Introduction to the November 13, 2021 issue of Other Voices
“Following the science“ has been the mantra of public officials from the very beginning of the pandemic. Their acknowledgement of the importance of science has been a refreshing change from the usual attitude of so many political leaders, who all too often regard science, and scientists, as an annoyance or a threat. Stephen Harper in particular carried on a vendetta against scientists who were guilty of the crime of doing research that revealed how his government’s policies were harming the environment. Under Harper, government scientists were muzzled, funding for inconvenient research was drastically curtailed, and research libraries were physically destroyed. Compared to what went on under the Harper regime, present-day politicians who proclaim respect for science and declare their commitment to following it, look good.
But what does “following the science” actually mean? When we as a society are faced with difficult policy choices, can science tell us what choices we should make? We should be sceptical of anyone who says that it can, because that isn’t actually what science does. It can certainly provide information we need to take into account when making choices and trade-offs, but choices don’t automatically follow from science.
Nor is it accurate to refer to “the science.” Science is a method for understanding the world. It involves asking fruitful questions, gathering information, and coming up with tentative answers and conclusions which are then subject to further examination and re-evaluation by other scientists. Often enough, it turns out that the initial question wasn’t even the right question. Even so, that can be a useful realization if it leads to formulating different questions. There are always more questions than answers; indeed, each answer inevitably raises a series of new questions. As Einstein said, “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.”
The very word ‘science’ can lead us astray, in part because its meaning has narrowed over time. The original broad meaning of the Latin scientia survives in the German word Wissenschaft, a term which refers to the systematic pursuit of knowledge, as well as the knowledge that results from that pursuit. Wissenschaft includes the study of history, literature, languages, and other realms which tend to be excluded from what English-speaking people think of as ‘science.’
The more inclusive idea of Wissenschaft can help to remind us that ‘science’ isn’t just something done by ‘scientists’ – it is an innately human activity.
We all engage in science, in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, almost from the day we are born. As babies, we spend much of our waking time engaged in science: we observe, explore, experiment, and draw conclusions. When a baby puts a new toy, or its toes, into its mouth, it is doing science. It is only later in life that our natural curiosity and eagerness to learn are in danger of being repressed, sometimes by the very institutions which are charged with educating us.
Our earliest explorations are arguably closer to the ideal of science because we are investigating the world without an acquired framework of preconceptions, beliefs, social pressures, and ego. We are therefore freer to do what scientists are supposed to do: add to our knowledge, expanding or revising it in the light of new evidence, without allowing our biases and preferences to cloud our conclusions.
But scientists are human. We are never totally free of bias, especially when the topic is one that we are emotionally vested in. It lies in our human nature to become attached to our beliefs, whether we acquired those beliefs through the influence of religion, tradition, peer pressure, or scientific research. When new evidence gives rise to new theories, there will be some scientists who resist the new theories, question the evidence they are based on, and challenge the conclusions. Asked how long it takes new theories in paleontology to become accepted, Stephen Jay Gould wryly commented that they became accepted once the people who defended the old theories retired or died.
In our time, science is also severely compromised by the way scientific research is funded. Many scientists now work for corporations with a substantial financial interest in supporting some kinds of research while starving research that asks the ‘wrong’ questions or threatens to arrive at inconvenient conclusions. Scientists working for tobacco companies and asbestos companies spent decades denying that the products their employers sold were harmful to human health. Their successors are busy throwing doubt on the conclusions of other scientists who question the safety of GMOs or pesticides or fracking. Universities are supposedly more independent, but they are ever more dependent on corporate funders who make it clear they won’t receive money if they employ scientists who engage in unwelcome research. Dissident scientists are less likely to receive funding, to have their contracts renewed, or to receive tenure.
Pharmaceutical companies have been guilty of some of the most serious violations of scientific principles and scientific ethics, including the suppression of unfavourable evidence and the promotion of drugs as the solution to virtually all health problems, even when non-pharmaceutical alternatives may be more appropriate. Conflict of interest is inherent in their business: the more drugs they sell, the more money they make. The development of vaccines in this pandemic illustrates the inherent corruption of having pharmaceutical produced by private corporations: rich countries get access to vaccines, poor countries are denied the vaccines because they can’t afford to pay the enormous price demanded by the companies.
The economic and social pressures affecting science have affected how science is seen by the public. Many people now see science not as an idealized disinterested pursuit of knowledge, but as an activity driven by hidden or overt agendas. This is unfair to most scientists, but for better or worse it is a symptom of attitudes that are surprisingly common. The anti-vaccine movement of recent years is an instance of widespread distrust of science and scientists, a distrust which in some cases blends into wild conspiracy theories.
In the current pandemic, this distrust has combined with distrust of those who proclaim the need to ‘follow the science’ – governments and the media. Trust in the mainstream media is at record lows. Faith in ‘democratic’ institutions has been declining for many years, as more and more people realize that governments habitually lie, about what they intend to do, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.
Media and governments now find themselves in the position of the boy who cried wolf: they have misled and lied so often that now many people don’t believe them even when they tell the truth.
They make things worse by professing certainty about things that are not certain. The scientific method requires a certain humility and scepticism. It requires admitting uncertainty, all the more so when dealing with an unprecedented rapidly-changing situation like a pandemic caused by a novel virus. Admitting that there is a degree of uncertainty, that actions represent a best guess, subject to revision as more evidence appears, is actually more likely to induce trust. Explaining the thinking about the tradeoffs involved in public health measures is more honest than pretending that there is no choice.
This is especially true for draconian measures like lockdowns, which have severe impacts that fall heavily on some people while others are barely affected, and which many people, including a significant number of scientists, think are useless or worse than useless. In the scientific community, criticism of lockdowns crystallized in the Great Barrington Declaration, signed by a large number of infectious disease epidemiologists, public health scientists, and other scientists who expressed “grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies” and instead recommended an approach they called “Focused Protection” to protect the elderly and other vulnerable populations. A commitment to science would have encouraged an open process of examining the evidence and analysis underlying the Great Barrington Declaration, as well as the evidence being accumulated by epidemiologists who have been comparing jurisdictions implementing lockdowns with those that have eschewed them. (The United States has presented a natural experiment, in that typically Democrat-governed states have had lockdowns, while Republican-governed states haven’t, making it possible to compare outcomes in states with similar demographic characteristics.)
This kind of scientific work is being done behind the scenes, but the media overwhelmingly fail to report anything that challenges the supposed scientific consensus.
Beyond that, where ordinary people are dissenting from public health decisions, the approach of the media is typically sensationalistic reporting on fringe groups, while ignoring the rest. Increasingly the ‘debate,’ on all sides, and especially on social media, has degenerated into demonization of those who disagree.
This does not reflect well on our society. Science requires openness. Solving social problems requires civility, tolerance, and a willingness to try to understand where those who have different views are coming from. We need to do better.
November 13, 2021
Read the November 13, 2021 issue of Other Voices here.