Is Science a Human Right?

Science is the body of accumulated human knowledge. Science is what we know from evidence, and it is the process by which we gather and test evidence to ensure we are not speculating instead of knowing. Science always questions itself, and yes: science is knowledge.

The right to know is a transcendent, universal, unalienable right. You have a right to know whether you are eating something healthy, or something that will poison you. You have a right to make judgments based on knowledge, and to deliberately choose to avoid harming others. This requires more than just good will; it requires knowledge and understanding.

The right to access information is clearly outlined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, but we must also remember the Ninth Amendment, which reads:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

If we say “science is a right”, it means that deliberate actions to corrupt or obscure science should trigger relevant existing laws. The Ninth Amendment also carries this implicit meaning: If a right is infringed, the levers of redress and justice should be triggered, even if that right is not described in detail in the Constitution.

Entire political campaigns are organized and funded to not only alter environmental and public health protections, but to cast doubt on science and evidence. This is done specifically to avoid accountability for known and demonstrable harm imposed on innocent people. Science provides evidence that can bar misleading rhetoric as perjury or fraud.

Science is our defense against preventable harm.

South Korea—which had its first confirmed COVID-19 case on the same day as the US (January 20)—acted early and applied the best known public health science to ensure its response would contain the virus. To date, South Korea has experienced 485 total COVID-19 deaths. The US is currently averaging COVID-19 deaths 1,000 per day.

From the morning of Election Day (Nov 3) through yesterday (Nov 9) 1 in every 424 Americans was diagnosed with a new case of COVID-19. With a mortality rate of 2.4%, it is likely more than 18,500 of those 779,138 people will die. At least 239,306 Americans have died so far.

Science shows that wearing a mask can substantially slow and eventually stop the spread. In May, a study showed that if 80% of a population wears a mask, COVID-19 infection rates would fall by about 91% compared to a population without masks.

Masks, combined with other measures like social distancing and testing and tracing, could be even more effective at containing and controlling the virus. If the US, with 6.42 times the population of South Korea, had acted at the same time, with the same effect, there would be just 3,114 COVID-19 deaths, instead of 239,306—that’s 98.7% of COVID-19 deaths that could have been prevented.

Whether we are able to access and apply the best available science is a matter of life and death. All people have an inherent right to see governments use the best available science in their decision-making, and never to brush aside evidence in favor of convenient distortions that might be lucrative to a narrow interest group.

This question of access is about more than just public policy, however. The degree to which we are encouraged, trained, and rewarded for using critical thinking to distinguish evidence from distortion affects our ability to apply science, or to benefit from its application.

The infrastructure of our society and our economy also determine our ability to benefit from science. Kaiser Health News has found that:

Overall, 18 million people live in counties that have hospitals but no ICU, about a quarter of them 60 or older, the analysis shows. Nearly 11 million more Americans reside in counties with no hospital, some 2.7 million of them seniors.

Air pollution kills 4.2 million people globally per year. There is no known medical treatment for chronic lung disease that is more effective than prevention. Prevention is the best cure, and our ability to prevent danger depends on our evidence-based understanding of the threat. In other words, it depends on science.

Science shows that a world with global average surface temperatures more than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels will be prohibitively chaotic and costly. Now, financial regulators are warning that this science must be applied to assessments of investment value, or risk and cost will proliferate out of control.

Industrial agricultural practices degrade ecosystems on land and across watersheds, and ultimately in the ocean. How we use land also is a major contributor to climate disruption. If climate systems are critically destabilized, it is expected we will see multiple breadbasket failure—the simultaneous failure of multiple major food-growing regions, putting the entire human food supply at risk.

Many, if not most, independent farmers cannot easily act on the best applied science, and switch to resilience-building regenerative practices. Whether or not incentives support their transition to a healthier, more sustainable (and higher value) agricultural model determines whether most of us can access sustainably grown, healthy food.

The degree to which Americans have been denied the benefits of the best available science in relation to food is shocking. A 2018 study that found only 12% of Americans are metabolically healthy. Americans are suffering a worsening epidemic of diet-related non-communicable diseases, which significantly increase the risk of dying from COVID-19.

Every human being has a right for science to be conducted openly and honorably. While scientific research can be conducted privately, for commercial reasons, no entity has a right to conceal evidence of great danger or to proceed as if that evidence did not exist.

On this World Science Day for Development and Peace, we need to take stock of the many ways in which science denial and political interference with environmental or public health science have created costly increased risk of preventable harm. Every human being should have access to a comprehensive empowering education and the fluency to move through a complex world, discerning between evidence and distortion.

Whether we set ourselves up to succeed in being decent to one another and thrive together, or whether we set ourselves up to fail, may hinge on whether we recognize this unspoken, but implicit right.

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