It may be more than 300 years since Isaac Newton was accused of heresy for his, at the time, revolutionary ideas about physics, but it seems science denial is experiencing a resurgence.
Both in Australia and overseas expert advice and scientific understandings are being rejected, The Australia Institute deputy director Ebony Bennett said.
“You can see on a range of fronts that science denialism is really on the rise and certainly getting closer and closer to the heart of mainstream politics in Australia, which is concerning on a number of levels,” she said.
Many will remember the on-air spat between renowned scientist and science communicator Brian Cox and One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts, or Donald Trump's claim climate change was created by the Chinese to undermine American manufacturing.
Ms Bennett is joined by science communicator and incoming George Mason University Centre for Climate Communication research associate professor John Cook with her concerns these on-air and online spats, claims and assertions have serious consequences.
“Science denial ultimately can cost lives,” Professor Cook said.
“Science denial about the link between HIV and AIDS cost an estimated 140,000 deaths in South Africa.
“And science denial in climate change has delayed policies to prevent climate change for decades and that has impacts on health and infrastructure that will be with us decades or centuries into the future.”
Ms Bennett warns, “If we don't pay attention to science, it ends up having real consequences for people in their real lives.”
“If you look at the preventable disease outbreaks that are making a comeback thanks to the anti-vaccination movement, or if you look at Tasmania for example, you've got 23 small towns in Tasmania I believe in the last couple of years that haven’t had safe drinking water.”
In the last year, science in Australia has taken a hit with funding cuts and job losses to key scientific organisation the CSIRO.
In September 2016 it was announced the year-round research station on Macquarie Island would close, potentially impacting research and data on the island, before the decision was reversed following intense public backlash.
A key concern of Professor Cook is the rise of science denial in the leaders of today.
“There’s some research from America that found that one of the biggest predictors of public attitudes towards climate change and climate science is cues from their leaders, so if you have leaders who reject the science the public are going to follow suit,” he said.
“We saw that in Australia when Kevin Rudd was talking about climate change as the ‘great moral issue of our generation’, public concern about climate change was at an all time high; once Rudd caved on climate policy the public concern in Australia fell accordingly also.”
The problem with this, Ms Bennett said, is, “It doesn’t really matter what your opinions are, science is based on observable facts, [it’s] a concern because it's leading to people changing their behaviour or distrusting advice from experts that can help with kids dying of measles outbreaks or whooping cough or things like that.”
Just this week, an alert was issued in Hobart for whooping cough after newborn babies were potentially exposed to the infection.
It is often left to everyday people, who often have little or no scientific training, to cipher through many contradictory reports, with scientific studies frequently being refuted further down the line by further research or other experts.
Inspiring Australia Tasmanian manager Sarah Bayne said her organisation was set up by the federal government because it recognised the need for greater understanding of science and scientific processes.
“It’s a system of knowledge and the ... system was created was to help humans develop a better understanding of everything, anything and the reason you would do that is to increase your capacity to make better decisions,” she said.
Ms Bayne added the peer review process exists to ensure research is critically examined to guard against flaws.
The peer review process ensures no research can be published without first being critically reviewed by at least two scientific peers.
Many articles are emerging, however, pointing to flaws in the peer review system, some calling for a fix, some for a new system entirely.
There have even been incidents of bogus papers making publication.
So with all these contradictions, how can people know what to believe?
Professor Cook believes people need to be equipped to identify the difference between real and false science.
The trouble is, he said, combatting science denial isn’t easy.
“The key thing to understand about science denial is people whose beliefs are not based on evidence, can’t be persuaded by evidence,” he said.
He added that presenting scientific research to science deniers can actually have the opposite effect, galvanising them to strengthen their views.
Professor Cook believes a method of “inoculation” is one way to reduce the number rejecting the science.
“The answer to science denial is not trying to change the minds of people who object to science, instead it’s about trying to reduce their influence ... and the way we do that is by inoculation,” he said.
“What I mean by inoculation is it borrows from the idea of medical inoculation, we can stop a disease spreading by exposing people to a weak form of the disease then they build up resistance to that disease.
“In the same way if you expose someone to a weak form of the disinformation, then they build up immunity to it so when they encounter the real thing they're no longer influenced by the misinformation, they’re no longer misled by it.”
Professor Cook expands that inoculation requires two key elements; firstly, the science must be explained, but he stresses this is not necessarily sufficient.
“What you also need to do is explain the techniques used to distort the science, so that means there are certain fallacies, there are certain tricks, whether it’s cherry-picking, illegitimate experts or appealing to conspiracy theories, these techniques are used to cast doubt on scientific facts,” he said.
“What we need to do is explain the science and then explain the techniques for specific myths used to distort the facts and then when people encounter that myth they recognise the technique thats been used to distort it.”
Ms Bennett said The Australia Institute is reaching across the political divide to address the issue.
The institute is hosting a series of talks around Australia in February, in an effort to counter science denial around climate change.
Professor Cook believes Australia, and the world, may continue to see an increase in science denial.
“Given that science denial has gone from the very fringes to walking the halls of power I think we can see a significant increase in science denial over the next four years,” he said.