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Reducing access to evidence is an act of violence
The right to know is not negotiable.
The human brain works best, and develops greater capability, when it takes in factual information it can use to better understand what we experience, what we have not experienced, and the ramifications of events and decisions. Fitting all of that information together into an evolving neuro-constellational map of comprehension, vision, and capability, is crucial to being able to address the complexities of the world as we have shaped it.
Fact may not always align with our preferences, but it is essential context for allowing our minds to understand real-world risk, and how to solve problems effectively, safely, and sustainably.
When interested parties interfere with a child’s ability to access knowledge and expand understanding, they are imposing an unjust constraint on that child’s development.
By generalizing that constraint, they are imposing future harm, by persuading us to delay action to mitigate observable risk and by shaping society to be less capable in the face of complex evolving threats.
Denial of access to evidence is not only a political campaign tactic, or “micro-targeting” of voters through social media. There is an alarming escalation of coordinated denial of information to American schoolchildren. Public authorities have suppressed information about COVID-19. Extremists and their political allies have spread disinformation about vaccines and masks. Instead of providing better access to healthcare and prevention, powerful interests are working to make sure people don’t ask for them.
As Dr. Deborah Birx noted in a recent interview, much of the United States suffers a dangerous lack of access to basic healthcare services.
A shocking number of counties have no hospitals, or small clinics with no intensive care capacity.
When policy directed people to “consult their doctors”, tens of millions were left with no access to meaningful medical advice, because they had been structurally and geographically denied that access long before.
The effect of that denial of access to information was far greater risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19 infection, in environments in which far less was being done to contain or prevent infection.
It should seem odd, to even the most casual observer, that underfunding and denial of services, and even coordinated disinformation efforts, would be tolerated or promoted, when they have the specific effect of aiding a deadly pathogen in harming defenseless people. What makes that possible is the general lack of access to actionable evidence and insight. People are told they are well-served by irresponsible policy actions that harm them.
In a recent article, Scientific American explores the effort by extremist organizations and fossil fuel interests to remove basic facts from textbooks and classrooms — to deprive children of knowledge and understanding to achieve narrow, self-interested political and for-profit aims. The organizations behind these efforts — both commercial and nonprofit — are working to deny students access to clear evidence and proven scientific information.
They are essentially working to corrupt public institutions to undermine the First Amendment’s multifaceted protection of the right to know, the right to make informed choices, and the right to seek redress. By altering how basic science is taught, to steer students away from the global heating impact of accumulating greenhouse gases, these interests aim to condition students’ future thinking and undermine their ability and willingness to take action to prevent a global crisis from getting worse.
While companies that profit from climate pollution work to convince states and school districts to mislead children about the threat posed to them by unchecked climate change, already-observed impacts show it is getting harder to produce enough food for everyone. While children are taught to value destructive climate pollution as a way to create jobs, that pollution is ensuring they will face higher costs, greater risk of economic vulnerability, and proliferating impacts to their health and wellbeing.
While it may seem logical for industries that profit by generating preventable harm to seek to limit our knowledge of that fact, that logic does not make their disinformation efforts legitimate, acceptable, or lawful. The right to speak freely does not make it lawful or acceptable to block other people’s access to evidence so one can profit from preventable harm.
Scientific American also recently reported that people who live in counties with consistent Republican leadership are more likely to die than people who live in counties with consistent Democratic leadership. And this isn’t just about COVID-19. The report found many different drivers of premature death are more likely to end lives in Republican-controlled counties.
This is not a partisan observation; it’s a question of what policies are adopted, to serve what purpose, and on the basis of what evidence. The article reports on a study published in June, in the journal BMJ, which concluded:
“The mortality gap in Republican voting counties compared with Democratic voting counties has grown over time, especially for white populations, and that gap began to widen after 2008.”
By conditioning political processes to view regulation as inherently undesirable, for-profit interests effectively allowed public health threats to proliferate. Transfer of tax dollars out of government back to business and investors also results in the depletion of public institutions’ ability to respond to human health needs. Science is knowledge, not conjecture. Blocking access to science makes it more likely policies will be informed by bad information.
If self-described “small-government conservatives” want to foster more personal freedom, better communities, and more local control, they should be advocating for science education not distorted by polluting industries. And, they should want science-based public health and environmental protections, to limit the need for costly responses to preventable harm.
Science education that teaches children to use a narrow “cost-benefit analsysis” which discounts the effects of pollution and excludes externalities, denies them access to scientific information by refocusing on oversimplified instruments of economic analysis—which is valuable but is not Earth science. This will lead to decisions based on flawed and incomplete information.
The predictable result is preventable harm—to themselves, to their communities, and to the wider world. Already, we are seeing food systems under unprecedented systemic stress. Further delay in action to eliminate global heating pollution will make it more likely we end up in a condition of prolonged instability, repeated shocks and widespread destabilization.
Disinformation is violence. The coordinated denial of access to evidence is an act of violence, with real and catastrophic consequences.