Meditations on the Betrayal of Science
The betrayal of science by those responsible for safeguarding it is destroying both the integrity of science and the fabric of society.
About the Authoris a condensed matter theorist specializing in performing computationally heavy numerical simulations of quantum materials. He received his PhD in physics from The Ohio State University before founding a quantitative trading firm. A self-described Hayekian, he has grown increasingly concerned with issues relating to the abuse of reason and has become disillusioned with many of today’s most impactful institutions’ increasing politicization, ideological conformity, and viewpoint intolerance.
This is his first attempt at writing for a general audience, which he plans to continue pursuing.
It has recently become fashionable for scientists, of all people, to behave in ways that betrays the spirit of science. That science can be said to have a spirit, or an ethos, has been tacitly understood by scientists since its advent over four centuries ago. This spirit, best exemplified by science’s first practitioner Galileo Galilei, reflects a set of principles that incorporates (until recently) seemingly uncontroversial enlightenment values, including:
Freedom of inquiry
A disdain for dogma
Skepticism (of authority, of one’s own senses and tentative understanding, of other’s claims, etc.)
A search for truth while cognizant of (and despite) our limitations
Though never laid out in stone, many of science’s best practitioners, proponents, and spokespeople have intuited these values and, at various times, communicated their importance to their colleagues and the wider world.
Below are examples of two such declarations:
“There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry... There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.” — J. Robert Oppenheimer
“A central lesson of science is that to understand complex issues (or even simple ones), we must try to free our minds of dogma and to guarantee the freedom to publish, to contradict, and to experiment. Arguments from authority are unacceptable.” — Carl Sagan
Underlying each of these is the more fundamental value of humility. This is best expressed in the following:
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard Feynman
To many, lately, humility might seem like a strange value for a scientist to have. Today’s world is replete with scientist-clergy who can’t help but to decree from on high what ideas are allowed within the frame of science’s Overton window, and what ideas are necessarily forbidden to discuss or debate. In effect, many of today’s scientists and, therefore (as we shall see), much of today’s science (particularly within certain disciplines, and appropriately mocked as The Science™ by astute observers) may be characterized by a betrayal of the above listed values and, most glaringly, of that foundational humility without which science becomes but another dogma.
If scientists, either drunk on their privileged status or complicit via their silence, choose to betray science by abandoning its foundational values, then they will effectively relegate science impotent and make humanity all the worse for it.
The Tyranny of the Experts
“We must not deceive ourselves into believing that all good people must be democrats or will necessarily wish to have a share in the government. Many, no doubt, would rather entrust it to somebody whom they think more competent.” — F. A. Hayek
“…where a few specific ends dominate the whole of society, it is inevitable that occasionally cruelty may become a duty…an instrument of policy approved by almost everybody except the victims… There is always in the eyes of the collectivist a greater goal which these acts serve and which to him justifies them because the pursuit of the common end of society can know no limits in any rights or values of any individual.” — F. A. Hayek
To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed deep-seated human frailties governing the actions of our once vaunted credentialed class is to gravely understate the matter. As the above quotes by F. A. Hayek make clear (from his aptly titled chapter “Why the Worst Get on Top” in The Road to Serfdom), societies, led by their administrative states, can turn towards heavy consequentialism as a guiding ethos during times of emergency. This leaves the door open to our least scrupulous and most ambitious (if not megalomaniacal) to set (and promote) agendas while demanding everyone’s obedience.
To be sure, plenty of excellent scientists are not only highly competent in the nuances of their particular areas of expertise, but they have also fully embraced the ethos of the scientific enterprise outlined above. The trouble with this latter cohort may only be in their lack of willingness to speak out against those who (their conscience surely tells them) blatantly disregard fundamental scientific values.
In any case, the emergence of COVID-19 made it necessary, so many felt, particularly early during the pandemic, for the public to rely on expert opinion regarding this newly emerging threat. Seemingly, this was a proper instinct for many to have acted upon at the time given the apparent seriousness of the threat as well as, what had been until then, the public’s general impression that the medical scientific community (and respective bureaucracies) were much more reliable compared to so many of our other institutions which have, more transparently, failed us.
Unlike your typical mainstream journalist or congressperson, the bar for joining the credentialed class of STEM scientists is typically pretty high. This typically more rigorous training, which tended to be highly competitive, as well as the public perception that scientists are candid seekers of truth who disdain dogma and prefer skepticism, free inquiry, and candid debate, reasonably lends credentialed STEM scientists and the institutions they represent a degree of trust that is hard to come by for many other institutions and their representatives.
Naively, it’s also more reasonable to assume that scientists, driven by their pursuit of truth and guided by the above named scientific values are different, inherently more trustworthy people than, say, politicians or financiers who we tend to think of as being significantly more motivated by avarice and other baser impulses. Science, being a more recent development of our species, points to, and has made the best use of, our higher-order nature, as opposed to activities such as politics and warfare that are more reflective of our primal nature.
Science, and scientists, have thus succeeded in achieving that high degree of public credibility that eludes so many of our other highly impactful institutions. It would be a shame and a great tragedy, therefore, if those who are responsible for conducting and safeguarding science, as well as communicating their findings and policy recommendations to decision-makers in a democracy, were to betray this public trust.
The Varieties of Scientists’ Motivating Factors
This may come as a surprise to some, but for some time now many things relating to science have shifted away from being dispassionate searches for the truth and towards other, less elevated, aims. To be sure, status and reputation have long been important drivers, especially among many (though not all) great scientists. Famously, James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, made no bones about his being motivated by the chance to win the Nobel Prize, as well as by “a desire to know.” His co-discoverer Francis Crick, on the other hand, claims to have not been motivated by winning the prize at all.
All of this is to say that scientists are indeed human and can be motivated to pursue great science by various personal factors besides loftier aims. Among the baser (though in many instances legitimate) drives are the desire to get hired, to win funding grants (i.e., to stay hired), to get tenure, to earn the recognition and admiration of one’s peers, to attain a higher social status, or to influence power.
There is no stronger aversion to considering the possibility that these factors might play a significant role in motivating scientists than among members of the scientific community itself. Scientists will certainly act on these drives, but discussing these openly (particularly the ones later listed) is very much taboo. Scientists recognize their hard-earned image in the public mind, understand the usefulness of this ideal, and loathe any insinuation that they may not be living up to it.
I recall numerous instances during my graduate school career where I would attempt to bring up the possibility that scientists are, like any other human, fallible. I was always impressed by the indignant reactions such a consideration would regularly bring from my colleagues. Many genuinely wanted to believe, and wanted everyone else to believe, in their own infallibly virtuous nature (in relation to their motives); especially relative to the laity.
These sorts of experiences made clear to me the degree to which scientists were invested in maintaining for themselves, and for the broader public, this ideal of the dispassionate, always virtuous, and ever infallible scientist; and of a worrisome blind-spot that could easily be exploited in order to undermine science itself.
That this hard-won reputation would ultimately be betrayed by the least scrupulous and most megalomaniacal of scientists seemed inevitable to me. No credential, and no amount of formal training or hard-earned expertise, can rid us of our human nature. The COVID-19 pandemic may not have been the first such betrayal, but it was surely the most brazen and devastating.
Medical Versus Other Scientists
It is no accident that the betrayal of science by science’s standard-bearers is principally contained within the medical sciences. It is important to make clear, what should already be an obvious point, that medical science is a world of difference away from, say, my own area of expertise—physics. I mention this because when the general public thinks of science, or of a scientist, it may not meaningfully distinguish between these disparate fields according to their distinct methodologies and various other substantive differences. It is important to keep in mind that, while science is dragging itself through the mud lately, certain fields, in particular the medical sciences, are mostly responsible for the soiling of the good name of science (in the public mind) more than others, despite this cost being borne by all other scientists as well.
The general public isn’t, however, alone in failing to meaningfully distinguish between disparate disciplines. It certainly doesn’t help that many scientists will, despite belonging to distinct scientific disciplines, feel a certain kinship with their fellow scientists across disciplines. Many who are susceptible to this sort of herd instinct will tend to feel personally insulted when any scientist is doubted by the uninitiated, or they will feel the need to come to the defense of scientists outside of their own discipline in a show of solidarity with those who share their identity as a scientist. It should go without saying how this sort of a tendency can be exploited to marshal scientists’ energies in defense of causes about which they may be as ignorant about as the common man on the street.
Without getting into too many details regarding the substantive differences between the various scientific disciplines, it is important to appreciate the vast difference in rigor, particularly as it pertains to predictive power. When physicists were needed to urgently produce the world’s first atomic bomb, whether the physicists’ efforts and understanding would be validated came down to a single moment: the Trinity test. As with the medical community’s COVID response, the Manhattan Project consisted of a considerable effort on the part of scientists and the federal government. The ability to easily determine the success or failure of the Manhattan Project came down to the intrinsically exacting nature of that science’s predictive power, given the phenomena it studies.
Medical science cannot (understandably) meaningfully compete with these sorts of expectations and so it inherently lends itself to significantly greater degrees of uncertainty which, in turn, and combined with the fact that its efforts will involve considerable interventions into people’s personal (e.g., economic, religious, etc.) lives, lends itself to greater interpretation, doubt, misinterpretation, and abuse.
The Medical Establishment’s Failed COVID-19 Response
Like a powder keg, everything came to a head with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when our country’s medical experts rushed:
to continue to exaggerate the efficacy of cloth masks and to make continued demands for their use long after their relative uselessness had become well established
the use of ventilators before realizing their potentially harmful effects, not because they may have been necessary to save lives, but because they may have been viewed by medical professionals as a way to reduce transmissibility of the virus among medical staff
to exaggerate the threat of COVID for those under the age of 65, and who are not afflicted by relevant comorbidities
to employ this exaggerated threat of COVID to mandate admittedly inefficacious mask-wearing for children: simultaneously our least vulnerable (with respect to their capacity to suffer severe consequences from a COVID infection) and our most vulnerable (with respect to the harmful effects on their mental and social development) population
to knowingly exaggerate the efficacy of the various COVID vaccines with respect to their ability to:
prevent infection from the virus
inhibit the virus’s transmissibility
reduce the severity of an infected person’s symptoms (for those under the age of 65 and not suffering from relevant comorbidities)
to recommend to policymakers that they mandate what they knew to be (most generously) unnecessary COVID vaccines and boosters for those under the age of 65 and who are not afflicted by relevant comorbidities
to exaggerate the efficacy of the various COVID vaccines relative to immunity acquired from natural infection, and to downplay the effectiveness of the latter in reducing the severity of symptoms experienced during reinfection
to attempt to shut down any investigation, and to censor any debate, concerning the possible origin of the COVID-19 outbreak at an institute of virology (located in the virus’s known city of origin) known to perform controversial gain-of-function research on SARS-related coronaviruses. The Chinese Wuhan Institute of Virology had previously received American grant funding to perform this kind of research from Francis Collins’s National Institute of Health and Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Funds were passed through Peter Daszak’s NIH grant AI110864, and Peter Hotez’s NIH grant AI098775. Every entity just named has denied their involvement.
to absue their status as experts to pseudoscientifically insinuate that, despite their overall eagerness for enforcing draconian COVID policies, lax policies should be permitted in order to prioritize “opposition to racism as vital to the public health”
I can’t help but to quote more extensively the extent of the brazenness of this final point’s bizarre absurdity:
“…as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators’ ability to gather and demand change. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders.”
As many have already pointed out, if there ever was a moment when our community of medical experts (and by association the scientific community) lost most of their credibility, it was during this latter episode. Scientists’ brazen flouting of basic common sense, on such a serious matter, in order to serve a particular political interest (whose interests at the time seemed orthogonal to those that the scientific community had been aggressively advocating for) was one insult too many and likely the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It would be bad enough if our medical establishment had merely transgressed in the ways outlined above. Tragically, they compounded the erosion of public trust in science by recruiting our nation’s already discredited mainstream news media to be their enablers. The latter, motivated to never challenging our credentialed elites, embraced their role as their mouthpieces, always eager to propagandize on their behalf. Leading COVID bureaucrats incessantly frequented cable news seeking to sway public opinion towards accepting their various, ever more controversial, dictates.
Merely selling their ideas on cable TV, however, wasn’t enough. Establishment medical experts (and their media enablers) needed to demonize dissenters who they derided and maligned as being anti-science conspiracy theorists. This approach is unbecoming even when it’s aimed at the general public, but it’s truly galling when heterodox colleagues are also being publicly shamed and slandered. I personally can’t think of many things more discrediting to science than for scientists to resort to such lazy smears and manipulative language games against their professional colleagues. This approach is not only not a part of any science’s methodology, as far as I am aware, it’s also antithetical to the spirit of science.
As an aside, it’s hard for me to imagine physicists or chemists resorting to such sophomoric means in an information war (i.e. publicly targeting their own colleagues in the way medical professionals have recently done), or aiming to convert much of the public toward taking their side on pretty much any issue. Granted, this isn’t necessarily because physicists and chemists happen to be better, more polite people, but because these subjects do not affect public policy in the same way that medical science has, and controversies in physics and chemistry are (as discussed above) inherently easier to settle.
In any case, the devastating effect of weaponizing the mainstream media on behalf of a scientific discipline (to say nothing of how US intelligence and security agencies work behind the scenes with big tech and NGOs to censor disfavored voices and content, see The Twitter Files revelations for more) was to turn society against itself, and to turn large portions of society against science. Those who took the side of the experts were gaslit into accepting anti-scientific (as in, against the ethos of science) means in support of certain scientific claims. Many credible dissenters, themselves scientists, are now ironically suspected by many of being traitors to science, despite their being the targets of essentially anti-scientific smear campaigns by their scientific colleagues.
By heavily relying on an ever less reliable and trustworthy news media, scientists are, by association, putting gas on a fire that is burning down what remains of their precious credibility.
Nil Sanctum Estne?
Besides debasing themselves on cable news, scientists have also chosen to debase their (formerly reputable) scientific journals and magazines by publishing increasingly bizarre claims and stances. A quick Google search of the phrase “nature magazine covid misinformation” reveals the alarming extent of our credentialed expert’s obsession with policing and censoring disfavored views. Much of this literature, ironically, frames the issue as being existentially threatening and uses comically combative, confrontational, and aggressive hyperbole in making its point.
Scientific journals, apparently, no longer merely report the latest scientific findings, they now eagerly advocate for greater thought control, despite their glaring track record on some important issues. Even when they try to be fair and balanced, they can’t help but to pick a side. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to realize how transparently they are doing all of this.
A Shameless Cover-Up?
One thing that is certainly more discrediting to science than the use of either the mainstream or academic presses (once reputable institutions) to push ever more questionable and controversial demands on an already exhausted public, or the use of these (and social media) platforms to attempt to demonize and discredit dissenting colleagues, is for the world’s leading infectious disease experts to use the mainstream and academic presses to seemingly cover-up their complicity (and by association, the complicity of the world’s most powerful nations backing them) in:
Censoring any debate concerning the possible origin of the COVID-19 outbreak, either during the earliest stages of, and throughout, the pandemic.
Helping to fund controversial gain-of-function research on SARS-related coronaviruses at the Chinese Wuhan Institute of Virology, where we now know the earliest known cases of COVID-19 are likely to have emerged.
Relentlessly refusing to admit to, if not apologize for, their central role in spawning this entire mess is bad enough. Relentlessly refusing to acknowledge, if not apologize for, participating in a cover-up is doubly a cover-up.
In either case, the conduct of our top medical experts throughout this affair has been antithetical to the interests of science, serving only to degrade not only the public’s perception regarding the integrity of science, but the actual integrity of science.
You Are Not Worthy
“If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we are up for grabs for the next charlatan… who comes ambling along.” — Carl Sagan
Having paraded themselves around cable news, effectively shaming the public into submitting to their progressively imposing demands, establishment medical professionals proceeded to compound their ignominy by popularizing among themselves (and among a sycophantic intelligentsia) the peculiar, even conspiratorial, notion that it is not merely unwise but, anti-scientific for scientists to engage with the public on scientific matters in anything but the least challenging, and most charitable of settings.
This is yet another disconcerting example of how today’s scientific establishment is turning scientific virtues (namely, curiosity and candid debate) into vices and vice versa. It is, however, entirely consistent with the tragic spirit of our times of turning everything on its head.
Given the various transgressions we’ve already outlined, their catastrophic consequences on the lives of millions, and the attendant loss of scientific integrity that these have revealed, many have understandably started asking important questions in search of greater clarity, if not accountability. This is because the public intuitively understands what many prominent scientists seem to have lamentably forgotten, namely that “progress is the exploration of our own error.”
But doing the latter would require a level of self-reflection that many of today’s prominent scientists, ironically, seem constitutionally incapable of. This only makes sense if we acknowledge that scientists, too, are human. Fallible creatures that they are, some scientists, seemingly, would rather knowingly risk further discrediting science in order to save face.
Beyond this, there must be a growing awareness among medical establishment (and complicit media) figures that, as the public becomes more aware of the extent of the former’s betrayal, pleas for amnesty may not be enough. Indeed, among those who are most aware of the extent of their own complicity, there must be a genuine sense of fear and insecurity that currently drives them.
Couching their disapproval of critical engagement with the public in terms of a righteous defense of science against an unwashed anti-science horde, however, is lazy, condescending, cynical, and essentially anti-scientific. That scientists should resort to further shaming the public (and their heterodox colleagues) over the latter’s understandable desire for more meaningful engagement merely reinforces the public’s perception that science and scientists are too far gone lost. Once again, the public feels understandably betrayed.
The Politicization of Science Will Be the Death of Science
If scientists in a democracy make important discoveries, and the public no longer continues to have faith in their discoveries, is the importance of those discoveries diminished? In a very meaningful sense, yes. The discoveries may correspond to reality but, if the public no longer supports them, then those discoveries become less impactful. On this point, I doubt there is disagreement between myself and those I’ve spent this entire piece criticizing.
The question then becomes: what leads the public to reserve greater skepticism for scientists, for their discoveries, and for science itself? Those who I criticize will undoubtedly point to things like misinformation and disinformation. The problem with these, however, is that the nature of what constitutes them may be subjectively determined and depend on a variety of factors such as the sources of information, the nature (e.g., completeness) of the evidence presented, and the biases of the informer and informee. Another popular explanation is to point to one’s political affiliation, yet this too runs into a similar problem regarding the subjectivity and biases afflicting subject and object.
At the start of the pandemic, the public was mostly inclined to view our scientific and medical establishments as consisting of highly competent and incorruptible individuals and institutions, and with good reason. Science has built up an incomparable legacy of success throughout the past four centuries. Most of the public had conditioned itself to giving scientists the benefit of the doubt.
What today’s cadre of medical experts loathe to consider is the very real (and sensible) possibility that their own actions may be, not only partially but mostly responsible for the public’s loss of trust in them and their institutions. On a human level, it’s easy to appreciate why anyone might wish to rebuff such a consideration, as our worst transgressors tend to do.
On the other hand, such a loss of confidence resulting from the abject intolerance for substantive critiques, the vitriolic rhetoric employed in denouncing critics, the ironic projections, the shameless appeals to authority, elitist’s sycophancy demonstrated towards experts, the mass confusion generated regarding what should constitute proper science, the public shaming of credible (and reputable) dissenters, the refusal to acknowledge mistakes, the doubling down after errors (in judgment, and scientific) have been clearly identified, the arrogance, the condescension, and the cynicism towards the public and dissenting colleagues and, the glaring fear, insecurity, and cowardice on the part of our credentialed scientific elites has likely done more to undermine science than any genuine conspiracy theory ever has.
In a genuine sense, most of the shortcomings just listed reflect the essence of what constitutes anti-science. They betray the fundamental values underlying the ethos of science mentioned at the start of this piece, because they are rooted in arrogance.
Scientists who encourage and embrace these anti-scientific means not only work to undermine science, but our social cohesion as well, which in turn risks undermining our civilization. This is partly because science’s foundational values of free inquiry, disdain for dogma, skepticism, and candid debate are also cornerstones of any healthy democracy.
Inescapably, democracy is also characterized by politics. To be sure, politics resides within science as well but, depending on the scientific discipline, it tends mostly to remain contained internally. As was already mentioned, however, the less rigorous sciences whose findings tend to be relied on to inform public policy (e.g., economics) have demonstrated a capacity for exogenous political engagement.
These days, such engagement is not limited to official public policy pronouncements. Instead, credentialed representatives for these disciplines frequently interact with the public, either directly via social media or indirectly via sympathetic intermediaries. The nature of these interactions is reciprocal and so broader political considerations have a potent means of influencing scientist’s attitudes, besides scientists having their own predilections.
Politics is characterized by hypocrisy. Scientists are certainly capable of behaving hypocritically. Unlike democracy, however, science should never allow itself to be characterized by either politics or hypocrisy, though it is currently in danger of doing so.
Hypocrisy is why the public trusts our political institutions least (right next to TV news, unsurprisingly). It would be a tragic shame if science were to one day find itself appearing near the bottom of these polls, right next to congress and TV news. That would be a fall from grace like none other.
Unlike congress and TV news, science has much more of a legacy to get by on, for now. Science’s credit is currently declining, however, due to its reckless reputational mismanagement on the part of belligerent, rogue actors in medicine and their establishment enablers.
The solution to all of these problems is simple to understand, though not necessarily simple to implement or to realize. It involves a return to humility. In our increasingly politicized world, this may be a lot to ask of science’s worst betrayers. Given the public’s betrayal by the latter, it would seem necessary for responsible scientists to at least acknowledge, and apologize for, their various transgressions. Without these basic gestures to start, confidence in science on the part of many cannot, understandably, be restored.
Most importantly, while many of us choose to believe in an objective reality that science aims to elucidate, scientific truth is only ever tentative. Scientists should at least understand this perspective and never assume, or project, any gnostic-like attitudes. Should such arrogance and hypocrisy persist within science, then science will be as good as dead and whatever remains that still calls itself by that name will have been the culprit.
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