My mother’s greatest gift [October 5]
I used to think the greatest gift my mother gave me was music. She taught me to play the piano, encouraged me to join choirs and orchestras, and accompanied me as I sang. At her surprise sixtieth birthday party, my siblings and I thanked our mother by singing her favourite songs in four-part harmony, including Ian Dury’s ‘Sex and drugs and rock and roll’.
I’ve recently changed my mind. Music makes me happy, but the greatest gift my mother Margot gave me was a respect for science, and for what she calls ‘the evidence’. As a professor of psychology, she set up rigorous research projects, then worked out how the evidence they produced could help people live better lives. Margot had no time for snake oil sellers spruiking miracle cures – ‘there’s simply no evidence’, she’d say with a beatific smile.
Three decades ago, in my work as an environment campaigner, I looked at the scientific evidence of ozone depletion and used it to argue for phasing out ozone-destroying chemicals. More recently, as a journalist, whenever I’ve read or heard something that seems implausible, my mother’s voice echoes in my head – ‘where’s the evidence?’ – and I delve a little deeper.
In this frightening new age of fake news, conspiracy theories and ‘feel-pinions’, Margot’s advice has never felt more urgent. Conspiracy theories might make you feel good, allowing you to believe that nothing is your responsibility and that malevolent forces, rather than complex human behaviours and systems, have created All The Problems. But most conspiracy theories are without credible scientific evidence, and ‘feel-pinions’ are usually feelings that morph into opinions that morph into antisocial behaviour.
Take those protestors who’ve been dismissing the threat of Covid-19, for example, and ranting against mask-wearing and social distancing. They could do with some stern advice from my mother. Their protests may have given them fifteen seconds of fame on the nightly news, but their views are not supported by scientific evidence.
Unfortunately I can’t organise for Margot to speak with them. Turns out the health experts were right about the dangers of Covid-19. A month ago, this virus took my mother’s life.
So to all those anti-lockdown, anti-mask, antisocial protestors, here’s a tip. If a bunch of highly respected scientists advise you there is no evidence for your conspiratorial feel-pinions, please think again. Lives may depend on it.
(This column was first published in The Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2020)