Trust The Science?

“Trust the science” is an irresponsible message, one at odds with the supposed spirit of science itself. Ideally, science is an iterative, self-reflective process that continually attempts to refine explanatory knowledge of observable phenomena. In practice, social media and an informational culture that incentivizes attention seeking above anything else conflate the messengers of “science” with the process of science itself. “Trust the science” is often an appeal to authority where the messengers are anointed by their respective tribes a priori. “Trust the science” has been hijacked by ideologues who weaponize science to achieve moral and intellectual superiority and avoid the need for introspection. It’s become a rhetorical plea for blind allegiance, not a call for open dialogue, sincere inquiry, and good faith interpretations of dissenting views 

Science is done by humans and humans display tribalistic tendencies that are locally protective but potentially more problematic at scale. A good system is one whose penchant for abuse is consistent regardless of who is at the controls. In other words, a group can hand over the system it created to its ideological enemies without fear of disproportionate retribution or harm. Thanks to an increasingly polarizing political and informational environment, it’s easy to confuse science for an asymmetrically-employed, ideologically-driven weapon rather than a mutually beneficial system of epistemological advancement. One tribe claims to be on the side of “science” and any dissenting tribe is consequently “anti-science”. The pro-science/anti-science delineation is often made in the absence of any conversation about the details but that’s usually the point. Details create doubt and doubt inspires intellectual humility and nuance. Nuance is incompatible with the deliberate suppression of ideas to uphold predetermined political narratives. To be clear, the lack of willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue is not unique to any particular political tribe as everyone seems to be convinced that science is on their side.

Unlike a controlled experiment performed under lab conditions, the process of science does not unfold in a vacuum. Data collection and analysis intersect with human behavior, sociopolitical factors, and technology. Technology and science are sometimes used interchangeably because technology is an important manifestation of explanatory knowledge, the cause to which science is committed. Technology is a byproduct of scientific thinking that also shapes future science by refining the instruments of data collection to better inform unanswered questions. Technology is not indicative of progress in itself, however. 

On a tactical level, the nuclear bomb is one of the greatest scientific feats in history. On a strategic level, nuclear weapons pose catastrophic danger to the human species. Social media platforms represent impressive feats of engineering and technological innovation. Never before have humans had access to so much information. The unprecedented ease with which we share information hasn’t necessarily made us better informed though and never has it been more difficult to distinguish signal from noise. Algorithms that reward attention aren’t always committed to the truth but they determine how many people receive and disseminate information. More of something conducted at higher speeds isn’t always better. Science and technology aren’t inherently good or bad but to pretend that anything done in the name of science warrants blanket approval is incredibly naive. 

“Trust the science” was the mantra throughout the pandemic yet technology companies and social media platforms undermined the scientific process by essentially anointing online influencers as “fact checkers”. When something is unknown or unexplained, it makes sense to pursue multiple leads as occurs in any competently run investigation. These fact checkers prevented physicians and public health providers from merely asking questions about things like the origin of the virus, herd immunity, in-person schooling, and when and where it is appropriate to wear masks. Many of these questions have yet to be definitely answered which is all the more reason why suppressing dialogue is so antithetical to learning. Moreover, good faith questions about something like the net benefit of genetically modifying animal viruses with the intent to prevent future pandemics should not be censored. That the ability to modify viruses in a lab is an incredible tactical-level scientific achievement does not absolve scientists and the public from having a philosophical and empirical discussion about the strategic wisdom of this type of research. The most important discussions require continued dialogue and analysis because the solutions are not obvious and generally require tradeoffs. Intent alone does not justify a scientific initiative without assessing its associated consequences and underlying ethical and philosophical assumptions. 

The “fact checkers” are anointed by people at twelve figure companies that are being sued by the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice for things like “illegally maintaining personal social networking monopoly through a years-long course of anticompetitive conduct” and “unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising in the United States through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices”. The platforms run by these companies are also where many Americans receive their news. To summarize, companies that exercise substantial control over the flow of information are acting as the arbiters of good science and yet we are being told to “trust the science”. To be sure, bad faith actors and extremists on both sides of the political spectrum do hijack social media platforms but these people wouldn’t be nearly as relevant without the reward system and incentives that these networks created. That bad actors exist doesn’t justify rendering more moderate, good faith actors with dissenting opinions as conspiratorial or anti-science.

Tactical level expertise may help inform strategic insight but it is not sufficient in itself. Perhaps because the market places such a premium on technology, the ability to code is often mistaken for intellectual and moral superiority. Just as military commanders don’t unilaterally generate foreign policy, microbiologists, epidemiologists, and physicians shouldn’t be the sole determinants of risk management and policy tradeoffs during a pandemic. Surely, their expertise should inform said policy but there are no true experts in a pandemic. In practice, sadly, various teams anointed their respective prophets of “science” and demanded deference to their prophet’s credentials. During an ever-evolving international public health crisis, however, the “science” isn’t great so even domain experts have to make decisions with limited and low quality information under unpredictable conditions, what David Epstein refers to as a wicked learning environment in “Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World.” Complex problems require multi-disciplinary collaboration and practitioners from seemingly inapplicable fields can be capable of profound insight; another reason that “science” alone done by scientists is not to be trusted without checks and balances.

 Information derived from scientific inquiry is difficult to distinguish from the people who generate the information and from the institutions that apply the information to make policy. People and institutions create policy so in the case of a public health emergency like Covid-19, the “science” necessarily passes through multiple subjective filters. Or perhaps we should admit that science is inherently subjective despite our best efforts to maintain objectivity. The human factor is an undeniable component of applied science, not some contaminant of science in the abstract. Good systems recognize that even experts are fallible and create redundancies to minimize the consequences of human error. It’s why pilots with thousands of sorties still follow a pre-flight checklist before every takeoff. There is no blind deference to a pilot’s experience or expertise. When allowed to work as designed, the scientific method is a good system. When science is wielded as a political weapon for division and censorship or reduced to a hashtag, “trust the science” stifles human creativity and imagination instead of compounding it for the collective interest. 

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