Scientific Skepticism in the Age of COVID
Scientific skepticism was the foundation of the enlightenment and the launchpad for the age of reason. We know we can trust the scientific process as a pathway to knowledge. But science is not perfect, especially right now. We have every reason to be skeptical about information circulating, wrapped in the comforting blanket of “science” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Science operates best when it chugs away behind the scenes, never resting, methodically testing ideas in the competitive arena of academia, tethered by rigorous peer review. But in the frantic environment of a global pandemic, many of the constraints on science are removed, and that is both understandable and acceptable, as long as we understand what is happening.
The “science” information circulating on COVID-19 is not pure. There are three main factors that fundamentally weaken public communications about science during this pandemic: the rush for breakthroughs on a vaccine and effective treatments, the politicization of science, and the commercialization of science.
In the rush for breakthroughs on a COVID-19 vaccine and effective treatments, the normal checks on science are removed. Studies with clear methodological weakness that would normally be challenged and caught during the peer review process, are published and reported by news media as “promising new breakthroughs.”
The best example of this is probably the comprehensive study published in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet. The article was subsequently withdrawn by the authors after strong protests from scientists around the world.
Much of the “science” we are presented with in the news is also heavily politicized. For example, at the very end of March, Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer told Canadians “there is no need to use a mask for well people.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S., gave Americans the same advice: “You don’t need to wear a mask.” Dr. Fauci has since retracted that advice, admitting that his goal was to protect the limited supply of masks for frontline healthcare workers at the time, clearly superseding basic science.
The benefits of mask use continue to be misrepresented by “experts” and the media. There are three benefits of wearing a mask during this pandemic. One, it limits the spread of the virus by infected people. Two, it provides some protection for anyone who may be exposed to the virus. And three, a mask can limit the inoculum (the virus load) you receive if you are exposed, which gives your immune system a chance to respond to a smaller infection before the disease takes hold.
Money also plays a big role in public communications about science during a pandemic. You can be certain that Big Pharma, the commercial labs working on vaccines and treatments are ecstatic over the profits should they achieve a COVID-19 breakthrough. But non-commercial and less commercial labs also need funding to do their research and continue with expensive and comprehensive studies as they track towards possible breakthroughs. All of this commercial pressure leads to a level of hyperbole in public announcements about their work.
So when you hear a news announcer say something like “Scientists say they’ve made an encouraging breakthrough in COVID-19 vaccine research,” of course be hopeful. But understand the environment in which that “scientific” information is circulating, and apply a healthy level of skepticism.
My go-to mantra on this is a piece of advice Christopher Hitchens offered the skeptical thinker: “Picture all experts as if they are mammals.”