Partisan Science in America
Scientists corrode public trust when they pretend to have authority on social and political matters.
By Gary Saul Morson
Oct. 11, 2021 1:18 pm ET
ILLUSTRATION: DAVID KLEIN
Medieval thinkers pretending to infallibility often claimed to have received a direct revelation from God. Since the 19th century, secular thinkers have invoked science. As Anthony Fauci said in June, “a lot of what you’re seeing as attacks on me, quite frankly are attacks on science.”
One can often tell that an appeal to science is unwarranted without knowing anything about the science in question. If science is treated as a solid block, each part of which is as indubitable as all the others, then science has been misunderstood. Science always contains some propositions less firmly grounded than others: on the frontier, newly discovered, based on experiments not readily replicated.
Some parts of climate science have been tested countless times—like the greenhouse effect—but specific predictions about rising temperatures and their effects have often proved mistaken. Early last year we were treated to the delightful spectacle of Montana’s Glacier National Park removing signs that said its glaciers would be gone by 2020. Some scientific statements prove false; that’s how science works. Those who claim that to doubt any part of the consensus is to be “antiscience” or “a denier” are themselves being unscientific.
Science operates by a process of criticism. Scientists don’t experience divine revelations, they propose hypotheses that they and others test. This rigorous process of testing gives science the persuasiveness that mere journalism lacks. If a scientific periodical expels editors or peer reviewers because they don’t accept some prevailing theory, that process has been short-circuited. Those who call for such expulsions have missed the whole point of how science works. They are the true deniers, far more dangerous to science than a religious fundamentalist who believes the world is 6,000 years old.
When researchers fear losing a grant or being subject to personal attack if they question a predominant belief, that belief no longer rests on scientific grounds. True or false, it is superstition in scientific clothing. Science has been replaced with what the Soviets called “partisan science.”
To doubt a scientist is not to doubt science. Quite the contrary, personal authority is precisely what science dispenses with, as much as possible. Dr. Fauci’s assertion of authority creates skepticism about all his assertions—legitimately, because the distinction between science and a particular scientist is essential. To be sure, nonscientists often have to trust scientists to inform them what the science has discovered. But that is all the more reason that scientists bear the responsibility of not letting political or other nonscientific criteria affect their explication.
It is now regarded as an open question whether the Covid virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. But when the virus first appeared, dozens of scientists published a statement in the Lancet expressing “solidarity” with Chinese colleagues. “The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumors and misinformation around its origins,” the statement declared. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” How could epidemiology discern that ideas were not only ill-founded but conspiratorial?
Now that new evidence has come to light, have these conspiracy-denouncing scientists acknowledged they overstepped? No. In another statement to the Lancet in July, they assert: “We reaffirm our expression of solidarity with those in China who confronted the outbreak then.” Solidarity is a social, not scientific, category, and a judgment as to whether scientists in an authoritarian regime have been pressured is also not a scientific one. Anyone who has studied Marxist-Leninist regimes knows that it is possible that the “solidarity” is not with the scientists but with the authorities supervising them.
To explain their earlier statement, the scientists remind us that “we have observed escalations of conflicts that pit many parties against one another, including central government versus local government, young versus old, rich versus poor, people of colour versus white people, and health priorities versus the economy.” To justify a scientific claim with such socially charged considerations is, again, partisan science. To the extent that scientific claims are informed by political considerations, they are no more well-founded than purely political ones.
If scientists expect their statements to be trusted, they must themselves be trustworthy in making them. One had better be scrupulously honest before asking people to surrender their own judgment and simply believe what they are told. Scientists should be especially careful not to misrepresent political or policy judgments as being scientific. And they must protest vigorously and loudly when other influential people claim to speak in the name of science while misrepresenting it.
Dr. Fauci admitted that he first stated that masks were ineffective in part because there was a shortage of masks and he wanted to preserve them for medical workers, who needed them most. He doesn’t seem to have considered: Once he shades the truth for a reason of policy, why shouldn’t reasonable people assume his other statements are based on policy considerations rather than science?
Perhaps the clearest sign that a scientist, or anyone else, is misrepresenting science is a confusion of a science with political or social claims that it is thought to imply. That is what social Darwinists and Soviet dialectical materialists did. Such claims are never scientific. They are a clear sign of pseudoscience. One must argue for or against the social or political implications of a scientific discovery in the same way as for any social or political ideas.
When President Biden, or a politician from any part of the political spectrum, claims he is only “following the science,” one can be sure that he isn’t. Should we lock down? Lockdowns, like any other policy, entail costs as well as benefits. How do we weigh them? Not by epidemiology, which has nothing to say about the costs to children, small businesses, performing artists and human enjoyment generally. Science can inform a policy decision, but whatever judgment one makes, it cannot be based wholly on the science.
When reasonable people cease to trust science in one case, how will one persuade them in another? By the end of the Soviet Union, almost no one trusted government statements about natural disasters or man-made catastrophes like Chernobyl. How will we handle the next crisis about which scientific understanding has something to contribute when scientists are known to base statements on policy preferences? That is part of the cost of the Lancet scientists’ accusation and of Dr. Fauci’s lack of candor.
The greater danger to the public’s trust in science comes not from the uneducated but from politicians and journalists who claim to speak in the name of science. Still more, it comes from scientists themselves, either because of what they say publicly in the name of science or their failure to correct others’ misrepresentations of it.
Mr. Morson is a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern University and a co-author of “Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us.”
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Appeared in the October 12, 2021, print edition.