The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust discussions over what role science should play in society to the forefront. This debate was showcased earlier this year in the sparring between Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) over the use of masks to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Regardless of what the left- or right-leaning media declares, it was not political theater, and there were no winners or losers. A particularly helpful way to frame the debate is to think of it as a scientific discussion about empirical evidence surrounding mask use and how to incorporate it into policy.
For example, when Paul challenged Fauci’s statement that vaccinated individuals should still wear masks to help combat the pandemic, he was not wrong to call it an argument based on conjecture. The data at the time did not support the claim that reinfection was widespread amongst vaccinated individuals or that the vaccinated could still spread the virus. When Fauci responded that masks will protect against the emergence of new vaccine-resistant variants, he was not wrong either. Some data exist that suggest the virus’ evolution seems to converge on specific mutations that increase its fitness and might help the virus evade vaccine-induced immune protection. The more people SARS-CoV-2 infects, the greater the chance it can acquire such mutations, and masks help limit case numbers. In my view, the debate between Fauci and Paul was not a debate between pro-science and anti-science as it was presented by the media; on the contrary, it was a scientific debate about policies in the face of inherent uncertainty—the types of conversations that usually happen during peer review to focus the conclusion of any study.
The scientific method, which is built on a solid foundation of skepticism, is anti-authoritarian by nature and has no figureheads.
In light of the accelerating rate of scientific and technological breakthroughs, this ongoing and often frustrating debate of how to incorporate science into public policy is necessary for research to contribute to societal progress. We, as a society, need to learn how to have constructive, evidence-based scientific discussions. It is no secret that a significant slice of the American political spectrum harbors anti-science sentiments, and this segment largely overlaps with the political right. This is certainly an impediment to the formation of evidence-based policies. But the politicizing of science by the right has induced a natural reaction from the left: to blindly trust scientists. This subtle form of scientific dogmatism could inadvertently undermine the credibility of scientific institutions and could similarly challenge rational policymaking. It is as unscientific to blindly trust scientists as it is to dismiss them.
As the pandemic ramped up on American shores in early 2020, the left-leaning public took strong stances on issues such as the origin of the pandemic, hydroxychloroquine, masks, herd immunity, or social distancing, almost always antagonizing the declared positions of the Trump Administration, which occupied the White House at that time. These positions did not appear to be an outcome of a careful study of the underlying information but rather were reactionary and ideological. How many examined the actual data behind the hydroxychloroquine hypothesis before forming an opinion on it? How many repeated headlines about the length of immunity against COVID-19 or the efficacy of vaccines against an emerging variant without examining the data supporting those claims? Are people aware that there is an ongoing scientific discussion about whether the COVID-19 outbreak could have originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology?
This trend toward blindly trusting science and its practitioners was not due to influence by media. To their credit, some outlets, including those with a left-leaning bias, have attempted to unravel the scientific complexity of some of those issues in their coverage. The problem appears more in how we consumers interpret those news reports. When passed through the filters of Facebook or Twitter, even solid reporting can be bent to the purpose of expressing a political viewpoint. The reliance on social media has diluted nuance and allowed the public to use science to reaffirm our preconceived ideologies instead of reevaluating them.
The dysfunction in how the public consumes scientific news can partly be traced to a weakness in our collective scientific literacy. When it comes to biology, the education of many Americans ended at “mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell.” Therefore, the current revolution in biotechnology must feel daunting and uninviting. How can anyone assess the stories discussing the length of COVID-19 immunity if they do not possess at least a rudimentary understanding of antibodies or vaccines?
It is as unscientific to blindly trust scientists as it is to dismiss them.
Because most people are not equipped to make such technical assessments, many rely solely on the formal credentials of scientists to form opinions. But this is unscientific and is an extension of the appeal to authority logical fallacy: something is not automatically true because, and only because, an expert says it is so. The scientific method, which is built on a solid foundation of skepticism, is anti-authoritarian by nature and has no figureheads. Most scientific topics, if not all, are heavily debated. A consensus often takes years, not months, to build and mature. It took decades for a scientific consensus to form around the major topics surrounding anthropogenic climate change. Some of the different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic have yet to be fully studied and debated in a similar manner.
The left’s paradoxical dilemma with science has two main components. First, there is a preconceived notion of what the outcome of scientific research should be, especially when it touches on topics of wider societal impact. There is no doubt that some hold the view that because they support and defend science, science will support and defend their worldviews. Second, there is an expectation that science can provide clear and definitive answers. Science is naively viewed as a savior that will end all debates once and for all.
Science is an iterative process rooted in empiricism, experimentation, and critically, skepticism. Pure scientific research begins with curiosity, not expectations. No result can be expected a priori. Also, the scientific method is more suited to mapping out possibilities than identifying certainties. Once a novel observation is made, a tremendous amount of work is undertaken to contextualize its relative importance. The scientific method is therefore an approach to approximate what the truth is. It rarely provides a definitive clear answer.
The latter point raises an important question: Accepting this uncertainty, what role should science play in a society facing a new threat? Decision-making should be informed by the most-up-to-date information. Positions and recommendations should be agile and free of dogma; they should adjust and adapt to new data in real-time. Due to the error associated with scientific methods, scientific information should be coupled with actuarial risk assessment to map out the best path forward. Most importantly, there should be an acceptance that science is not an immediate and ultimate authority but more of a guide navigating us through the gray zones: a compass in the dark, not a GPS on a sunny day. We should have no expectations of where science will lead us.
An ideal science-based society is one without entrenched ideology, yours or theirs. Its only “ideology” is to constantly evolve and adjust its worldviews. Progress is a process, not a destination.