I’m not quite sure when it happened, but it did.
Once, politicians used science when it was convenient, but science generally ignored politics. Sure, they understood that government grants may require threading a political needle or two, but science itself was concern about the search for the truth.
Part of that search involves people saying, “That’s BS.”
After all, some of the greatest minds in history took ideas from others who are considered among the greatest minds, said, “That’s wrong,” then proved why it was wrong.
Of course, they were often pilloried for their stance, but history often showed them to be right. The science was settled…until it wasn’t and we’re all better off for it.
However, that was then. This is now.
Today, skepticism isn’t valued, and that may be thanks to COVID.
In the past I had often fervently wished that one day everyone would be passionate and excited about scientific research. I should have been more careful about what I had wished for. The crisis caused by the lethal COVID-19 pandemic and by the responses to the crisis have made billions of people worldwide acutely interested and overexcited about science. Decisions pronounced in the name of science have become arbitrators of life, death, and fundamental freedoms. Everything that mattered was affected by science, by scientists interpreting science, and by those who impose measures based on their interpretations of science in the context of political warfare.
One problem with this new mass engagement with science is that most people, including most people in the West, had never been seriously exposed to the fundamental norms of the scientific method. The Mertonian norms of communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism have unfortunately never been mainstream in education, media, or even in science museums and TV documentaries on scientific topics.
Before the pandemic, the sharing of data, protocols, and discoveries for free was limited, compromising the communalism on which the scientific method is based. It was already widely tolerated that science was not universal, but the realm of an ever-more hierarchical elite, a minority of experts. Gargantuan financial and other interests and conflicts thrived in the neighborhood of science—and the norm of disinterestedness was left forlorn.
The pandemic led seemingly overnight to a scary new form of scientific universalism. Everyone did COVID-19 science or commented on it. By August 2021, 330,000 scientific papers were published on COVID-19, involving roughly a million different authors. An analysis showed that scientists from every single one of the 174 disciplines that comprise what we know as science has published on COVID-19. By the end of 2020, only automobile engineering didn’t have scientists publishing on COVID-19. By early 2021, the automobile engineers had their say, too.
At first sight, this was an unprecedented mobilization of interdisciplinary talent. However, most of this work was of low quality, often wrong, and sometimes highly misleading. Many people without subject-matter technical expertise became experts overnight, emphatically saving the world. As these spurious experts multiplied, evidence-based approaches—like randomized trials and collection of more accurate, unbiased data—were frequently dismissed as inappropriate, too slow, and harmful. The disdain for reliable study designs was even celebrated.
Many amazing scientists have worked on COVID-19. I admire their work. Their contributions have taught us so much. My gratitude extends to the many extremely talented and well-trained young investigators who rejuvenate our aging scientific workforce. However, alongside thousands of solid scientists came freshly minted experts with questionable, irrelevant, or nonexistent credentials and questionable, irrelevant, or nonexistent data.
Social and mainstream media have helped to manufacture this new breed of experts. Anyone who was not an epidemiologist or health policy specialist could suddenly be cited as an epidemiologist or health policy specialist by reporters who often knew little about those fields but knew immediately which opinions were true. Conversely, some of the best epidemiologists and health policy specialists in America were smeared as clueless and dangerous by people who believed themselves fit to summarily arbitrate differences of scientific opinion without understanding the methodology or data at issue.
In that way, it’s much like climate change in a way. While climate scientists do tend to be united in claiming not just that climate change is real but also the result of humans interacting with our environment, the media has long blasted any voice that disagreed--even actual experts in the field of climate science--as a kook.
Now it’s happening with COVID, where everyone is trying to find some way their own expertise is relevant, probably so they can pretend to be an expert, but everyone getting a voice in the media is saying essentially the same thing.
There’s no sanity included. There’s no one willing to point out that most who get COVID survive just fine, with early survival rates being between 97.5 and 99 percent. That’s generally left out of the discussion. It’s simply not permitted.
And I expect this won’t end with COVID.
Sure, some ideas will create some degree of tension within the scientific community simply because there’s just not enough evidence yet.
But skepticism is a hallmark of scientific inquiry, even of long-established concepts. If someone comes up with a better explanation than gravity, then so be it.
That’s now allowed anymore.
So what happens when people aren’t allowed to question the “settled science” anymore? Stagnation.
At its core, skepticism is essential to scientific advancement. We learn because we question. When we’re no longer allowed to question, advancement stops. It doesn’t get any more simple.
Yet that’s what we’re looking at. We’re being told the science is settled and to follow the science until we’re simply not allowed to do anything else. That way doesn’t lead to freedom, discovery, or anything else.
For a species that went to the moon because it was there, it’s incredibly shortsighted.
In the end, this either changes or don’t bother taking a good look around you. After all, it’ll be the same a hundred years from now.