Scientific Truth and Political Reconciliation
April 26, 2022
Contains ideas some readers may find offensive.
Between 1948 and 1994, South Africa suffered under apartheid, which treated 'whites' as superior to 'blacks', and maintained a state of segregation by force for decades. Under this brutal regime, South Africa's police force routinely tortured political dissidents and caused the violent deaths of a distressing number of black people. When this repressive government fell after the release and election of Nelson Mandela, the country faced an immense challenge: how could it rebuild trust between its citizens? Their solution was a 'truth and reconciliation' commission, which listened to the tragedies suffered and invited those who had endured the worst human rights abuses to testify. The commission offered amnesty from prosecution to all who came forth to speak the truth about what had happened under apartheid. South Africa rebuilt trust between its citizenry through pursuit of the truth, which fostered reconciliation between those who had once been enemies.
We too now stand in need of truth and reconciliation. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the world experienced its greatest catastrophe since the Second World War. Like that dreadful conflict, this disaster flowed forth from human technological advancement. The war in the 1940s was facilitated by the creation of tanks, planes, bombs, and advanced weaponry, culminating in the detonation of nuclear bombs. In one version of the many stories being told about the ruinous events we just endured, they were initiated by genetic tinkering with a bat virus and accelerated by a rash attempt to deny that a research lab was responsible. Whatever the truth about its origins, the crisis reached its calamitous apex through a witch's brew of psychological 'nudging', the polarising effects of social media, and the negligent substitution of computer modelling for empirical evidence. Citizens were turned against one another, segregation and subjugation was maintained by force in nations who had previously sworn to uphold the rights of their citizens, and a great many people died who need not have died - from both the disease and the measures deployed against it.
It will do no good to simply shrug and mutter 'public health', as if this abject failure of scientific process, medical safeguarding, human rights law, international aid, academic credibility, and journalistic integrity could simply be waved away by invoking this phrase. Public health, in the sense this term has traditionally been used, represents an alliance between medical research and political goodwill. Its effectiveness rests upon the trust that citizens have in the agencies which pursue collective health benefits for its citizens. When that trust fails, public health falls with it, as I argued last week in Decolonising Public Health. By choosing to align public health goals with political partisanship, rather than scientific evidence, we shattered the very conditions for good public health policy.
When the measures justified by those in charge of public health messaging are based upon political allegiance rather than due scientific process, we are no longer dealing with medicine as we have traditionally understood it. 'First do no harm' is an impossible principle when definitions of 'harm' fall out along partisan lines, for what one faction declares as essential will appear to their opponents as a cause of great harm, a situation we have already faced for half a century over abortion. Once this factional state of affairs infects medical discourse, 'public health' ceases to be either scientifically or ethically justified, and becomes instead an excuse for the anxious fears of the citizenry to manifest in authoritarian repression against those who do not share that terror.
As with South Africa, truth and reconciliation offers a possible path out of this disaster. Yet this route is blocked until we can admit the extent of our failure. This is something political partisans are largely incapable of doing, for at all times the origin of every problem belongs to the others, and it is their refusal to accept our arguments that we blame for everything that goes wrong as a consequence. We are blameless, because our politics defend the good whereas their politics are confused, ignorant, even barbaric... Not only public health, but scientific truth itself is endangered by this chasm of self-valorisation. Far from the twentieth first century becoming the golden age of achievement imagined by the science fiction writers, we have instead driven into the shadows the open debate that is central to good science.
This did not, however, begin with the SARS-CoV-2 debacle... On 17th January 2003, the best-selling author of Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton, delivered a blistering address at Caltech attacking the relatively new trend of declaring 'scientific consensus'. Crichton considered this development "pernicious", and all such claims of consensus as "the first refuge of scoundrels... a way to avoid debate by claiming the matter is already settled." He made his argument forcefully and coherently:
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.
Crichton observed that whenever consensus is evoked, it is a sign of weakness. Nobody says that the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2 or that the sun is 93 million miles away - it does not even occur to anyone to make such assertions. Rather, consensus is claimed solely in those situations where 'bad' science is deployed to support 'good' policy - Crichton's chosen examples are nuclear winter and second-hand smoke. He included in this accusation global warming - the old name for climate change - drawing attention to the way that this subject relies far more upon computer models than empirical evidence. He noted that the renowned theoretical physicist Richard Feynman suggested to him that this obsession with computer modelling was a disease. Crichton offers a stark warning: "Our models just carry the present into the future. They’re bound to be wrong. Everybody who gives a moment’s thought knows it."
The concerns raised by Crichton in 2003 depressingly foreshadow the crisis that followed within a few scant decades. He presciently pointed a finger of blame at journalists, remarking that when even the most distinguished news providers cease to differentiate between factual content and editorial opinion, who is left that can hold anyone to any standard of truth...? Neither was Crichton's talk merely a diagnosis of the problem - on the contrary, he provided quite practical suggestions for how to defend research processes from political influence by pooling funding, thus reducing incentives to produce pre-specified conclusions. He also suggested separating decisions concerning how to gather data from the acquisition of that data, while ensuring that independent verification of evidence is always a priority.
We did not listen, and disaster followed as inexorably as the plot of one of Crichton's sci-fi disaster novels. The monsters would not remain inside their pens.
Now the very fact that climate change (in its old branding as 'global warming') is mentioned by Crichton in his speech is likely to raise some hackles. The fact I will extend this accusation to include community masking, lockdown policies, and blanket vaccination with incompletely-tested mRNA treatments will only make this resistance more ardent. Yet everybody who has a kneejerk emotional reaction here will almost certainly belong to just one side of the political spectrum. Let's call them the 'blue team', after the colour representing this faction in the United States. I note that in the UK, the corresponding party uses red as its colour, and elsewhere perhaps there may be countries sufficiently civilised to support more than two primary colours for its factions. But for simplicity, let's treat these divisions as 'blue versus red'.
Let's look at two competing hypotheses. The 'blue science is the best' hypothesis is that on climate change, face masks, lockdowns, and speculative vaccination, the blue team got all the correct answers because they had the best science. That's why they didn't need to gather evidence in support of community masking, why it was unnecessary to complete vaccine safety trials, and why climate change is indisputable, debate on the topic is forbidden, and Google is justified in demonetizing websites reporting inconvenient satellite data. This hypothesis is self defeating, as it claims that the best science is achieved neither by gathering evidence nor by debating the meaning of that evidence, and these activities are undeniably the quintessential elements of good scientific practice.
The competing 'red science must be silenced' hypothesis is that because universities in the United States gradually veered ever further into a political bias for hiring blue researchers, the research communities steadily became more and more polarised, thus disrupting effective pushback on live research topics. As a result, criticisms began to come mainly from red scientists who were largely outside of these universities. Frustration with these clashes led to the blue-aligned universities refusing discussion on scientific matters, justified all-too-conveniently by claiming that the science was beyond dispute, exactly as Crichton accused. The research community became so one-sided as to fail to pursue good scientific practice since no disagreements could be tolerated.
I note, as is so rarely admitted, that the fact that the 'blue science is best' hypothesis is internally self-defeating provides no evidence whatsoever as to the status of the 'red science must be silenced' hypothesis. This mistake, 'you're wrong and therefore I am right' appears to have been the main way that support for community masking went from being justified as a precautionary measure on weak evidence, to being self-evidently true, despite so few high-quality studies being commissioned. Worse, even among those that were commissioned, such as the DANMASK-19 study, results were simply ignored if they did not reach the desired result. The CDC website expressly informs readers that it doesn't count this key study, while accepting anecdotal studies of much lower quality that happen to align with its prior conclusions. The CDC neglects to provide an explanation for why it was not capable of commissioning its own random-controlled studies, something that it is inconceivable to claim a well-funded federal agency could not have done.
In other words, on all these topics from climate change onwards, a pre-existing political division infected scientific discourse and drove it into the state of pseudoscience where debate about the evidence could not happen - or more accurately, was not permitted. In the case of climate change, a valid (but difficult to quantify) claim about humanity's effect on the atmosphere was ludicrously inflated into undeniable certainty in a hopelessly ineffective attempt to strong-arm the red team into caring about the environment. In the case of community masking and lockdowns, anger that the red team wasn't willing to do anything and everything proposed to save lives obscured the fact that the actions being proposed were only ever hypothetically capable of saving lives. The actual scientific work to determine what was or was not effective at reducing the mortality burden of SARS-CoV-2 was, for the most part, never on the table - and even when it was, results were ignored if they did not support the 'correct' team, which is to say, the blue team.
If this argument is accepted - and obviously this will prove difficult for those on the blue team - it reveals that the state of pseudoscience has become a self-inflicted wound on scientific discourse, a wilful refusal to engage in the debate that has always played the most crucial role in the process of determining scientific truth. Experiments are never self-explanatory. They require interpretation, and this requires discussion. Seeing this, it becomes clearer why we are encountering more and more outbreaks of the state of pseudoscience, why media corporations like the BBC, Facebook, and Google could turn so swiftly and unwisely to censorship to defend positions that they rashly claimed were beyond dispute, and why the worst respiratory epidemic since 1968 turned into the worst cybernetic disaster since World War II - killing a great many people who did not need to die, bankrupting vast numbers of small businesses for no good reason at all, disrupting education for an entire generation of children, and destroying democracy and health care in Africa in the worst incident of colonial medicine the world has yet endured.
It has been over a year now since my wife and I began writing to our representatives to put forth the case for truth and reconciliation. We see this as a vital step towards repairing the social damage unleashed by the mishandling of SARS-CoV-2. But we are not surprised we have never truly been heard, since it is unthinkable that political parties will give up the leverage that springs from blame. The US midterm elections roll around later this year, and knives are already being sharpened for the 'enquiries' (inquisitions?) that will arrive in its wake. But this quest for retribution is as futile as it would have been for South Africa in the wake of apartheid. Mandela and his allies understood that what was required to rebuild the fabric of their nation was restorative justice, an attempt to make right what went wrong by assembling the truth of the horrors that had been inflicted, and thus reconciling the opposing factions such that they might share a future together.
Our own need for truth and reconciliation goes beyond trying to restore peace in the wake of our insane overreaction to the genuine harms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. While it might be desirable to seek restorative justice in this regard, the greater issue is that legitimate public health policies have been rendered unobtainable by the state of pseudoscience. Even the possibility of establishing scientific truth has been blocked. The equivalent issue in climate science is arguably less serious by comparison, since while this fiasco might have driven us into this miserable corner, we still have time to address these particular problems by renewing scientific debate on environmental topics. The damage from making scientifically-informed public health impossible is far more immediate and too often irreversible. People have already been negligently killed, and many more will die if we cannot fix this problem.
What is the alternative to truth and reconciliation in public health? Shall we lurch between 'blue science' and 'red science' as the election cycle progresses...? Mandatory injection of incompletely tested vaccines while the blue team is in charge, then the collapse of vaccination programmes when the elected seats turn red? This is not a public health policy anyone could consider sensible, regardless of where you stand on vaccination or human rights, although I note that (contrary to the beliefs of the blue team), the red team is not against vaccination, they're just not as fanatical about it as the blues. What makes public health even conceivable as a policy is that scientific truth is supposed to transcend political divisions. The moment we begin making health laws on partisan grounds, the cause of public health itself becomes mortally wounded, if it is not already a rotting corpse. This is the madness of 'consensus science', which is Crichton's name for the state of pseudoscience, the abandonment of scientific discourse. We might just as well talk of consensus pseudoscience, for it is the truth of the matter.
Recovering scientific truth will require some degree of political reconciliation. It is quite unthinkable that we shall reconcile every issue that divides the red and blue teams... some of these political differences are fundamental, and will remain that way for decades, maybe even centuries. But on both public health and climate change, sustaining the limbo of consensus pseudoscience is beyond hopeless. It is to willingly choose catastrophe simply because we are too stubborn, too belligerent, and too unforgiving to engage in the cultural disarmament necessary to restore the trust required for collective public health and practical environmental policies.
Consensus pseudoscience ought to be unacceptable to anyone, but because far too many of us have faith in magical science, we accept ideology in place of methodology, and dogma over discourse. Gladly do we lay blame at the feet of our political opponents for everything that went wrong over the last two years. After all we did the right thing... even though nobody could possibly have ever known what the right thing was, because there was never any open scientific discourse to establish whatever that might have been! Yet still we cheered on as the media corporations censored every disagreement, championing pseudoscience as if it were something noble rather than an abject and murderous nonsense.
Many on the blue team, including former US President Barack Obama, seem to believe we still don't have enough censorship, effectively demanding further intensification of consensus pseudoscience. Obama is at least proposing greater scrutiny of social media algorithms, albeit solely by government... Forgive my inevitable concern about who is to watch the watchers watching the watchers. Further suppression of discourse will just lead to greater partisanship, making our situation even worse. The red and blue teams may have marched into this scientific disaster as bitter enemies, but if we are to escape from it, we will need to do it together. Let no-one take pride in having fought under the banner of public health while recklessly abandoning any legitimate scientific basis for what was demanded. Instead, let us collectively accept the shame of our mutual failure, and somehow commit to a reconciliation that might make collective public health a viable possibility once again.
There is much to be done if we are to rediscover our gift for scientific investigation, and recover the conditions that make public health something other than colonial oppression. We cannot afford to let corporations claim safety and efficacy on data they will not share openly, much less can we permit regulatory bodies to cherry-pick what counts as evidence. Neither can we afford to hinder collective plans for sustainability by substituting ideological certainty for open debate of climate data, as if the mark of good science was deciding what to censor. We need to bring an end to sheltering our muddled faith in magical science, and abandon the mistaken belief that unequivocal support for scientific salvation is beneficial. Our slender comprehension of the mysteries of the universe will be entirely undone by anything that fosters the state of pseudoscience - regardless of whether this disruption emerges from partisanship or censorship. Every attempt to silence debate is a betrayal of knowledge itself.
There are futures that may yet come to pass where our love of scientific knowledge is secured by a resolute commitment to transparency and debate. We must cultivate a far greater appreciation of the unavoidable fact that every science is a discourse where diversity and disagreement is a gift to treasure, not a curse to strike down in anger. The truth is something we can assemble together, but first we must remember how to talk to those who disagree with us. For that to happen, our sole hope is rebuilding the labyrinthine pathways that flow towards scientific truth through an unprecedented act of cultural disarmament and political reconciliation. It is my hope that, like the South Africans of 1994, we are worthy of seeking this future together.
The opening image is Reconciliation 2 by Lloyd Hornsby. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
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