Like other academics, I first became aware of John Ioannidis through his influential 2005 paper That essay was widely praised as a salutary reminder from one scientist to his fellows of the need for their field to be self-critical. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Ioannidis would become far more widely known, this time for expressing skepticism about some of the scientific claims being made about the virus and the measures taken to deal with it. His warnings were in the same spirit as that of his earlier work, and presented in the same measured and reasonable manner – but this time . In , Ioannidis reflects on the damage that has been done to the norms of scientific research as politics has corrupted it during the pandemic.
The specific norms Ioannidis has in mind are, he says, “the Mertonian norms of communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism.” The reference is to an influential account of scientific method proposed by sociologist Robert Merton. Science should be communal in the sense that research ought to be communicated to and shared with all scientists. It should be universal in the sense of being judged by objective and impersonal criteria. It should be disinterested in the sense that research should be pursued for its own sake rather than for the purpose of promoting some political agenda or personal aggrandizement. It should be skeptical in the sense that scientists should make testable claims and welcome critical evaluations of their research.
Ioannidis notes several respects in which these norms have been violated over the last year and a half. I want to call attention to two of his points in particular: the deleterious role that social media have played, and the damage that the politicization of science has done to science itself and to public health.
The first is not entirely the fault of scientists. Over the course of the pandemic, people of all political persuasions have confidently asserted that “the science” says this or says that, when in fact most of them have not read what scientists themselves have written and wouldn’t know where to find it if they wanted to. Rather, what they know is what politicians and journalists have claimed about what “the science” says. Worse, they know the simplified versions of what politicians and journalists have said that they find at Twitter, Facebook, and the like. The doubly indirect nature of this knowledge of the scientific research already entails significant distortions. Politicians and journalists of all stripes have biases, lack relevant expertise, etc. and this inevitably distorts their presentation of scientific findings. And when their own presentations are reduced to sound bites by social media, there is bound to be further distortion.
But it’s worse even than that. For one thing, social media do not merely oversimplify complex issues. They – snap judgments, snark and one-upmanship in place of dispassionate debate, groupthink, and so on. And too many scientists active on social media have succumbed to these temptations, which erodes the Mertonian norm of disinterestedness. Ioannidis writes:
Anonymous and pseudonymous abuse has a chilling effect; it is worse when the people doing the abusing are eponymous and respectable. The only viable responses to bigotry and hypocrisy are kindness, civility, empathy, and dignity. However, barring in-person communication, virtual living and social media in social isolation are poor conveyors of these virtues.
End quote. Then there is the further distortion that follows from the political and financial interests that the owners of social media have in pushing certain scientific claims and censoring criticism of them. As Ioannidis says:
Big Tech companies, which gained trillions of dollars in cumulative market value from the virtual transformation of human life during lockdown, developed powerful censorship machineries that skewed the information available to users on their platforms… Organized skepticism was seen as a threat to public health. There was a clash between two schools of thought, authoritarian public health versus science – and science lost.
End quote. We are constantly told to “follow the science,” but what we are given is not science itself but science as reflected in the funhouse mirror of contemporary media. And everyone knows it. The Big Tech companies and their allies in science who bemoan the skepticism that non-experts show toward pandemic-related scientific claims largely have themselves to blame for it.
Regarding the damage that the politicization of science has done, Ioannidis says:
Politics had a deleterious influence on pandemic science. Anything any apolitical scientist said or wrote could be weaponized for political agendas. Tying public health interventions like masks and vaccines to a faction, political or otherwise, satisfies those devoted to that faction, but infuriates the opposing faction. This process undermines the wider adoption required for such interventions to be effective. Politics dressed up as public health not only injured science. It also shot down participatory public health where people are empowered, rather than obligated and humiliated.
End quote. The importance of these points cannot be overstated. Genuine science must of its nature be coolly dispassionate, appeal to our reason, and eschew partisanship. When you try to browbeat people into accepting some scientific claim, insult them for raising questions about it, loudly make a political statement out of adherence to it, etc., then you are inevitably only going to increase people’s doubts about its scientific status. For if it really had the evidence and the best arguments on its side, what need would there be for the pressure tactics?
Next to the enormous destruction caused by pointless lockdowns, the political factionalism Ioannidis refers to has been, in my view, the most depressing thing about the response to the virus. Almost from the beginning, both sides have been reacting more to each other than to the facts. Attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccines are the latest example. On the Left, some of the same people who were skeptical of the vaccines when Trump was in office and working to fast-track them are now insisting that everyone take them and condemn all reservations about them as unscientific. Some who indignantly claim to favor sovereignty over one’s body when abortion is in question now favor making the vaccines mandatory. Some of them talk as if unvaccinated people who get sick or die are getting what they deserve, though they would never show such hatefulness toward people who become ill as a result of or risky sexual behavior.
On the conservative side, some who had no problem with the vaccines when Trump was working to get them developed quickly now regard them as if they arose as part of a sinister left-wing plot. The Catholic Church has long taught that the use of vaccines developed using cell lines originally derived from aborted fetuses can be justifiable under certain circumstances. But some conservative Catholics, though they had no qualms about this teaching when it was , now claim that use of the COVID-19 vaccines necessarily conflicts with opposition to abortion – even though (as , , and and Catholic scholars have noted) the same reasoning that the Church endorsed under those earlier popes applies to the COVID-19 vaccines too. (My own view is that of the CDF – that use of the vaccines can be justifiable, but that they also ought to be voluntary. Catholic readers who suppose that the vaccines cannot be justified might want to read , , , and .)
Each side is, in my view, largely reacting in kneejerk fashion to the other. This is no more rational or defensible when right-wingers do it than when left-wingers do. However, it is the Left that dominates the commanding heights in academia, journalism, and popular culture. When the left politicizes science, as through , it has itself to blame for sparking a reaction and generating the skepticism about science that it decries.