2 Worlds Collided
Science is under attack. In my last blog, we reviewed the scientific method and its limitations and what it can do. Now, let’s look at the value of other realms of society, and how they impact this scientific method and community. Governments decide by voting in committee and protests in the streets, and polling of their district constituents. But that’s not how science works.
What Science CAN and CAN’T do
Science is meant to be a method of inquiry; it is always in evolution. You come up with a hypothesis, usually based on some other research observation, asking, ‘What would happen if …?’ According to scientific method, before ever stepping into a lab, you determine the accuracy necessary ( determined by non-scientific requirements) in your study design, which would be acceptable to confirm your hypothesis. You publish your findings, they are found to be lacking and improved or replaced by other scientists. You see their data and modify your theory, and over the years get closer to the truth bit by bit.
Science cannot make value judgments. Science is not a tool to determine policy. The policy is a human endeavor that requires values and balances priorities. This is the realm of politics or philosophy, not science. Science can indeed be used to quantify the risk of school re-opening on Covid spread and help quantify the educational losses from continued closure, but science cannot tell you whether to open or close schools. Making the decision requires values, principles, and a vision of the type of society we want to be. The problem comes in when someone with one vision of society says, “Your science is bad because it doesn’t support my philosophy.”
Politics in Science
Some people are speaking out; some are even being heard. At Johns Hopkins University, Genevieve Briand presented in a seminar in Nov 2020 reviewing the CDC data on Covid-19. From mid-Mar to mid-Sept in the USA, there were approx 200,000 Covid deaths. Putting this into context of the 1.7 million total deaths in that period, this makes Covid responsible for 12% of the deaths. She noted that 84% of the Covid deaths were in the population of people over 65, which is the expected percentage of deaths in general for this demographic.
According to her reading of the data, however, what she didn’t find was an increase in the total number of deaths, due to a decline in all other causes. Now, what happens in science is that other researchers will gather round and go over the same data to see where she made a mistake. Others will investigate the possibility that, instead of the heart attack or stroke that they would likely have had a few weeks later anyway, the people died from the virus.
But, what happened in this case? A few days later, the newsletter that reported on the seminar decided to pull it down because ‘it has been used to support dangerous inaccuracies that minimize the impact of the pandemic.’
The Critical Media Literacy Conference of the Americas 2020 took place in October. They were discussing issues in modern media studies and warning of the dangers of media censorship. Ironically, a few weeks later, the entire video record of the conference was pulled down from YouTube.
These sorts of things have been happening with Covid-19 since the very beginning. This short-circuits the science, slamming the window of opportunity down on the fingers of anyone who might have benefitted from their insights. Even if their conclusions were wrong, because that’s how science works!
In Dec 2019, Dr. Li in Wuhan China tried to warn colleagues of a new infectious outbreak and was censured by Chinese public officials and forced to write a retraction.
Dr. Ioannidis, a world-renowned epidemiologist, was praised in 2010 as one of our most influential scientists. In 2020, he was ridiculed and mercilessly attacked by fellow scientists when he published that the infection fatality rate was way lower than had been initially reported by WHO. When Ioannidis said that there was not sufficient data to determine the efficacy of government actions like lockdowns and that they would have harmful side effects, YouTube removed his video, saying he had violated its policies on Covid-19 misinformation.
In Sweden, colleagues were bullied and had their jobs threatened when they spoke out against the Great Barrington Declaration model put in place by their government. A US researcher tried for months to get his randomized controlled trials published. Because his data showed no clear benefit of mask-wearing, editors were afraid it would be used against certain government policies.
Journalists are having a hard time getting quotes from scientists on the minority side of the scientific debate in their country, because they fear career repercussions.
The Purpose of the Ivory Tower
Science only works if there is a free exchange of ideas. But not when scientists are afraid to speak up against the majority opinion, or can’t get published. Many scientists have nice jobs, but if they lose them, how are they going to support their family or even get another job, if they are canceled? I feel for them. This whole thing has been politicized to an unhealthy degree. They have to make sure they don’t harm their own careers, so they are self-censoring. It’s safer for them if they just shut up; but not necessarily safer for us, unfortunately.
Science won’t provide its best results in this kind of atmosphere. And in a pandemic is when we need science to be at its best.
Free to Offend
The remarkable advances science has made in recent centuries began when scientists began to openly propose a theory and not keep their discoveries a secret for fear of reprisals or theft. Then scientists could listen and learn from each other. I don’t see an environment where that can happen very much right now around this scientific topic, among others, and it’s scary.
In order to come up with a new idea, you must have the freedom to offend someone. Remember science is wrong most of the time, especially at the beginning of a scientific investigation. You only get to the good ideas after working on the bad ones and refining your method. If scientists are afraid of offending somebody, they will never say a new idea again. You have to be willing to try and risk getting it wrong. And, the people who don’t like your results have to be willing to let you keep trying.
Without this freedom, there is no point in having universities and research, except to serve those in power. That’s why universities came up with the concept of tenured professors; it was to protect them against rulers who didn’t like their new idea. Quite obviously, we have not out-grown the need for this protection.
We are familiar with the concept of the separation of church and state — No state should dictate what religion anyone follows. All citizens and their elected representatives should be free to follow their own, as they go through their lives, making their decisions and voting.
Now that science is the new religion, we need to be sure to separate the state from our view of science. These stories make it clear why it is difficult to find randomized controlled trials or opposing views in the scientific literature on this topic. It isn’t because all scientists agree and the ‘science is settled’ — far from it. This sort of thing also makes it difficult for the general public to ‘trust the science’.
Out of Control
I believe underlying all of this pandemic vitriol (here comes the philosophy) is not coming from people having a special attachment to certain data, but from governments needing to tell citizens they are in control of the situation. (After spending $400b and losing thousands of jobs, it would take great humility for them to say they made a mistake and change tactics in mid-stream.)
As human beings, we have the desire to feel safe and that everything is under control. I think a big part of 2020 was avoiding coming to terms with the fact that we as humans are not in control. The fact is, we aren’t in control of when we are born, or when we die (unless you want to look at abortion and MAiD laws, perhaps in another issue), and a great many other things in our life in between. We can’t control the climate, and we can’t control the fact that viruses continually evolve and randomly attack us. But, I understand, it is a scary concept.
I want to encourage you not to get scared by the statistics in the media (legacy, or social), by the number of old folks homes in the country with an outbreak, or even by a positive Covid test of a family member: not because I know their interpretations of the data and predictions are wrong - time will tell. But because we never make our best decisions when they’re based on fear.
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