The return to science and rational thinking will still be an uphill battle

9 Nov 2020

Image: © James Casil/

While the US presidential election results may herald the return of science to the White House, the damage from the previous administration could take years to undo, writes Elaine Burke.

I remember where I was when the result of the 2016 US presidential election was called. I was on holiday in Hong Kong, on a gentle hike up to Victoria Peak, trying to avoid the inevitable incoming news bulletin. But even there it was unavoidable, as I passed a cyclist, an American, informing two fellow walkers of the news just in from his smartphone.

As well as its inescapable omnipresence, there was another thing I learned about American media on that trip. In our hotel room, we tuned in to the only English-speaking radio station we could find and, coming from the US, the advertising around the shows was incessant scaremongering. It felt like we were constantly being told the many ways in which we or our families could die or be ruined, unless we spent money with certain providers to prevent such a tragedy. It was completely irrational and entirely anxiety-inducing.

This is the media environment in which Donald Trump thrived. Panic, distrust and unfounded fear are key content drivers. And this is the same approach that the major social media platforms headquartered in the US have tapped into.

The “enrage and engage” model, as Pivot co-host Scott Galloway succinctly puts it, now dominates global social media and all that matters is achieving higher and higher numbers for advertisers.

‘There is a science communication and rational thinking deficit to be paid, and it will take more than a transfer of power’

One curious revelation from the Biden-Harris camp is that they purposefully avoided getting lost in toxic quagmires such as Twitter. According to CBS News political correspondent Ed O’Keefe, a campaign aide was of the belief that “the country was in a different headspace than social media would suggest”.

Whether this was key to Joe Biden’s success is not clear, but it feels like the world at large can now take this lead and raise their heads from the obfuscating sand to see the world as it is, not as social media has engineered it.

Many of us breathed a collective sigh of relief when Biden’s victory speech seemed to signal a return to rational thinking. A Biden win heralds a return to the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization for the US, and a new focus on the country’s Covid-19 response. It is seen as the return of science.

However, the Biden-Harris administration will have to do more than just platform experts in a society that has been broadly encouraged to distrust them. The damage wrought by Trump and co, preceded and precipitated by a media industry fixated on fear and division, will not easily be undone even in four years.

The Trump campaign remains irrational to the very end. The Four Seasons Total Landscaping fiasco shows in spectacular detail how far Team Trump will go to deny reality. While admittedly one of the funniest things to happen in the past year, it is an example of that administration’s modus operandi: blinkered, bullish and pushing ahead into oblivion without a second glance for rational thinking.

This has been Trump’s approach to the coronavirus, the climate crisis and any disaster for which the science is against him. While Biden’s win is being celebrated as a welcome return of science to the White House, we must remember that the science was always there – albeit ignored. Not just by the powerful but by the regular people who are swamped with misinformation and disinformation in their everyday media diet. There is a science communication and rational thinking deficit to be paid, and it will take more than a transfer of power.

Even in a rational society we wouldn’t simply trust in science unfailingly any more than we should blindly trust in any politician, and now is not the time to divide rational thinking across political lines. Per science communicator and activist Dr Shaun O’Boyle, the ‘for or against’ model is not compatible: “That’s not how science works, but it is how politics works,” he tweeted over the weekend.

“Politics relies on splitting us into opposing teams, and politicians regularly use science to do so. But you can see how this might backfire – if they’re the ‘trust science’ team, does that mean we’re the ‘don’t trust science’ team?”

We need people to be able to think rationally. To parse the data, to interpret the results and to come to reasonable conclusions backed up by evidence. We need scientific thinking to become a common way of engaging with the world at large and the media has a role to play in leading that – by querying and challenging the politicians and the scientists and by informing the public they serve, not inciting them.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.