Anthony Fauci and Mike Pence, March 31 2020 (The White House)

Which ‘Science’ Do You Believe?

The pandemic is killing the myth of The Science. But are we ready to embrace an uncertain reality?

This the fifth post in a series on the pandemic and its impact on progress and problem solving. In the , we looked at the crisis of expertise.

The pandemic challenges even the strongest enclaves of expertise. Our most respected universities and professions are under siege. Most disruptively, we’re learning that our most vaunted institution, The Science, doesn’t exist at all.

The Science is a figment of our collective imagination. It’s called whenever one needs an all-purpose statement of authority: We need decisions based on the science, the data, the facts. Similarly, when broad objections to sciences are levelled, they are frequently rooted in these same authoritarian terms. Merrill Matthews asked liberals, “Will someone please tell me which ‘science’ I am supposed to believe?” Rush Limbaugh was more pointed, remarking, “We didn’t elect a president to defer to a bunch of health experts that we don’t know. And how do we know they’re even health experts?”

This politicization challenges not only the public, but scientists as well. Vinay Prasad and Jeffrey Flier wrote, “Society faces a risk even more toxic and deadly than Covid-19: that the conduct of science becomes indistinguishable from politics.” Ironically, as the science wars become more desperate, the tactics are becoming increasingly unscientific.

In this hostile environment, scientists are generally reclusive and shun the public spotlight. But as always, the virus doesn’t care. The pandemic has thrust these reluctant heroes into the limelight and forced a multidisciplinary collaboration.

In the process, we’re learning The Science is in reality a diverse collection of activities. They generally share the same aim: to create good explanations of reality. And they may even share similar values and commitments, if not in their statements of what exists, then at least in the existence of an objective reality and the means to access it.

But The Science as an all-knowing oracle, a path to certain knowledge, is a fairy tale. In this time of crisis, we asked for knowledge and certainty. And we were all so disappointed when sciences answered with conjectures and criticism. In a commencement address, Chief Justice John Roberts said the pandemic “has pierced our illusion of certainty and control.”

It’s a false god. Uncertainty is not an impediment in the pursuit of progress. The stunning growth of knowledge and technology since science evolved is a testament to its power.

So why does science suffer these unrealistic expectations?

While human nature is often blamed, the nature of reality may be the true culprit. There’s always an infinity of knowledge that sciences don’t yet possess and this is a perpetual source of criticism and frustration.

As they get closer and closer to reality, sciences create unrecognizably strange explanations that defy common sense. They tell us the earth moves and that time and space are relative. They tell us that what we perceive through our senses is not what it seems. They tell us our minds can’t be trusted, let alone our traditions. In the process, many people have decided that sciences should not be trusted.

Science is unquestionably the most formidable and successful path to knowledge ever invented. But it relies on a delicate balance of conjecture and criticism. Theories must live together coherently and consistently, in rigorous chains of explanations. These explanatory and empirical demands make science exceedingly productive for discovering reality, but they also force science to move much slower and more deliberately than we might expect. The pandemic places even greater demands on the pace of science. Institutions are pressured to adopt more open and distributed methods of criticism and testing. 

They have certainly stepped up to the challenge. Against the backdrop of past efforts, the pace of science in this crisis has been remarkable: The cause of COVID-19 was quickly identified as a coronavirus. Its generic code was mapped and diagnostic tests proliferated. Clinical researchers investigated the pathology of the disease and clinicians refined their interventions. The various and terrible ways the disease ravages the human body have been elucidated.

This is progress. But sciences cannot create certainty. They live in a perpetual state of guesswork.

Even the most scientific people struggle to live in uncertainty. Certainty serves a psychological need we all share. And if certainty is unobtainable in reality, even for sciences, what does that suggest in the battle against misinformation, for the hearts and minds of reasonable people?

For what could be more certain than the facts? How can we pursue the truth if we can’t even agree on the facts? We’ll explore this topic in the .