Science has a very trusted reputation — so much so that in recent years, “trust the science” and “the science is settled” have become fashionable phrases in policy making and public debate.
Science deserves this reputation, given how dramatically the discoveries of modern science have transformed our lives for the better. Whether it is the laws of motion, genetic heredity or thermodynamics, we rely on the findings of science constantly, and in ways we barely notice. But what happens when the science that we trust and assume to be settled keeps changing?
At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advised that the wearing of face masks by non-medical workers was unnecessary. Months later, they changed their stance to recommend the use of masks by the general public.
After Donald Trump touted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the virus, the drug came under heavy criticism, most notably by The Lancet journal — prompting global trials of it to be suspended. But soon after, data inconsistencies and claims of misconduct surfaced, causing the Lancet study to be retracted — and hydroxychloroquine trials to be resumed.
In the latest major backflip, the WHO has condemned lockdowns as a primary strategy for combating the spread of the virus, after originally recommending them.
Speaking on behalf of the WHO this week, Dr David Nabarro told world leaders to stop locking down their countries and economies, warning that the lockdowns already imposed may cause a doubling of world poverty and child malnutrition by next year.
What are we to make of all this?
To be sure, the WHO deserves its fair share of criticism. The World Health Organisation uncritically praised China for its pandemic response — particularly for its transparency and leadership — even as China silenced whistleblowers and concealed critical data about the threat of the virus to the rest of the world.
But it’s also true that a global pandemic is by nature chaotic and unpredictable. We can’t expect science bodies — even the WHO — to perfectly collate incoming data about an ever-changing situation.
The problem is not so much “the science” as it is our understanding of what science is and how it works. When we call the latest recommendation from the WHO “science”, we subconsciously grant it the same authority as the law of gravity — a Newtonian discovery confirmed by centuries of further study.
Scientific findings can of course be confirmed quite rapidly, but the point is this: in times of upheaval like ours, it is all too easy to cling to the latest “discovery”, only to later find out it needed more testing first. It is likewise very tempting to claim that an entire branch of science is settled, and that anyone who disagrees is a “science denier” — a concerning trend we’re seeing in both the transgender and climate debates.
Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Krauthammer astutely observed that “there is nothing more anti-scientific than the very idea that science is settled, static, impervious to challenge”. American thinker and critic Leon Wieseltier draws a helpful distinction for us:
Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles certainties.
[Scientism] is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit.
The scientific facts that are most solidly established, and that today’s research now takes for granted, are those that have been tried, tested, repeated, peer-reviewed and are yet to be falsified. This takes time, emotional detachment, and an environment free of political agendas — none of which have been available to us during this year’s pandemic.
Unfortunately, 2020 will go down as a year in which our trust in science took a hefty blow. Ironically this is not the fault of science, but rather our trust — our naive, frantic faux-certainty.
Following the great scientists who helped usher in the modern world, we need a healthy dose of skepticism. Like them, our best scientific discoveries today will be those that have been doubted until they can be doubted no longer.
That’s how science is supposed to work after all.