Anti-Vaxxers and Climate Change Deniers: Living in a Post-Fact World

Mill and power plant at Willamette Falls, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

How many people who are anti-vaxxers are also climate change deniers? Both anti-vaxxers and deniers raise serious questions about the role of science in our everyday lives. While facts confirm that people properly vaccinated have less chance of serious illness from Covid-19, and that scientific reports continue to confirm that we will be overwhelmed by climate change if we don’t change our behavior, there are still many people who continue to call into question vaccinations and climate dangers.

Do facts matter? We are in the midst of a credibility revolution. Donald Trump’s presidency and his questions about the results of the 2020 election are an example of what can be confirmed factually and what we should all agree upon.

Our era has been labelled “Post-Fact, Post-Truth.” Who really killed John F. Kennedy? Did a hijacked plane really hit the Pentagon on September 11, 2001? There is plenty of evidence on both sides of the two questions to raise skepticism about definitive answers.

A recent summit in Geneva of the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) raised many of these questions. Before even looking at the relationship between science and diplomacy, the role and acceptance of science needs clarification.

In its annual report on Science Trends at 5, 10 and 25 years, GESDA identified four frontier issues: Quantum Revolution and Advanced Artificial Intelligence; Human Augmentation; Eco-Regeneration and Geo-Engineering; Science and Diplomacy.

The quantum revolution has certainly opened new frontiers of knowledge. It has led scientists to examine many accepted truths. According to legend, the eminent physicist Richard Feynman once said: “Anyone who claims to understand quantum theory is either lying or crazy.” The quantum revolution is far from confirming the factual basis of all science. It has opened exciting new areas beyond accepted wisdom.

The intersection of science and diplomacy, the fourth frontier issue, raises the intriguing question of the rational basis of diplomacy. It is pertinent to note that at Harvard University the study of diplomacy is in the Department of Government; at Oxford University it is in the Department of Politics and International Relations; at Yale University it is in the Department of Political Science. Government, Politics or Political Science?

The use of science – formulas and algorithms – in the study of politics and diplomacy goes back to the use of rational choice theory, wedding mathematics with political studies. Quantitative methods were the rage in many universities, including departments of economics. Recently, emotional economics as well as quantum politics and post-modern theory have threatened the scientific domination.

If one recognizes the puzzling nature of quantum physics and does not accept politics and diplomacy as based on science, does that mean one is anti-vaccine and a climate change denier?

To question the factual basis of traditional science as well as putting politics and diplomacy in a humanities department instead of a political science department might imply that one is against vaccines and climate change. One could be consistently anti-logical or anti-scientific.

But that’s not necessarily so. Does questioning Newtonian laws of physics because of a quantum breakthrough mean that one no longer accepts all scientific facts? The statistic that tells us that people who are not vaccinated have a greater risk of winding up in the intensive care unit in a hospital cannot be refuted. The quantum revolution has nothing to do with that.

There are objective and subjective truths. The audited vote counts in several states in the United States confirmed that Joseph Biden won the 2020 presidential election. Whether one studies the results in a department of government, politics or political science, the results are the same, whatever Trump and his followers believe. Factual evidence matters.

And that’s the crux of the problem that GESDA and many others must deal with. Whereas certain facts may be questioned, such as Newtonian laws of physics, other facts, such as the result of the 2020 election, the dangers of continuing pollution or the necessity of vaccinations should not be.

In a Post-Fact world, how not to believe in Newtonian physics but to believe in scientific reports on climate change, vaccinations, and audited election results? Why and how can we question one and not the others?

It appears that the facts themselves are not determinant. What is determinant is our belief in certain facts. And if we are reduced to believe in facts x or y, how can we be rational about our choices? Or even discuss with others who disagree? We can argue about facts, but not about beliefs.

Beliefs are best explained by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. For Kierkegaard, there are things reason cannot explain, such as the existence of God. Therefore, faith and beliefs rely on leaps beyond reason or logic. Beliefs are not intellectual or scientific or based on evidence.

The differences between those vaccinated and anti-vaxxers as well as climate change believers and deniers are significant. Differences in beliefs generally are. But facts do matter. And certain facts should be beyond questions of belief or leaps of faith. The problem is to separate what can be scientifically established based on concrete evidence and what cannot. Evidence-based election results or climate change data are facts just as are the value of vaccinations. No leap of faith is needed to believe those facts. The “Post-Fact, Post-Truth” world and its skepticism do have their limits.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.