The manufactured upheaval around this year’s Presidential election begs a vital question: how do we address our society’s most pressing issues when facts and science have been thrown under the bus?
By all accounts, our communications ecosystem today is toxic. Shadowy “news” sites sprout like mushrooms, amplified by profit-driven, social media algorithms and funded with boat loads of dark money. And aligned with these more recent media actors, right-wing talk radio continues to play an outsized role. The result is a media landscape today where facts and science increasingly seem a quaint relic of the not-so-distant past.
The first and most obvious question then becomes, how the heck did we get here?
The Federal Communications Commission under Ronald Reagan lobbed one of the first shots in 1987 when it revoked the “Fairness Doctrine,” which required anyone using the public airwaves to provide opposing views to controversial issues. This decision, among other things, paved the way for Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and related content to provide one-sided perspectives with no balance or push-back.
While this frontal attack on honest media has been debilitating, it’s been super-charged with an insidious assault on science itself. For example, when the tobacco industry faced a gauntlet of studies in the 1960’s showing nicotine was addictive and cigarettes cause cancer, it came to a dangerous and diabolical conclusion: because science, by its nature, never results in 100% certainty, the tobacco industry could use doubt to confuse the public, delay regulation and make more profit.
As a Tobacco industry executive put it: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.”
Fast forward to 1988, when NASA Climate Scientist James Hansen told Congress “global warming has begun.” The next year, Exxon and other fossil fuel companies formed the Global Climate Coalition, which – along with other industry front groups – began a decades-long effort to cast doubt into the growing body of science around climate change. The result has been public confusion around climate change, and a collective failure to act on the most pressing issue facing life on earth.
Now, over the past four years, we have faced an onslaught of “fake news” allegations leveled at any honest news source trying to convey facts and science to the public. And when facts and science get disconnected from reality, anything can happen. The politicization of mask-wearing as the COVID pandemic ravages our nation is a perfect example.
Now more than ever, it’s up to us Alaskans to hold our political leaders accountable. Because in a world without facts and science, anything is true.