Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/9/2018 (421 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In an increasingly polarized society, these are words one should hardly be surprised to hear:
"I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree."
Differences of opinion, in fact, are healthy things. The free and open debate of topics of urgent public interest is the lifeblood of democratic endeavour. Rigorous discussion is also what shapes societal mores and influences public attitudes in progressive and forwarding-moving societies.
What are not — or, at least, should not be — open to individual interpretation are these two things: facts and the truth.
Which is why the results of a detailed survey by the Ontario Science Centre should be of some concern to Canadians. The survey, conducted for the centre by the polling firm Leger, raises questions about the manner in which scientific information is received and processed by the public.
Encouragingly, the results show that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed — 84 per cent — agreed that science is improving the quality of Canadians’ lives. Less comforting is the revelation that many respondents expressed concern about technological advances, such as artificial intelligence or self-driving automobiles, having a potentially negative impact on their lives.
More than half of those surveyed — 54 per cent — agreed that "there is a building tension between society and science in terms of (science) going beyond humanity’s needs."
Still, those numbers cannot be described as startling. Resistance to change and fear of the unknown are among the most deeply entrenched of humanity’s shared traits.
Here, however, is the figure that is rather surprising: for the second consecutive year, the survey results suggests 43 per cent of Canadians consider science to be a "matter of opinion."
It’s the sort of revelation that stirs up echoes of U.S. presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway’s suggestion in January 2017 that the White House press secretary employed "alternative facts" in declaring Donald Trump’s observably sparse inauguration crowd to be the largest in history.
Opinions differ; always have, always will. But facts are facts. And those who dispute them tend to fall into two categories: those whose inability to believe what is provably true is rooted in a limited capacity to grasp such information, and those who seek to exploit and manipulate that ignorance for nefarious purposes.
The latter category is having a heyday in the digital age, as social-media platforms have created seemingly endless opportunities for the dissemination of false information, with the deliberate intent to sow distrust and anger, deepen divisions and undermine democratic processes. Despite claims to the contrary by some elected officials, efforts to root out the perpetrators of such mischief — many of whom have been shown to have direct or closely indirect connections to Russian interests — are fully justified and should be pursued with all possible determination. Those who dismiss such investigations as "witch hunts" almost certainly do so because they fear what might be revealed.
The creators of such platforms as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been under increasing pressure to account for the lax security their social media sites have employed to date, and to improve their mechanisms for limiting mischief and removing deliberately damaging content. While it’s true that the global nature of the internet makes it exceedingly difficult to apply individual national standards to online content, it’s equally valid to assert that the brilliant minds that created social media could have applied their genius to incorporating enforced civility into their designs. They opted instead for exploitable anarchy.
There’s an approach that has been used by military strategists and diplomatic officials since long before social-media platforms became the prevalent conduits for information in many people’s lives: trust, but verify.
At a time when nearly half the population seems to believe science — and by extension, perhaps, the very nature of facts — is a matter of individual interpretation, perhaps we should at least agree to be in agreement that truth is worth defending.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.