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The death of science?
As anyone who knows me to any degree is aware, I’m a big ol’ science nerd. A geek girl. A data dork. I read scientific studies for fun. Really. Ask my husband, if you don’t believe me.
Why? Because the scientific method – systematic observation of a phenomenon, formation of a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon, designing and conducting an experiment to test the hypothesis, analysing the data obtained from the experiment to see whether or not they confirm the hypothesis, discarding or refining the hypothesis accordingly, and then repeating each step in an endless iterative process that brings one closer and closer to certainty, while always acknowledging that absolute certainty is almost always impossible to obtain – revolutionised human life in every conceivable way.
The millennia-long arc of development of the scientific method stretches from its origins in ancient Greece, to its painstaking resurrection during the medieval period, to its dramatic flowering in the Scientific Revolution of the 16th to 18th centuries, right through to its universal application in the world we inhabit today.
Knowledge and application of the scientific method demolished superstitious beliefs that previously caused untold human suffering. It generated discoveries that vastly improved both the quality and length of our lives. It endowed us with a deep, rich and ever-growing understanding of ourselves, our fellow humans in all their magnificent diversity, our planet and all the life forms that inhabit it, and the vast universe itself, in which our tiny, fecund planet so improbably floats.
In short, science is awesome, in the traditional sense of the world – it inspires awe, “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.”
But science is under attack in the 21st century, and the source of that attack is both surprising and deeply concerning. The attack is coming from within the establishment that leveraged the scientific method as a system of knowledge production, to gain its legitimacy, authority and power.
Governments, bureaucracies, non-governmental organisations, academia, and professional organisations are now engaged in a wholesale distortion, debasement and even abandonment of the scientific method.
Rigorous application of the scientific method, which demands scepticism, acknowledgement of one’s own biases and an open invitation to others to point out biases of which one is unaware, and the mental discipline to remain open to points of view that are diametrically opposed to one’s own, has been replaced with cult-like adherence to something described as “the Science”.
The public is now exhorted to “believe in science”, with no apparent sense of irony. You are free to believe in an afterlife, pixies, or any unfalsifiable notion that grabs your fancy. But one doesn’t “believe” in gravity, evolution or the production of interferon in response to viral infection. The discovery of such forces and processes occurs through applying the scientific method to our observations of the material world.
Our political leaders tell us they’re “following the science”, but as Matthew Crawford points out in his incisive article ‘How science has been corrupted‘,
“Science doesn’t lead anywhere. It can illuminate various courses of action, by quantifying the risks and specifying the tradeoffs. But it can’t make the necessary choices for us. By pretending otherwise, decision-makers can avoid taking responsibility for the choices they make on our behalf.”
And worst of all, we are told that the completely unprecedented policy response to a coronavirus with an infection fatality rate in the same range as a severe seasonal influenza is supported by “scientific consensus”. However, as the multitalented author, filmmaker, and doctor Michael Crichton noted,
“Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.
Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”
In short, what we are being urged, exhorted, badgered and blackmailed to “believe in” is not science at all. It’s the very antithesis of science.
As evidence for my claim, over the next 3 posts I am going to present three exhibits for your consideration.
Firstly, let’s take a look at a 2017 document produced by the World Health Organization, titled ‘Best practice guidance: How to respond to vocal vaccine deniers in public‘.
This document, which is intended to equip spokespeople of health authorities to deal with “vocal vaccine deniers” – defined as “individuals who do not accept recommended vaccines, are not open to a change of mind no matter the scientific evidence and are actively advocating against vaccination” – is a true masterwork of anti-science doublethink.
The authors do not trouble themselves with providing any scientific evidence to support their advocacy for universal uptake of all “recommended vaccines”, nor do they address the numerousexamples of blatant conflicts of interest that plague the process by which novel vaccines become “recommended”.
Instead, they not only rely on the spurious claim of “scientific consensus” for such advocacy, but strongly advise their target audience – health spokespeople – to do the same.
Such spokespeople are explicitly urged to avoid engaging in open scientific debate with those who raise questions about vaccination, but instead to utilise “psychological research on persuasion” and “training in rhetoric” including story-telling, expression of moral conviction, gestures and facial expressions, and the use of sound bites, to “frame messages” – not to the so-called “vocal vaccine denier” but to other members of the audience who may have concerns about vaccination but have not yet taken a firm position on vaccination.
With no apparent awareness of their internal contradictions, the authors of this document smear “vaccine deniers” as having “characteristics that are similar to other types of science deniers and to religious and political fanatics in that they adhere to a belief that is impossible to challenge, even if challenge is the fundamental tenet of scientific progress”, while also acknowledging that many of these “science deniers” are “very highly educated individuals who are well aware of the available scientific literature”.
They accuse their ideological enemies of “employing rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of scientific debate (uncertainty) related to the science supporting vaccination”. Well, of course there is uncertainty relating to the science supporting vaccination! There is always uncertainty in science – that’s the very nature of science. Scepticism and being open to opposing ideas are pivotal to the proper practice of science.
In a truly stunning example of psychological projection, the WHO authors accuse “vocal vaccine deniers” of engaging in four actions to spread their “messages of vaccine denialism”:
1. Skewing the science
“Vocal vaccine deniers”, the authors claim, “ignore and reject scientific evidence that counters their arguments. They only consider results that seem to confirm their belief.”
Yet how do vaccine proponents react to the publication of carefully-conducted studies finding, for example, that the diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine increased mortality (death) in African children, particularly girls? They ignore and reject such findings, which are inconsistent with their quasi-religious, anti-scientific belief that all vaccines are beneficial for all populations in all circumstances.
2. Shifting hypothesis
The next charge is that “vocal vaccine deniers change the topic that they are addressing when they fear to lose an argument. They are willing to claim any hypotheses that seems to support their core statement.”
But what do vaccine proponents do when confronted with evidence of vaccine failure, such as the fact that the resurgence of whooping cough is likely due to the failure of the acellular pertussis vaccine to prevent infection with, and transmission of, the bacteria that causes whooping cough? They change the subject, blaming outbreaks of whooping cough on the unvaccinated despite the fact that vaccination rates for pertussis have never been higher.
Descending to a depth of absurdity worthy of a Monty Python skit, the document’s authors claim that “vocal vaccine deniers” “shut down critics and avoid open discussions. They ban comments or authors from communication platforms (social media, blogs etc.) and censor opposing opinions.”
This ridiculous statement would be quite funny in this era of deplatforming, cancelling and virtual book-burning if its implications weren’t so serious.
But when health professionals are threatened with regulatory action, up to and including deregistration, if they question any element of government vaccination policy; media outlets invoke the doctrine of “false balance” to justify their refusal to host debates between eminently-qualified scientists on opposite sides of the vaccination issue; social media outlets delete users’ accounts and pages, including a 120 000-member group in which people posted stories of alleged adverse reactions to COVID-19 injections ; and billboards encouraging people to investigate vaccination are taken down because public health officials complain about them, it’s pretty clear who is doing the censoring, shutting down and banning… and the casualty is public trust.
4. Attacking the opposition
Completing their descent into total absurdity, the authors of the document accuse their opponents of “us[ing] personal insults and even legal actions to silence representatives of the scientific consensus.”
Anyone who has even been slurred as an “antivaxxer” for raising even the slightest question about the safety, efficacy or necessity for any vaccine will, by this time, be shaking their head in disbelief. Were the scientists who raised the alarm about thalidomide “anti-drug”? Of course not. Are health advocates who raise concerns about carcinogens in our food supply “anti-food”? Don’t be ridiculous.
It is essential that each drug in the pharmacopoeia, each chemical added to (or even naturally present in) the food supply, and each vaccine injected into our bodies is subjected to rigorous and long-term studies for safety and efficacy. Given that “fewer than 1% of vaccine adverse events are reported” to authorities, much less rigorously evaluated, it is clear that this is not being done in the case of vaccines.
As for legal actions supposedly “silenc[ing] representatives of the scientific consensus”, one can only wonder which substance the authors might have been smoking when they penned this piece of prevaricating palaver, given that health authorities not only have an unlimited fund of public money at their disposal to engage in, or defend themselves against, legal actions against individuals who challenge the “scientific consensus”, but a compliant media only too eager to smear and shut down any such individual.
Matthew Crawford identifies the story of Galileo’s trial with the Inquisition over his claim – backed by empirical science – that the earth is not fixed but revolves around the sun, as a prime example of
“… the story we tell about what it means to be modern. On one side, science with its devotion to truth. On the other side, authority, whether ecclesiastical or political. In this tale, ‘science’ stands for a freedom of the mind that is inherently at odds with the idea of authority.”
Crawford points out that the only science we are ever likely to hear about, at least from mainstream sources, is “politicised science” – that is, science produced by individuals and institutions who have abandoned their proud insistence on scepticism and falsifiability and have instead allowed themselves and the products of their labours to be used as an instrument of power by claiming to reliably interpret reality and to provide certainty.
As Crawford succinctly puts it,
“To serve the role assigned it, science must become something more like religion.”
To rescue science from its impending demise – and to rescue ourselves from the dire consequences of this demise – we must all familiarise ourselves not just with the nuts and bolts of the scientific method, but with the philosophy that underlies this method.
Science is not for the faint-hearted. It is not to be “believed in” or “followed”, but to be engaged in fearlessly and vigorously, and with willingness to change course if evidence comes to light which contradicts one’s beliefs, no matter how dearly held.
As the Austrian-American academic and diplomat Walter Kotschnig urged in 1939,
“Let us keep our minds open, by all means, as long as that means keeping our sense of perspective and seeking an understanding of the forces which mould the world. But don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out! There are still things in this world which are true and things which are false; acts which are right and acts which are wrong, even if there are statesmen who hide their designs under the cloak of high-sounding phrases.”