s lookouts were not even placed on alert or issued binoculars! Because leadership failed to listen to warnings, 1,490 people died.
Closer to home, we have Camp Lejeune, where warnings that underground water supplies were polluted were ignored for many years. Over 1 million military personnel and their family members were unnecessarily exposed to avoidable health risks because officials ignored the warnings. According to the Veterans Administration, those exposed to this contaminated water now have higher than normal rates of cancers of the male breast, esophagus, lungs, bladder and skin, as well as rare diseases of the liver, kidney and lymph glands.
I could go on.People comfortable in their beliefs will go to great lengths to reject new knowledge.
I lecture frequently on our future, and the choices that face us. Over time, I have come to recognize a number of the standard defense mechanisms.
The most popular assault is what I call The Hypocrisy Probe. If the speaker is talking about threats to our environment, the challenges run along the line of “Do you drive a Prius?” or “Do you eat organic?” — and if the answer given is “no,” the unwilling student is happy. “Why should they believe a hypocrite?” they say, as they deny the validity of the new information.Then there is the “Do you still beat your wife?” question. Sounds like this: “Would you rather destroy the United States’ natural gas industry or continue to be dependent on Arab oil?” This is a false choice. No accurate answer is possible. Left off the table are energy conservation, biofuels from algae, and a host of other wonderful , profitable alternatives.
Or a non-scientist will stand up and point to piles of data and declare “this is junk science” — without any knowledge of how it was gathered, or by whom. Any strategy to create doubt.
A historic tactic is to suggest that no action should be taken until we have “settled science” — that there may be “new knowledge” around the corner. Between the 1950s, when scientists first identified the role of smoking in disease, and the 1970s, when tobacco regulations were enacted, 16 million people died from smoking. Many millions could have been saved — but the nation was lobbied by the tobacco companies to wait for the science to “settle.”
Science, by its very nature, never “settles.” And the people advocating waiting know that.
At least we have progressed far enough as a society that we don’t jail those presenting new information.
As more and more people in our society have binoculars to see icebergs ahead, and as scientific knowledge explodes around us, threats to public health and well being that should not be ignored will become visible — and we will have the possibility of saving more lives if we don’t resist the information.
You can help us all ready the lifeboats for your kids by making sure that new information gets a fair hearing. Carefully weigh the risks and benefits to you and yours, and have the courage to embrace the change that you conclude is needed. You will help us all.Francis P. Koster lives in Kannapolis. His “Optimistic Futurist” column appears every other Sunday. For more information, visit www.TheOptimisticFuturist.org.