No, it’s not a television channel (or even a radio channel). And it’s not the number of beers consumed at the party above. (It’s probably too small a number.) 1590 is a year, and it’s a pretty significant year, scientifically-speaking. A lot of things happened in the year 1590, but it may be the most significant to humanity for one event: It’s the year the Microscope was invented by Zacharias Janssen.
1590 was the year that Janssen set his lenses in his new device, and saw for the first time creatures and elements too small for the human eye to see. Others could use Janssen’s microscope and see things that lived in our water, our food, on every surface we came in contact with. Soon we discovered those same living things in our bodies, and eventually learned that many of them were vital to our bodies’ proper functioning. And over the years, the things we’ve learned from microscopes have led us to develop even more powerful tools that have proven the existence of molecules, atoms, and the inferred existence of quantum particles far smaller than visible light and glass lenses allow us to see.
With this in mind, we fast forward 430 years to 2020… and we discover many citizens of what was once the most technologically advanced nation in the world, the United States of America, claiming they do not believe in a virus that has, so far, killed (so far) 142,000 of their fellow Americans… because they can’t actually see it.
As if they don’t believe they breathe oxygen. As if they think skin cancer is caused by eating prunes. As if they think there are tiny but visible gremlins in their electronics, giving them answers in the name of Google.
In an era where more of the things we do and the ways we live depend on what we’ve learned in the sciences to work, it distresses me deeply that so many people refuse to believe in scientific principles that have been widely known for hundreds of years. How have so many people been misled, gaslit or outright conned by people who obfuscate the facts to take advantage of others? How is it that our public education system, a minimum-thirteen-year dedication to educating our children, has failed to prevent such a rejection of basic scientific principles in our graduated adults?
And when the efforts we need to undertake to make our energy sources more efficient, our energy use more sustainable, our environment cleaner, and our understanding of biological processes deeper, all depend on knowledge and correct application of our knowledge of the sciences to keep ourselves safe and healthy, how are so many people naturally distrusting of that knowledge?
We can, to a great extent, blame our leaders for dropping this incredibly important ball; but it’s not just their fault. We are a social country, our people pool their resources and share their knowledge with each other… yet, somehow, we’ve failed to share with everyone. Our tribalist natures have caused our nation to fracture, our shared knowledge to be kept from some of our neighbors, their misconceptions to not be corrected by those who know better. We, as a nation, have allowed members of our society to live with incorrect facts and insufficient information, resulting in a significant part of the population that doesn’t know the most basic information that people knew 400 years ago.
And as a result, many Americans refuse to believe that a simple concept like a mask to prevent the spread of a virus is grounded in reality. And the consequence of that scientific illiteracy has been 142,000 deaths.
If that isn’t a blatant and obvious sign that allowing our neighbors to remain ignorant of basic scientific principles is a bad thing, I don’t know what is. If that isn’t a clear indication of the failure of our leaders to keep us properly apprised of the facts—and the desperate need for leaders who will keep the public properly and factually informed—I don’t know what is. Especially as that ignorance has, in almost every documented case in the US, resulted in spikes in COVID-19 cases and resultant deaths of our fellow Americans. Not rumored, alleged or theorized… documented.
The COVID-19 virus isn’t the only threat to the health and welfare of Americans… or the world. But the best tool we all have to keep us safe is scientific literacy; and it’s all our jobs to spread that literacy to our fellow humans, to make sure our leaders support those efforts, and to diligently shut down all sources of misleading and contra-factual information that puts us all at risk.
And we should get it done, before 1590 also comes to stand for the number of thousands who have died from COVID-19. (Hint: We’re almost halfway there.)