We live in a confounding age of conflict in the U.S., an era of dispute over issues that would have traditionally been resolved through reason and logic. Through the daily news cycles and giant swirling dervish of dissent, we are failing to meet the future and by doing so, rendered ill-prepared to face a confluence of enormous challenges.
Our trust in the scientific community is increasingly polarized by political party affiliation. Republicans’ faith in science continues to decrease, even as Democrats depend more on it. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the trust gap in science and medicine widened significantly, according to a new survey. The new data shows the largest gap in nearly five decades of polling by the General Social Survey, a widely respected trend survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago that has been measuring confidence in institutions since 1972.
The Imminent Crises
The loss of faith in empirical data could not come at a worse time. As if the ubiquitous political strife, international threats, Covid, Delta and Omicron weren’t enough, media outlets continue to report the devastation from various extreme weather events: Super tornados churning longer and stronger than anything on record, extreme flooding, and droughts that are beginning to shape a future of water scarcity in large parts of our geography.
Climate change is now an “earth climate emergency” and, as impossible as it may seem, these tragedies only scratch the surface of what is to come. Most of us understand that our government and Congressional leaders are not acting fast enough, if they are even acting at all. They appear suspended in disbelief, like an unwitting deer standing in the proverbial headlights.
This new dark age is upon us, taking many lives, and without enacting measures based on scientific advisories we are driving toward utter devastation unlike anything we have known in many millennia. Scientists reported that an Antarctic ice shelf could crack and disintegrate within the next decade, allowing a Florida-size glacier to slide into the ocean and raise sea levels by as much as two feet. “A dramatic chain reaction in the ice could occur by 2031, starting with the Thwaites Glacier,” said Erin Pettit, a professor at Oregon State University who studies glacier and ice sheet dynamics. Pettit’s research — still under review — suggests that a final collapse of the ice shelf may occur “within as little as 5 years” and mark the beginning of the end of the Thwaites Glacier.
But there’s more. The New York Times has reported that two years into the pandemic, the coronavirus is killing Americans at far higher rates than people in other wealthy nations. Americans’ deaths are 63 percent higher than in other large, high-income countries, according to the New York Times analysis. “The U.S. stands out as having a relatively high fatality rate,” said Joseph Dieleman, an associate professor at the University of Washington who has compared Covid outcomes globally.
There is also a growing income and wealth inequality. The Child Poverty Reduction Act has gone a long way to reducing the number of food insecure homes, but our country also has critically urgent economic challenges that leave families and individuals without healthcare and living with concerning financial insecurity.
Social injustices are widespread in America and remain a blight not only on our history, but also on the present. Poor education continues to fuel biases that have led to organized movements of prejudice in the U.S. We cannot grow as a society or country without better education that reduces or eliminates age-old bigotries. The Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements have been effective campaigns, intent on enlightening a nation and awakening the sleeping giant of good conscience — but the battle for justice and equal rights for people of color in this country is just beginning, and perhaps, it is never finished.
It would be reasonable to think that we are now confronting a perfect storm of political unrest, environmental devastation, rampant racism and increasing social disparities — all while in the midst of our third year of an uncertain global pandemic. But let’s not forget our national mental health crisis, which is reaching tragic proportions for young people and those disposed to mental health disorders like depression and addiction.
On February 8, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, told lawmakers that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the mental health of America’s young people. The Surgeon General recently issued an advisory to call attention to an “urgent public health issue.” A recent USA TODAY / Suffolk University poll cited the increase in suicides, depression, anxiety, stress since the pandemic began and found that 9 in 10 registered voters believe we are in the midst of a mental health crisis.
The Biggest Challenge
New policies are badly needed to address these threats but they have been difficult to enact because we do not have a consensus of public opinion. We see the gridlock in Congress and the opportunistic politicians that pander to misguided public sentiment. We have not established a foundation of common understanding and beliefs and therefore, any broad legislative action meets disagreement. The result for many of us is a feeling of hopelessness. What action can one individual possibly take to deliver a small, albeit positive result?
We lack the sense of nationalism and togetherness that once bonded most of the nation’s population. When I was young, the annual science fair was a celebrated event, popular among children, educators, administrators and parents. It was an exciting and wondrous time of space exploration and discovery. Science, technology and innovation were championed by a vast majority of Americans.
Aside from the problem of conspiracy theories that confuse an already dire landscape, the decentralization of media has decreased the ability for us to adopt one centralized advisory and set of policy plans. As one social media post read, thank God we didn’t have the internet when we were trying to eradicate smallpox.
What this age of crises calls for is not rugged western individualism or independent critical thinking. That uniquely American cultural ideal, combined with self-publishing platforms like Facebook, have left us frozen in a state of immobility. The fact that we appear to be mired in a storm of conflicting information, data and opinion is not helpful.
We need the truth — unparalleled factual, evidence-based accounting of these situations — and we need buy-in at a massive scale. It’s impossible to pass new legislation until we have broad public support. We must have better communications from organizations to report the crises and the need to act. The waffling and wavering by the CDC on Covid protocols, and its lack of coordination with the White House is a perfect example.
Consumer media needs a ground-level rethink and legislation seems to be the next big action to regulate media content better. The ubiquitous declaration of the right to free speech has been so overused as to lose its original meaning. We suffer from a lack of common sense to understand that the twisting of the Constitution is often done simply for the pursuit of financial gains and to suit commercial enterprise. Opinion is opinion. News is news. A global pandemic that has already taken six million lives requires accurate health and medical information delivered by trusted institutions, scientists, doctors, policymakers and journalists — not rogue conjecture and untested treatments fostered by a podcast host with 12 million followers. Tighter standards in reporting on broadcast and digital channels must be legislated.
Micro-published opinions on big media channels like Twitter and Facebook are great examples of free speech, but these platforms need monitoring. Any company so powerful and capable of swaying a nation’s sentiment requires its own watchdogs. Practices by executive leaders on a platform like Facebook should submit to standards for Federal oversight to ensure that our country is not susceptible to foreign interference, manipulation of opinion and elections.
Advertising bears responsibility as well. Artificial intelligence serves content and information to us as we wish. Our preferences are personally and intricately so carved out in data as to further entrench any set of opinions, no matter how misguided. Technology and media must be evaluated academically and scientifically to better understand the impact on society.
Besides a national shift in the landscape for media and reporting, we’re all going to need an extra dose of resilience. Our forebears shouldered unthinkable burdens in the way of famine, poverty, the Great Depression and world wars. This is our time to take account of an ominous future and muster the resilience and good sense to meet it fearlessly and with determination to make urgent, positive changes. Can we rediscover a sense of community, national responsibility and common ground? We’ll need the wisdom and courage required to take on these formidable battles.
Besides disseminating the truth more effectively, a better society begins with building a foundation of kindness, practicing a balance in life and self-care, as well as relearning to extend help to people in our community. More than once I have wondered whether it is not a political leader or business leader that the world needs now, so much as a spiritual leader to establish a foundation of mutual trust, respect and care.