“What is a UFO?” I asked the students attending my Research Methodology class. I intended the question to get them to think about how it is that we know what we think we know and how we determine the quality of evidence we use to judge “reality.”
“A flying saucer,” one replied.
“It’s an alien space ship,” offered another.
“The Air Force captured them when a UFO crash landed at Roswell, New Mexico, in the nineteen fifties,” he explained.
“Where’s the evidence?” I asked.
“The government is keeping it secret, ‘cause they don’t want the people to panic.”
“But, how do we know they have evidence if they keep it a secret?” I challenged.
“Haven’t you watched the History Channel? They had a show on all the evidence for UFO’s. There have been a whole lot of sightings all over the world at different times.”
“Yes, many sightings of UFOs have been reported, some with video evidence of something in the sky moving erratically, then disappearing. All sorts of people from shepherds to airline and military pilots to homemakers in their backyards have reported seeing UFOs; sometimes they have taken videos too. But where is the evidence of what UFOs actually are?
“I saw it on the Internet! They had lots of pictures of UFOs. Some were shaped like cigars and others looked like round saucers.”
“But that doesn’t tell us what they are. It only shows that something is out there moving around in ways we wouldn’t expect possible for a regular airplane.” I countered.
Then came the ultimate challenge to science. “I can believe in alien spaceships if I want to!” blurted out a middle-aged woman who had more life experience than most of the college students present.
Like so many Americans, she knew what she believed and was not at all interested in any evidence to the contrary. We call it “confirmation bias” when someone accepts only evidence that confirms their prior belief. Such folks see their own knowledge (and ignorance) as a matter of personal freedom to choose. That is the essence of the anti-science prejudice so politicized by demagogues today.
The self-imposed ignorance of the facts about the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing climate emergency so arrogantly and frequently promoted by the highest authority in the land, the President of the United States, reminds me of that student who insisted on believing what the facts would not support. I fear for not only the fading political sanity of the nation under the deranged arrogant ignorance of the president, but I also question whether we can survive such destructive “leadership.”
I have frequently criticized so-called “experts” who, in the guise of science, serve the interests of giant corporations—think tobacco and oil, and now climate chaos and COVID-19—and conjure false images of scientific “controversy” in order to deny facts in the interests of continued corporate profits in direct opposition to the public interest and national security. They traffic in the same kind of denial of facts as that student did years ago, but with far more dangerous effects.
However, the problem of manufactured facts and denial of evidence to encourage ignorance, when practiced by political leaders, leads to autocracy by suppressing the democratic process of science building knowledge. Hannah Arendt said it best in her reflections on the intellectual tyranny of autocrats:
Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it.
~ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, quoted in Vox Populi