Here’s a paradox. Over the past two-and-a-half years, a cadre of senior politicians and their “expert” advisors across the world have successfully promoted a series of controversial public policies by claiming they’re based on “the science” rather than a particular moral or ideological vision. I’m thinking of lockdowns and net zero in particular. Yet at the same time, this group has engaged in behavior that has undermined public confidence in science. Why appeal to the authority of science to win support for a series of politically contentious policies — and then diminish its authority?
Take Anthony Fauci, for instance, who recently announced he’s stepping down as chief medical advisor to Joe Biden. Even though he once claimed to “represent science” in the eyes of the American people, he misled them about the likely duration of the lockdowns (“fifteen days to slow the spread”), overstated the efficacy of the Covid vaccines when they were first rolled out, refused to countenance the possibility that Covid-19 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (it later emerged that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, under his leadership, had given a grant to the EcoHealth Alliance, which helped fund “gain-of-function” research at the Chinese lab) and conspired with other prominent scientists, such as Francis Collins, to besmirch the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration (“There needs to be a quick and devastating published takedown of its premises,” Collins told Fauci in an email). A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal concluded: “His legacy will be that millions of Americans will never trust government health experts in the same way again.”
Another case in point is a recent editorial in Nature Human Behaviour, one of several journals in the Nature Research stable, the world’s pre-eminent publisher of scientific research. “Although academic freedom is fundamental, it is not unbounded,” it begins, and then proceeds to set out rules that future academic papers will have to comply with in addition to meeting all the usual standards for publication, e.g. peer review. It says the journal won’t publish articles that might cause “potential harms” (even “inadvertently”) to individuals or groups that are most vulnerable to “racism, sexism, ableism or homophobia.” “Academic content that undermines the dignity or rights of specific groups; assumes that a human group is superior or inferior over another simply because of a social characteristic; includes hate speech or denigrating images; or promotes privileged, exclusionary perspectives raises ethics concerns that may require revisions or supersede the value of publication,” it says.
It should be obvious that far from being politically neutral, these rules embody a particular ideology and in future the truthfulness of a scientific finding will be subordinate to this perspective. To see this, you just need to do a simple thought experiment, as Bo Winegard has done in Quillette. Imagine, he says, if this editorial had been written by political conservatives who announced that “any research promoting (even ‘inadvertently’) promiscuous sex, the breakdown of the nuclear family, agnosticism and atheism, or the decline of the nation state, would be suppressed or rejected lest it inflict unspecified ‘harm’ on vaguely defined groups or individuals.” Those progressive scientists applauding Nature Human Behaviour would throw up their arms in horror and point out – correctly — that these rules are at odds with one of the foundational principles of science, which is to pursue the truth, wherever it may lead.
This editorial is a disaster from the point of view of closet ideologues who want to appeal to the authority of science to promote lockdowns and net zero, including, I suspect, its authors. After all, the reason rhetorical phrases like “the science” are supposed to win round those who are skeptical about these policies — conservatives, for the most part — is that they invoke a popular conception of scientists as politically neutral, disinterested “experts” who are basing their guidance on reason and evidence, uncontaminated by value judgments. Yet here is a group of senior scientific gatekeepers announcing that the only knowledge that will count as “scientific” is that which promotes their agenda. It’s as if they’re saying that scientific research unconstrained by this progressive straitjacket, i.e. science as conventionally understood, will yield results that are incompatible with their radical egalitarian agenda and so ought to be suppressed. In other words, “the science” is actually at odds with their political views.
How to explain this own goal? As I say, it’s a head-scratcher.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.