A Pathway to Social Transformation During Crisis

Global events, such as announcements that an effective COVID-19 vaccine could be available before the year’s end or the outcome of the US election, have raised hopes that the schism between science and populist ideology may become a thing of the past. That, in our view, is somewhat naïve. Unless we engage in a conscious process to heal the rift, we fear the idea that there has been a return to rational thought is an illusion that may even result in a sharpening of the divide. In our view, social learning, which engages all parties as citizens working toward a common good, is the transformative process that is needed now.


A New Social Contract Amid a Crisis

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The pandemic has exposed a severe divide between science and various ideologies. On the one side are those who trust in the scientific community’s ability to produce evidence-based, reliable solutions to crises and societal issues. On the other are those who either cherry-pick select findings expedient to their beliefs or political agendas, who pose false dichotomies such as science versus the economy, or, worse, those who deliberately promote fake news and conspiracy theories about scientific results.

Scientists-Citizens

This divide is by no means a new phenomenon. It is all too familiar to anyone who has observed the science and politics of climate change, nuclear energy or vaccines, for example. What is different today is the wholly unprecedented speed and intensity with which the divide has manifested itself during the COVID-19 crisis. Things have become even more complicated as the pandemic hit a world destabilized by a rapid decline of long-cherished institutions and political values, of legitimacy and good governance, as authoritarianism and extremism continue to rise.

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Typically, scientists have been caught in the middle as the controversies around Dr. Anthony Fauci, the veteran director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases advising the Trump administration on the pandemic, and others reveal. As professionals, scientists take no joy in the fact that their models and projections have, for decades, forecast climate change impacts, catastrophes and pandemics, while their results have gone widely ignored or opposed. As the meme goes, “Every disaster movie starts with a scientist being ignored.”

Still, within the scientific community, 2020 has been heralded as a scientific renaissance driven by the fight against the novel coronavirus. In less than a year, scientists and physicians have sequenced the virus, developed multiple promising vaccines and learned a great deal about the behavior and treatment of COVID-19. According to Science Magazine, by one estimate, the coronavirus literature published since January 2020 has reached more than 23,000 papers and is doubling every 20 days, making it one of the largest proliferations of scientific literature ever.

The question is, how does this undeniable success help bridge the divide? The problem is not that scientists are poor communicators, though that may be a legitimate criticism at times. There simply is little evidence that information per se leads to any transformational social change. For instance, engaged scientists have put themselves on the front lines of the climate debate. Today, the number of virtual panels to communicate the latest scientific findings on the coronavirus is skyrocketing. Rather, scientists and non-scientists alike need to understand the pivotal role scientists play as citizens of our societies.

The Idea of Social Learning

So, what else is required to bridge this facts-versus-post-truth divide? How can societies heal and become resilient to the threats of authoritarianism and anti-science ideology? Earlier, we called for a new social contract among citizens and between citizens and their governments based on the principles of truth, equality, shared responsibility, solidarity and legitimacy. We called it the “glue” that binds nations and societies together, particularly in times of crisis. While a new social contract between citizens and their governments is a prerequisite for solving complex global crises, social learning provides the catalyst and process for humanity to change the current divisive and destructive path.

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Social learning, a concept coined by Albert Bandura, emphasizes the role of the contextual social environment as a driver of behavioral change. It includes rational elements such as cost-benefit calculations and material incentives but focuses more on an iterative learning process that includes observation, imitation and modeling as drivers. Attention and motivation are central to the process, while emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion were recently added to the cognitive elements of social learning described by Bandura.

Historical evidence indicates that social learning works and has been transformational on various scales. The abolition of slavery in the US and its civil rights movement in the 1960s, or the transformation of Germany into a bedrock of democracy and freedom after World War II, are historical examples that illustrate how successful and powerful social learning can be. Those transformational examples all involved large-scale social movements that were catalyzed by social learning processes and led to a radically different “new normal.”

Recent examples involving scientific evidence include the manner in which smoking bans were implemented across the globe. A change in the social acceptance of smoking occurred in part due to “shaming” based on the effects of second-hand smoke. Today, smoking-ban policies are considered a major public health success due to the effects of social learning.

Similarly, significant breakthroughs in interventions targeting the HIV/AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa or the 2013-15 West African Ebola epidemic were reached through social learning tools to overcome counterproductive rituals or myths by engaging doctors, patients, relatives, community leaders, spiritual leaders, policymakers and the media alike. Engaging scientists, stakeholders, community members and decision-makers in solving environmental issues such as endangered species protection, nature conservation or water management has also proven effective at local and national levels.

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A Renewed Social Contract

Common to the above examples is an initial approach that builds on a social contract binding all parties as equal citizens in a joint endeavor toward establishing (or reestablishing) a declared common good such that every participant agrees to engage with the community and commits to furthering the common good. This contract must include the participants’ empowerment and a clear shared understanding of essential rules, norms and values.

On that basis, the social learning process can be successful in changing norms, attitudes and behaviors for the better. Leadership, empowerment, empathy and the sharing of best practices are important and lead to the co-production of new knowledge and behaviors. In these situations, because scientists participate as citizens and co-learners, the public’s fears concerning the implications of scientific findings are mitigated and higher levels of trust are created without disrupting the social fabric of a community.

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The responsibility to build public trust in science does not just lie with scientists alone but with all citizens. As much as we advocate for scientists to engage with their communities, we equally advocate for non-scientists to engage in a better understanding of science so that the entire citizenry can co-create solutions based on evidence and societal needs and values.

A sense of cautious optimism has emerged that provides the opportunity for societies to engage in social learning. There is no time to lose. Our world is battling two global crises simultaneously — the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change — during a period of rising authoritarianism. This is the time for leaders and citizens to start implementing transformative processes that will lead society forward and prevent a return to an even more divisive dark age.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.