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How science has been corrupted The pandemic has revealed a darkly authoritarian side to expertise

Increasingly, science is pressed into duty as authority. Kevin Frayer/Getty

Increasingly, science is pressed into duty as authority. Kevin Frayer/Getty


December 21, 2021   17 mins

When I was small, my father would conduct experiments around the house. When you blow across the top of a wine bottle, how many modes of vibration are there? How do you get the higher notes?

Another time, the matter under investigation might be the “angle of repose” of a pile of sand, as in an hour-glass. Does it depend on the particle size? On their shape? Do these factors determine the rate at which an hour-glass empties?

My favorite was the question of what technique will empty a jug of water fastest. Should you simply turn it upside down and let the air rush in (as it must, to replace the water) in that halting, glug-glug-glug fashion, or hold it at a gentler angle so the pour is unbroken? Answer: turn the jug upside down and swirl it vigorously to set up a whirlpool effect. This creates a hollow space at the centre of the flow, where air is free to enter. The jug will empty very quickly.

My father became famous for these “kitchen physics” experiments after he included assignments based on them in a textbook he wrote, published in 1968 and beloved by generations of physics students: Waves (Berkeley Physics Course, Vol. 3). My sister and I, aged two and five, are thanked in the acknowledgments for having surrendered our Slinkies to the cause.

 

He pursued such investigations, not simply as a pedagogical exercise, but to satisfy his own curiosity. And he made time for this even while working at the frontier of particle physics, in the lab of Louis Alvarez at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. This was fairly early on in the transition of the practice of science into “big science”.

Alvarez won the Nobel Prize in 1968 for his invention and use of the bubble chamber, an instrument for detecting particle decays. It was a device that would comfortably fit on a table top. Today you can build one yourself, if you like. But over the next few decades particle accelerators became enormous installations (CERN, SLAC) requiring the kind of real estate only governments and major institutions, indeed consortiums of institutions, can secure. Scientific papers came to have, not a handful of authors, but hundreds. Scientists became scientist-bureaucrats: savvy institutional players adept at getting government grants, managing sprawling workforces, and building research empires.

Inevitably, such an environment selected for certain human types, the kind who would find such a life appealing. A healthy dose of careerism and political talent was required. Such qualities are orthogonal, let us say, to the underlying truth-motive of science.

You can well imagine the appeal of getting back to basics for someone who was drawn to a scientific career when the prospect had a more intimate scale to it. Kitchen physics is about the pure intellectual refreshment of wondering about something that you observe in the world with your own unaided powers, and then investigating it. This is the basic image we have of what science is, immortalised in the anecdote of Galileo going up into the leaning tower of Pisa and dropping various objects to see how fast they fall.

Science as authority

In 1633, Galileo was brought before the Inquisition for his demonstration that the earth is not fixed but revolves around the sun. This was a problem, obviously, because the ecclesiastical authorities believed their legitimacy rested on a claim to have an adequate grasp of reality, as indeed it did. Galileo had no interest in being a martyr, and recanted to save his skin. But in the lore of Enlightenment, he is said to have muttered under his breath, “but it does move!”

This anecdote has a prominent place in the story we tell about what it means to be modern. On one side, science with its devotion to truth. On the other side, authority, whether ecclesiastical or political. In this tale, “science” stands for a freedom of the mind that is inherently at odds with the idea of authority.

The pandemic has brought into relief a dissonance between our idealised image of science, on the one hand, and the work “science” is called upon to do in our society, on the other. I think the dissonance can be traced to this mismatch between science as an activity of the solitary mind, and the institutional reality of it. Big science is fundamentally social in its practice, and with this comes certain entailments.

As a practical matter, “politicised science” is the only kind there is (or rather, the only kind you are likely to hear about). But it is precisely the apolitical image of science, as disinterested arbiter of reality, that makes it such a powerful instrument of politics. This contradiction is now out in the open. The “anti-science” tendencies of populism are in significant measure a response to the gap that has opened up between the practice of science and the ideal that underwrites its authority. As a way of generating knowledge, it is the pride of science to be falsifiable (unlike religion).

Yet what sort of authority would it be that insists its own grasp of reality is merely provisional? Presumably, the whole point of authority is to explain reality and provide certainty in an uncertain world, for the sake of social coordination, even at the price of simplification. To serve the role assigned it, science must become something more like religion.

The chorus of complaints about a declining “faith in science” states the problem almost too frankly. The most reprobate among us are climate sceptics, unless those be the Covid deniers, who are charged with not obeying the science. If all this has a medieval sound, it ought to give us pause.

We live in a mixed regime, an unstable hybrid of democratic and technocratic forms of authority. Science and popular opinion must be made to speak with one voice as far as possible, or there is conflict. According to the official story, we try to harmonise scientific knowledge and opinion through education. But in reality, science is hard, and there is a lot of it. We have to take it mostly on faith. That goes for most journalists and professors, as well as plumbers. The work of reconciling science and public opinion is carried out, not through education, but through a kind of distributed demagogy, or Scientism. We are learning that this is not a stable solution to the perennial problem of authority that every society must solve.

The phrase “follow the science” has a false ring to it. That is because science doesn’t lead anywhere. It can illuminate various courses of action, by quantifying the risks and specifying the tradeoffs. But it can’t make the necessary choices for us. By pretending otherwise, decision-makers can avoid taking responsibility for the choices they make on our behalf.

Increasingly, science is pressed into duty as authority. It is invoked to legitimise the transfer of sovereignty from democratic to technocratic bodies, and as a device for insulating such moves from the realm of political contest.

Over the past year, a fearful public has acquiesced to an extraordinary extension of expert jurisdiction over every domain of life. A pattern of “government by emergency” has become prominent, in which resistance to such incursions are characterised as “anti-science”.

But the question of political legitimacy hanging over rule by experts is not likely to go away. If anything, it will be more fiercely fought in coming years as leaders of governing bodies invoke a climate emergency that is said to require a wholesale transformation of society. We need to know how we arrived here.

In The Revolt of the Public, former intelligence analyst Martin Gurri traces the roots of a “politics of negation” that has engulfed Western societies, tied to a wholesale collapse of authority across all domains ­— politics, journalism, finance, religion, science. He blames it on the internet. Authority has always been located in hierarchical structures of expertise, guarded by accreditation and long apprenticeship, whose members develop a “reflexive loathing of the amateur trespasser”.

For authority to be really authoritative, it must claim an epistemic monopoly of some kind, whether of priestly or scientific knowledge. In the 20th century, especially after the spectacular successes of the Manhattan Project and the Apollo moon landing, there developed a spiral wherein the public came to expect miracles of technical expertise (flying cars and moon colonies were thought to be imminent). Reciprocally, stoking expectations of social utility is normalised in the processes of grant-seeking and institutional competition that are now inseparable from scientific practice.

The system was sustainable, if uneasily so, as long as inevitable failures could be kept offstage. This required robust gatekeeping, such that the assessment of institutional performance was an intra-elite affair (the blue-ribbon commission; peer review), allowing for the development of “informal pacts of mutual protection”, as Gurri puts it. The internet, and the social media which disseminate instances of failure with relish, have made such gatekeeping impossible. That is the core of the very parsimonious and illuminating argument by which Gurri accounts for the revolt of the public.

In recent years, a replication crisis in science has swept aside a disturbing number of the findings once thought robust in many fields. This has included findings that lie at the foundation of whole research programs and scientific empires, now crumbled. The reasons for these failures are fascinating, and provide a glimpse into the human element of scientific practice.

Henry H. Bauer, chemistry professor and former dean of arts and sciences at Virginia Tech, published a paper in 2004 in which he undertook to describe how science is actually conducted in the 21st century: it is, he says, fundamentally corporate (in the sense of being collective). “It remains to be appreciated that 21st-century science is a different kind of thing than the ‘modern science’ of the 17th through 20th centuries….”

Now, science is primarily organised around “knowledge monopolies” that exclude dissident views. They do so not as a matter of piecemeal failures of open-mindedness by individuals jealous of their turf, but systemically.

The all-important process of peer review depends on disinterestedness, as well as competence. “Since about the middle of the 20th century, however, the costs of research and the need for teams of cooperating specialists have made it increasingly difficult to find reviewers who are both directly knowledgeable and also disinterested; truly informed people are effectively either colleagues or competitors.”

Bauer writes that “journeymen peer-reviewers tend to stifle rather than encourage creativity and genuine innovation. Centralized funding and centralized decision-making make science more bureaucratic and less an activity of independent, self-motivated truth-seekers.” In universities, “the measure of scientific achievement becomes the amount of ‘research support’ brought in, not the production of useful knowledge”. (University administrations skim a standard 50% off the top of any grant to cover the “indirect costs” of supporting the research.)

Given the resources required to conduct big science, it needs to serve some institutional master, whether that be commercial or governmental. In the last 12 months we have seen the pharmaceutical industry and its underlying capacity for scientific accomplishment at its best. The development of mRNA vaccines represents a breakthrough of real consequence. This has occurred in commercial laboratories that were temporarily relieved of the need to impress financial markets or stoke consumer demand by large infusions of government support. This ought to give pause to the political reflex to demonise pharmaceutical companies that is prevalent on both the Left and the Right.

But it cannot be assumed that “the bottom line” exerts a disciplining function on scientific research that automatically aligns it with the truth motive. Notoriously, pharmaceutical companies have, on a significant scale, paid physicians to praise, recommend and prescribe their products, and recruited researchers to put their names to articles ghost-written by the firms which are then placed in scientific and professional journals. Worse, the clinical trials whose results are relied upon by federal agencies in deciding whether to approve drugs as safe and effective are generally conducted or commissioned by the pharmaceutical companies themselves.

The bigness of big science — both the corporate form of the activity, and its need for large resources generated otherwise than by science itself — places science squarely in the world of extra-scientific concerns, then. Including those concerns taken up by political lobbies. If the concern has a high profile, any dissent from the official consensus may be hazardous to an investigator’s career.

Public opinion polls generally indicate that what “everybody knows” about some scientific matter, and its bearing on public interests, will be identical to the well-institutionalized view. This is unsurprising, given the role the media plays in creating consensus. Journalists, rarely competent to assess scientific statements critically, cooperate in propagating the pronouncements of self-protecting “research cartels” as science.

Bauer’s concept of a research cartel came into public awareness in an episode that occurred five years after his article appeared. In 2009, someone hacked the emails of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Britain and released them, prompting the “climategate” scandal in which the scientists who sat atop the climate bureaucracy were revealed to be stonewalling against requests for their data from outsiders. This was at a time when many fields, in response to their own replication crises, were adopting data sharing as a norm in their research communities, as well as other practices such as reporting null findings and the pre-registration of hypotheses in shared forums.

The climate research cartel staked its authority on the peer review process of journals deemed legitimate, which meddling challengers had not undergone. But, as Gurri notes in his treatment of climategate, “since the group largely controlled peer review for their field, and a consuming subject of the emails was how to keep dissenting voices out of the journals and the media, the claim rested on a circular logic”.

One can be fully convinced of the reality and dire consequences of climate change while also permitting oneself some curiosity about the political pressures that bear on the science, I hope. Try to imagine the larger setting when the IPPC convenes. Powerful organisations are staffed up, with resolutions prepared, communications strategies in place, corporate “global partners” secured, interagency task forces standing by and diplomatic channels open, waiting to receive the good word from an empaneled group of scientists working in committee.

This is not a setting conducive to reservations, qualifications, or second thoughts. The function of the body is to produce a product: political legitimacy.

The third leg: moralism

The climategate scandal delivered a blow to the IPPC, and therefore to the networked centres of power for which it serves as science-settler. This perhaps led to a heightened receptivity in those centres for the arrival of a figure such as Greta Thunberg who escalates the moral urgency of the cause (“How dare you!), giving it an impressive human face that can galvanise mass energy. She is notable both for being knowledgeable and for being a child, even younger and more fragile-looking than her age, and therefore an ideal victim-sage.

There appears to be a pattern, not limited to climate science-politics, in which the mass energy galvanised by celebrities (who always speak with certainty) strengthens the hand of activists to organise campaigns in which any research institution that fails to discipline a dissident investigator is said to be serving as a channel of “disinformation”. The institution is placed under a kind of moral receivership, to be lifted when the heads of the institution denounce the offending investigator and distance themselves from his or her findings. They then seek to repair the damage by affirming the ends of the activists in terms that out-do the affirmations of rival institutions.

As this iterates across different areas of establishment thinking, especially those that touch on ideological taboos, it follows a logic of escalation that restricts the types of inquiry that are acceptable for research supported by institutions, and shifts them in the direction dictated by political lobbies.

Needless to say, all this takes place far from the field of scientific argument, but the drama is presented as one of restoring scientific integrity. In the internet era of relatively open information flows, a cartel of expertise can be maintained only if it is part of a larger body of organised opinion and interests that, together, are able to run a sort of moral-epistemic protection racket. Reciprocally, political lobbies depend on scientific bodies that are willing to play their part.

This could be viewed as part of a larger shift within institutions from a culture of persuasion to one in which coercive moral decrees emanate from somewhere above, hard to locate precisely, but conveyed in the ethical style of HR. Weakened by the uncontrolled dissemination of information and attendant fracturing of authority, the institutions that ratify particular pictures of what is going on in the world must not merely assert a monopoly of knowledge, but place a moratorium on the asking of questions and noticing of patterns.

Research cartels mobilise the denunciatory energies of political activists to run interference and, reciprocally, the priorities of activist NGOs and foundations meter the flow of funding and political support to research bodies, in a circle of mutual support.

One of the most striking features of the present, for anyone alert to politics, is that we are increasingly governed through the device of panics that give every appearance of being contrived to generate acquiescence in a public that has grown skeptical of institutions built on claims of expertise. And this is happening across many domains. Policy challenges from outsiders presented through fact and argument, offering some picture of what is going on in the world that is rival to the prevailing one, are not answered in kind, but are met rather with denunciation. In this way, epistemic threats to institutional authority are resolved into moral conflicts between good people and bad people.

The ramped-up moral content of pronouncements that are ostensibly expert-technical needs to be explained. I suggested there are two rival sources of political legitimacy, science and popular opinion, that are imperfectly reconciled through a kind of distributed demagogy, which we may call scientism. This demagogy is distributed in the sense that interlocked centers of power rely on it to mutually prop one another up.

But as this arrangement has begun to totter, with popular opinion coming untethered from expert authority and newly assertive against it, a third leg has been added to the structure in an effort to stabilise it: the moral splendor of the Victim. To stand with the Victim, as every major institution now appears to do, is to arrest criticism. Such is the hope, at any rate.

In the unforgettable Summer of 2020, the moral energy of anti-racism was harnessed to the scientific authority of public health, and vice versa. Thus “white supremacy” was a public health emergency — one urgent enough to dictate the suspension of social distancing mandates for the sake of protests. So how did the description of America as white supremacist get converted into a scientific-sounding claim?

Michael Lind has argued that covid laid bare a class war, not between labor and capital, but between two groups that could both be called “elites”: on one side, small business owners who opposed lockdowns and, on the other, professionals who enjoyed greater job security, were able to work from home, and typically took a maximalist position on hygiene politics. We can add that, being in the “knowledge economy,” professionals naturally show more deference to experts, since the basic currency of the knowledge economy is epistemic prestige.

This divide got mapped onto the pre-existing schism that had organised itself around President Trump, with the population sorted into good people and bad people. For professionals, not just the status of one’s soul, but one’s standing and viability in the institutional economy, depended on getting conspicuously on the right side of that divide. According to the Manichaean binary established in 2016, the fundamental question mark over one’s head is that of the strength and sincerity of one’s anti-racism. For white people who worked in technical bodies connected to public health, the confluence of the George Floyd protests and the pandemic seemed to have presented an opportunity to convert their moral precarity on the issue of race into its opposite: moral authority.

Over 1,200 health experts, speaking as health experts, signed an open letter encouraging mass protests as necessary to address the “pervasive lethal force of white supremacy”. This pervasive force is something they are specially qualified to detect by their scientific knowledge. Editorials in journals such as The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, Scientific American and even Nature now speak the language of Critical Race Theory, invoking the invisible miasma of “whiteness” as explanatory device, controlling variable and justification for whatever pandemic policy prescription it seems good to align themselves with.

The science is remarkably clear. It has also been bent to expansive purposes. In February 2021, the medical journal The Lancet convened a Commission on Public Policy and Health in the Trump Era to deplore the president’s politicisation of science – while urging “science-led proposals” that would address public health through reparations for descendants of slaves and other victims of historical oppression, the enhancement of affirmative action, and the adoption of the Green New Deal, among other measures. One can certainly make a case for such policies sincerely, freely, and with due consideration. Many people have. But perhaps it is also the case that the moral sorting and resulting insecurity among technocratic professionals has made them quick to defer to activists and sign on to grander visions of a transformed society.

The spectacular success of “public health” in generating fearful acquiescence in the population during the pandemic has created a rush to take every technocratic-progressive project that would have poor chances if pursued democratically, and cast it as a response to some existential threat. In the first week of the Biden administration, the Senate majority leader urged the president to declare a “climate emergency” and assume powers that would authorise him to sidestep Congress and rule by executive fiat. Ominously, we are being prepared for “climate lockdowns”.

The wisdom of the East

Western nations have long had contingency plans for dealing with pandemics, in which quarantine measures were delimited by liberal principles – respecting individual autonomy and avoiding coercion as much as possible. Thus, it was the already-infected and the especially vulnerable who should be isolated, as opposed to locking healthy people in their homes. China, on the other hand, is an authoritarian regime that solves collective problems through rigorous control of its population and pervasive surveillance. Accordingly, when the COVID pandemic began in earnest, China locked down all activities in Wuhan and other affected areas. In the West, it was simply assumed that such a course of action was not an available option.

As UK epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said to the Times last December: “It’s a communist one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with [lockdowns] in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could.” He added that “These days, lockdown feels inevitable.”

Thus, what had seemed impossible due to the bedrock principles of Western society now feels not merely possible but inevitable. And this complete inversion happened over the course of a few months.

Acceptance of such a bargain would seem to depend entirely on the gravity of the threat. There is surely some point of hazard beyond which liberal principles become an unaffordable luxury. Covid is indeed a very serious illness, with an infection fatality rate about ten times higher than that of the flu: roughly one percent of all those who are infected die. Also, however, unlike the flu this mortality rate is so skewed by age and other risk factors, varying by more than a thousand-fold from the very young to the very old, that the aggregate figure of one percent can be misleading. As of November 2020, the average age of those killed by Covid in Britain was 82.4 years old.

In July of 2020, 29 % of British citizens believed that “6-10 percent or higher” of the population had already been killed by Covid. About 50% of those polled had a more realistic estimate of 1%. The actual figure was about one tenth of one percent. So the public’s perception of the risk of dying of Covid was inflated by one to two orders of magnitude. This is highly significant.

Public opinion matters in the West far more than in China. Only if people are sufficiently scared will they give up basic liberties for the sake of security – this is the basic formula of Hobbes’s Leviathan. Stoking fear has long been an essential element of the business model of mass media, and this appears to be on a trajectory of integration with state functions in the West, in a tightening symbiosis. While the Chinese government resorts to external coercion, in the West coercion must come from inside; from a mental state in the individual. The state is nominally in the hands of people elected to serve as representatives of the people, so it cannot be an object of fear. Something else must be the source of fear, so the state may play the role of saving us. But playing this role requires that state power be directed by experts.

Early in 2020, public opinion accepted the necessity of a short-term suspension of basic liberties on the supposition that, once the emergency had passed, we could go back to being not-China. But this is to assume a robustness of liberal political culture that may not be warranted. Lord Sumption, a jurist and retired member of the UK’s Supreme Court, makes a case for regarding lockdowns in the West as the crossing of a line that is not likely to get uncrossed. In an interview with Freddie Sayers at UnHerd, he points out that, by law, the government has broad powers to act under emergency. “There are many things governments can do, which it is generally accepted they should not do. And one of them, until last March, was to lock up healthy people in their homes.”

He makes the Burkean observation that our status as a free society rests, not on laws, but on convention, a “collective instinct” about what we ought to do, rooted in habits of thinking and feeling that develop slowly over decades and centuries. These are fragile. It is far easier to destroy a convention than to establish one. This suggests going back to being not-China may be quite difficult.

As Lord Sumption says, “When you depend for your basic freedoms on convention, rather than law, once the convention is broken, the spell is broken. Once you get to a position where it is unthinkable to lock people up, nationally, except when somebody thinks it’s a good idea, then frankly there is no longer any barrier at all. We have crossed that threshold. And governments do not forget these things. I think this is a model that will come to be accepted, if we are not very careful, as a way of dealing with all manner of collective problems.” In the US as in the UK, the government has immense powers. “The only thing that protects us from the despotic use of that power is a convention that we have decided to discard.”

Clearly, an admiration for Chinese-style governance has been blossoming in what we call centrist opinion, in large part as a response to the populist upsets of the Trump and Brexit era. It is also clear that “Science” (as opposed to actual science) is playing an important role in this. Like other forms of demagogy, scientism presents stylised facts and a curated picture of reality. In doing so, it may generate fears strong enough to render democratic principles moot.

The pandemic is now in retreat and the vaccines are available to all who want them in most parts of the United States. But many people refuse to give up their masks, as though they had joined some new religious order. The wide deployment of fear as an instrument of state propaganda has had a disorienting effect, such that our perception of risk has come detached from reality.

We accept all manner of risks in the course of life, without thinking about it. To pick one out and make it an object of intense focus is to adopt a distorted outlook that has real costs, paid somewhere beyond the rim of one’s tunnel vision. To see our away out of this — to place risks in their proper context — requires an affirmation of life, refocusing on all those worthwhile activities that elevate existence beyond the merely vegetative.

Losing face

Perhaps the pandemic has merely accelerated, and given official warrant to, our long slide toward atomisation. By the nakedness of our faces we encounter one another as individuals, and in doing so we experience fleeting moments of grace and trust. To hide our faces behind masks is to withdraw this invitation. This has to be politically significant.

Perhaps it is through such microscopic moments that we become aware of ourselves as a people, bound up in a shared fate. That’s what solidarity is. Solidarity, in turn, is the best bulwark against despotism, as Hannah Arendt noted in On The Origins of Totalitarianism. Withdrawal from such encounter now has the stamp of good citizenship, i.e., good hygiene. But what sort of regime are we to be citizens of?

“Following the science” to minimise certain risks while ignoring others absolves us of exercising our own judgment, anchored in some sense of what makes life worthwhile. It also relieves us of the existential challenge of throwing ourselves into an uncertain world with hope and confidence. A society incapable of affirming life and accepting death will be populated by the walking dead, adherents of a cult of the demi-life who clamour for ever more guidance from experts.

It has been said, a people gets the government it deserves.

 

This article was first published in May.


Matthew B Crawford writes the substack Archedelia


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James Rix
James Rix
2 years ago

This is the best article I have read in sometime. Bravo to the author.
“As a way of generating knowledge, it is the pride of science to be falsifiable”
This quote chimes with me after reading the twitter exchange between Graham Medley and Fraser Nelson earlier in the week – if the modelling process has been done through the whole pandemic in the way that Medley suggests then none of the projections/predictions/scenarios/guesses (pick your favourite) are falsifiable and therefore shouldn’t be seen as scientific in anyway.
But again as mentioned above the journalists and media we trust to portray the facts are so scientifically illiterate (and/or wilfully blind to contrarian arguments against the accepted opinions) that these issues aren’t discussed and SAGE models treated as gospel parables of the good lord “science” written in stone.

Francis MacGabhann
FM
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  James Rix

Because SAGE is producing the models they’ve been told to produce.

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Maybe ‘Julie’ missed all the news yesterday.

Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
2 years ago

Please read
PI-M modellers: a response to our critics – in Speccie

Last edited 2 years ago by Julie Blinde
James Rix
James Rix
2 years ago
Reply to  James Rix

I think I could create a long list. But I think I have already answered it – the S in SAGE stands for science and for anything to be scientific it must pass the first tenet of the scientific method and be falsifiable.
“In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable: and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.” Karl Popper

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
2 years ago
Reply to  James Rix

Which simply illustrates what I’ve said above – the word ‘science’ is used solely to silence cynics. While some in SAGE may be regarded as scientists, the modelling work has scant connection with science.

Phil Rees
PR
Phil Rees
2 years ago
Reply to  James Rix

“none of the projections/predictions/scenarios/guesses (pick your favourite) are falsifiable and therefore shouldn’t be seen as scientific in anyway.” Precisely so, but I’d go further and deny they’re made by scientists anyway. These are the products of statisticians with bio-pharmacological knowledge. They are statistical models based around specific assumptions (which we are rarely fully informed about).

I cannot see what an attempt to model the behaviour of large numbers of people in the presence of a virus with assumed characteristics has to do with ‘science’. It’s more analogous to an art or a heuristic skill. So when we’re told “we’re following the science” my eyes glaze over as that is just said by scientifically illiterate politicians to a largely scientifically illiterate population with the word ‘science’ included simply to lend authority in the hope of avoiding any questioning.

So far that has been successful as none of the questions are ever about the correctness or otherwise of what SAGE says.

James Rix
JR
James Rix
2 years ago
Reply to  Phil Rees

I could not agree with your statement more. I think it is moreover human hubris to believe we can understand let alone confidently effect complex systems such as virus replication and transmission.
This goes back to governments and their advisors having to do “something” because in times of fear and uncertainty the media and large swathes of the public demand action – when sometimes the bravest, most sensible thing is to do nothing.
I hope with Boris’ delay in bringing back restrictions he is buying himself time for the picture to become somewhat clearer.

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

This article has stood the test of time, but what leapt out at me is IFR. It surely is not 1% – the last I read was about .26% but I am happy to be corrected. Even this percentage could be quite high considering the vast numbers that have been infected.
I particularly enjoyed the Science as Authority section and this:
“The phrase “follow the science” has a false ring to it. That is because science doesn’t lead anywhere. It can illuminate various courses of action, by quantifying the risks and specifying the tradeoffs. But it can’t make the necessary choices for us. By pretending otherwise, decision-makers can avoid taking responsibility for the choices they make on our behalf.
Increasingly, science is pressed into duty as authority. It is invoked to legitimise the transfer of sovereignty from democratic to technocratic bodies, and as a device for insulating such moves from the realm of political contest.”

Graham Stull
GS
Graham Stull
2 years ago

Well said – science is hijacked by technocrats to undermine democratic institutions. Well said.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

You can’t get people to vote for Marxist totalitarianism, so you tell people that scientist have voted on it and agreed it would be a good idea. You don’t get a vote and anyway the debate is over.

Philip Perkins
Philip Perkins
2 years ago

The latest figure for the IFR for Covid was stated in the U.K. House of Commons to be 0.096%

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Perkins

I suddenly love the UK House of Commons!

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Perkins

The IFR varies according to age – from 0.004 for 0 – 34 year olds to 28.3 for 85+ year olds.
See : Assessing the age specificity of infection fatality rates for COVID-19: systematic review, meta-analysis, and public policy implications Levin December 2020 Eur J Epidemio.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Yes, it varies widely according to age, but there is an average overall. The very low IFR for children and the youth is one of the reasons why so many of us are alarmed that vaccines are being encouraged for them.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Excellent essay; the best thing I have read in Unherd. It is fascinating to watch people starting slowly to realise that the quality of the “science” behind climate change and behind pandemic management are of the same standard, including the insults to and attempted exclusion of heretics (indeed, in bringing back the concept of heresy in the first place).

Inevitably, such an environment selected for certain human types, the kind who would find such a life appealing. A healthy dose of careerism and political talent was required. Such qualities are orthogonal, let us say, to the underlying truth-motive of science.

This is true of pretty well any large-scale corporate endeavour. When I think of the various places I have worked over the last 35 years, I can’t think of many where the CEO was conspicuously the smartest cookie. Much more often, he simply resembled all the other cookies and relied on the work of much smarter people lower down. CEOs are usually amiable in a bland way, they like sport, are rarely witty, and are no better than anyone else at their job on the way up. They just fit, somehow. The only exception I can recall is John Browne of BP. Friends tell me the armed forces are very similar. The best officers never make it past colonel, because the reason they’re good is that they think differently; generals are generals exactly because they don’t.
Their equivalents are in charge of Science, and it’s as good as you’d expect.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

The success of certain people in large corporate or quasi corporate/political structures can also depend on where they fit in respect of the psychopath/sociopath scale. From what I have read psychopaths represent approximately 3% of the population, yet an estimated 30% of these creatures are to be found in corporate management.
Psychopaths have a high threshold of arousal, so they are perfectly suited to an environment which has a high level of politicking, jockeying for position, lying and backstabbing – all the while maintaining complete and perfect composure.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Being a psychopath could be a good or a bad thing in these roles. A mate of mine who is a brigadier reckons it’s helpful for an officer to lack empathy because he has to order people to get killed, but unhelpful because he’ll have impaired insight of how others think, including the enemy, and therefore won’t foresee what they do next.
At all levels in corporates, though, I have observed people promoted faster than others who were totally unimpressive. They worked no harder or better or more productively; their faces just fitted better.
The most extreme example I observed was as a contractor at Enron, a year or so before it went bust. The people revered (and remunerated) as gods were the dealmakers, who would do deals, book the next 20 years’ fantasy profit as revenue that year, then swan off to the next deal while doing nothing to ensure the claimed revenue actually materialised. That job was left to underlings treated entirely without respect by management, but whose efforts to make some actual money flow in were the only reason the whole ramshackle racket didn’t collapse sooner.
John Browne is one of only two appointed CEO I’ve met where I did not think “I, and numerous others, could do your job as well as you, if not better”. The other was a guy who headed up a rapacious commodity trader. Both were extraordinary – thought fast, instant grasp, asked the right questions immediately. The others I’ve met on the whole just stood there while everyone else made everything happen.

James Stangl
JS
James Stangl
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

The Peter Principle (the unimpressive rising to their level of incompetence) is in full flower in healthcare management, IMHO. Careerism and political talent will get you up the greasy pole a lot faster than actual understanding of what makes for good health care, and what really motivates the nurses and MDs in the trenches.

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Yes, some I’ve seen were promoted according to presentation and ‘fit’ – for want of a better word. Some of this fit at the extreme of the word, included equity which has occupied South African space for a long time.
Excluding this, a lot of people I saw promoted to places they should not occupy were the ones who could play the game – were affable, unruffled and insensitive, untruthful, shapeshifting, ruthless, manipulative, consummate actors and fast talkers and loved the cut and thrust of corporate life. Psychopaths.
I was guided by a psychiatrist friend to read a book called Snakes in Suits, to arm myself better. I certainly learned more about psychos, but couldn’t really learn how to play the game and feel comfortable!

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

The biggest problem technocrats have is they have to actually be right once in a while or no one will listen to them anymore. FYI, lying to cover your butt has its limits. People eventually see through it. This seems like it would be basic logic. Unfortunately for them, they are incapable of self-reflection and live in a bubble. Oh well, It’s not like I will feel bad if some self righteous authoritarians start to see their power collapse.
Crawford deserves his Best of the Year for this article.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

People eventually see through it. 

I wish I shared your confidence, but people still listen to David Icke 30 years after he claimed he was the son of God and that Saddam Hussein (d. 2004) was dead. People still listen to climate psyentists 20 years after “Snowfalls will be a thing of the past” and “50 million climate refugees by 2010“. It doesn’t seem to matter how big the lie or the delusion; when it doesn’t happen, just keep repeating it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
J Hop
J Hop
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Yep. While I’m more of a classic liberal and not conservative I do listen to conservatives from time to time and one memorable quote from Charlie Kirk stands out. (paraphrased) “The best thing conservatives have going for them despite the progressives being in power now is that progressive ideas are awful and they don’t work.” Biden is proving this true.

Last edited 2 years ago by J Hop
Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago
Reply to  J Hop

I am a conservative leaning classical liberal. Personally, I do not like Burkean conservatism.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
2 years ago

This makes me think of Fauci’s claim that to criticize him is to attack “science.” He has not practiced medicine or science for 40 years, if then. He is a bureaucrat running a large grant-making agency. But he hides behind “science” while advancing his personal interest and political agenda

Andrew Dalton
AD
Andrew Dalton
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

I think Fauci is easier to explain: he’s a corrupt sociapath with delusions of grandeur.

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

One area of science which has long had a political hegemony over dissent is neo-Darwinian evolution. The standard pejorative in use here for dissenters is ‘creationist’. But as a Theory it is, in its total application to life, NOT falsifiable: eg organic life “evolved” from inorganic chemicals, the human mind “evolved”, I even heard J Peterson using this concept in regard to the development of economic theory.
A decade ago Denis Noble of Oxford University wrote a critique of evolution stating: ‘all the central assumptions of the Modern Synthesis (often also called Neo-Darwinism) have been disproved. Moreover, they have been disproved in ways that raise the tantalizing prospect of a totally new synthesis.’ How many of us have heard this said; has it been taken on board? This illustrates the political power which scientism holds over free-thinking dissent.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

I have been ridiculed in conversation with educated peers for expressing scepticism concerning neo-Darwinism. For saying nothing more than: “look this is a theory. If you try to make it into a Bible, you are no better than the Christian zealots you look down on.”

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

I’d be interested in hearing more about this. I am not sure the examples you give work – yes, there is nothing in Darwinism that explains where life came from, but neither can physics explain the Big Bang either, other than by sophistry. Both claim only to describe what happens afterwards. I’d be interested to know which bits of its reasoning are wrong.

Peter LR
PL
Peter LR
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Jon, my main point is the impossibility of falsification; yet the theories are communicated as fact, especially to the non-scientific community.
There is evidence for the Big Bang from the background radiation which can be measured for instance. Evolution is useful for explanation but explanation is not evidence. When trying to look into the past, the fossil record doesn’t stack up with the theory especially the sudden appearance of body plans in Cambrian strata.
The big test has been as a consequence of progress in Genomics and the understanding of epigenetics. For instance, the theory predicted “junk” DNA; the genome sequencing has found function in over 90%.
No one has managed to explain the human mind and especially consciousness. Attempts to link it to neurone areas hasn’t succeeded. Neo-Darwinism predicts everything is material based with no place for concepts such as the soul or spirit. Human experience contradicts this. Looking at the available evidence, the theory no longer works. Where evidence is sparse then its good to use the principle of ‘inference to the best explanation’. Neo-Darwinism is no longer the best.
I think that because as a theory it has bolstered secular atheism, then there is political pressure to censure dissent as Graham commented on above.

Last edited 2 years ago by Peter LR
Marcia McGrail
MM
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Indeed, scientism even equivocates the very word ‘evolution’ to be rendered so plastic as to explain everything about life – from Darwin’s ignorance of what his ‘blob of protoplasm’ actually consists of to today’s epic fallacious factualising of a crumbling theory, determined to shatter the careers and integrity of honourable scientists describing observable data that offends the status quo.

Andrew Dalton
AD
Andrew Dalton
2 years ago

Excellent piece!
In trying to formulate some idea that explains just how the modern world is operating, from industry cartels to supra-government organisations, NGOs and internet driven feedback loops, one idea that I keep getting back to is Jerry Pournelle’s iron law of bureacracy.
Pournelle suggests that eventually an organisation will be controlled by those with an interest in the organisation rather than those with an interest in the goals of the organisation.
I would strongly argue that the public health bureaucracy and climate research institutions are both completely beholden to the behaviour Pournelle predicted.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Brought back memories of hill rambling in the Scottish Highlands. One sets off across the heather to walk to the hill peak way off, and high above; through broken ground and heavy going – and then – finally one is almost there; the top, and a deserved rest to look over the vista…. but it never is – instead you crested a main ridge, and ahead, and even further and higher is the top, and so head down and on and on, and then – Again you find you crested another ridge, and further ahead lies the top, and….

J Hop
J Hop
2 years ago

Articles like this are why I subscribe to UnHerd, from the States.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

I pay to read UnHerd articles, not because they confirm my world view (I disagree with much of what I read here), but because they question powerful media narratives that have become all too pervasive. I also find the commentators here to be quite diverse in their thinking which is often a good sign that ‘dissidence’, no matter how crudely expressed, is tolerated. Many websites that allow comments, such as the Guardian, often ban dissident views and so become echo chambers. I am drawn to UnHerd because I get to hear different viewpoints even those I disagree with. If it is a bubble I am not sure what ideology it seeks to propagate and which ones it stifles.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
2 years ago

Excellent work! Crawford correctly points to many factors, including the size of research efforts and the society-wide deterioration of authority, as causes of the corruption crisis in science. As important however, is the recent, and now explicit, abandonment of the scientist-as-objective-observer “ideal”. It’s clear that pre-1960’s scientists had biases that distorted research objectives and results, but the discreditable nature of those biases was uniformly recognized. But in the last half century it became increasing acceptable (and expected) to become an advocate in some scientific issue (environment, CFCs, CO2 in order); The role of scientist as advocate has inevitably contributed greatly to the corruption of science.

Douglas Proudfoot
DP
Douglas Proudfoot
2 years ago

The “Democracies” in the West are democracies in name only. Almost all of the key decisions are “expert” bureaucratic regulations which are unratified by legislatures. Government by the consent of the governed is considered obsolete, based on the idea that “experts” can make superior decisions compared to the collective decisions of representatives elected by the people.

I think regulatory “experts” have gotten out of hand. I think legislature should have to pass all regulations as laws. This would bring back accountability for both regulators and legislators. Legislatures could consider the regulations with limited time for debate and no amendments, then give them an up or down vote. In the US, the regulations passed by law would then go to the president as a bill to be signed or vetoed. Congress could override the president’s veto, just like any other bill.

“Experts” need a check on them. Rule by decree has to stop. Legislatures have to demand their right to approve or disapprove. The people have a right to representation in regulatory decisions. If they don’t get representation, things could get ugly. Do I have to remind people of a certain tea party in Boston, by people who didn’t have representation?

Michael Cavanaugh
MC
Michael Cavanaugh
2 years ago

This short piece deserves to be counted as a major exercise in the sociology of science. Big Science/Little Science (a la Popper, Merton, de Solla Price) is now in ongoing tension with BIG Science, and this tension has identifiable secular causes: mistrust of expertise is generalized, particularly by the internet, such that gatekeeping, blue-ribbons and peer review break down, and research cartels respond creatively by aligning with a culture of ad hominem moralism. (“victim-sage” is a nice touch.)

Last edited 2 years ago by Michael Cavanaugh
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

I’m sorry, I just stopped reading when we got to Galileo. It looked promising up to that point, but no, sorry, by now everyone knows that Galileo got hauled in because he peed behind the palace door, and in Renaissance Italy, when you did that, you got a slap. And the slap he got from the pope stung a hell of a lot less than the one he would have got had he tried it in Florence or Mantua.

J Hop
J Hop
2 years ago

Slap? He was jailed and tortured.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  J Hop

He was not tortured. He was put under house arrest in a villa. He’d never have got anything like such lenient treatment in any other Italian state of the time.

Rasmus Fogh
RF
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

This points to a number of important problems. Yet, like the constitution of the USSR, it leaves unbelievers (like me) with an uncomfortable feeling that the real meaning of this is somewhat different from what you would normally get from the words.
I would ask some questions in return:

  • How do you base yourself on kitchen physics and individual curiosity if the active research fields all require input from large numbers of people. Do you stop pursuing them?
  • How do you establish and propagate scientific truth or consensus in the face of large, fanatic and well-financed groups of activists with full access to your internal papers, no compunctions about lying, and no reciprocal commitment to transparency or truth?
  • How do you distinguish between scientific conclusions with vehement enemies but solid scientific underpinnings (like epidemiology or climate research), and scientific conclusions with no factual basis at all (like critical race theory)?
  • Who determines, and how, that liberal freedoms require us to take a course that the most knowledgeable people think will cost tens of thousands of lives?
Jerome Berryhill
JB
Jerome Berryhill
1 year ago

The development of mRNA vaccines represents a breakthrough of real consequence.”
Yeah, no kidding. Ten-year-olds dying of heart attacks. Real medical progress, that!

John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
1 year ago

“But in reality, science is hard, and there is a lot of it. We have to take it mostly on faith. That goes for most journalists and professors, as well as plumbers.”

To be honest, most plumbers would probably understand complex science concepts a great deal better than many journalists if given the time to do the work involved. One thing that has become very obvious over the past few years is that the journalists who spend their time popularising controversial scientific concepts don’t merely fail to understand the subject matter, they reveal themselves as incapable of ever understanding it. We are therefore in the ludicrous situation whereby the journalist’s audience is often better informed than the journalist ever will be on a subject where honesty and competent analysis could not be more crucial.

Other than that, this is an excellent, though terrifying, article. It gives form to so many fears and concerns of my own lately that have been too amorphous so far for me to articulate, and I am grateful to the author for having done so instead. This article ought to be compulsory reading for everyone in the political class quite frankly but, as we know, the ones that need this lesson the most are the most protected against the risk of being exposed to it.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Riordan
Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

There is a simple experiment everybody can do at home to prove that the greenhouse effect does not exist. One description is that the sun can only heat the earth’s surface to -18C but the average is 15C. The difference in these temperatures in 33C, said to be the greenhouse effect. Many quantities can be added like mass, volume and length, but temperatures cannot be added.
If you believe they can then take two cups of water at 50C and put them in a bigger container to get boiling water. The temperature of the two together, the total temperature will be 50C, so the average must therefore be 25C. Doesn’t make sense, does it? There is no total temperature and no average temperature. End of climate alarmism with a simple experiment.

Gordon Black
GB
Gordon Black
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

I have an actual greenhouse and two actual thermometers inside and outside and have actually measured 33C difference. It works! Temperatures are not added – they are just measured.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
2 years ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

Let’s ask a basic question. Who says today’s climate is optimal? Historical records show vineyards in Roman Britain. Today’s climate is too cold to allow vineyards there. The Roman Warm Period was an estimated 2° C warmer than it is now, which was a good thing for humanity, not the disaster global warming alarmists are always predicting from warmer temperatures. Why should we impoverish ourselves for a suboptimal global temperature?

Look up the Wikipedia entry for Paleoclimatology. The graphs shows the earth has had both no ice and been an ice ball. In neither case did man exist as a species yet. The extremes in the paleoclimate record show that natural variation dominates any alleged man-made climate change. Before we spend tens of trillions of dollars, shouldn’t we try to understand the natural forces that change climate over geologic time?

It is statistical folly to use about 100 years of data to extrapolate climate cycles that last hundreds or thousands of years. Only the gullible or math challenged believe in the statistical validity of models built on 100 years’ worth of data, that have failed to predict future temperature patterns.