Science Cannot Lead the World


Physical reality has caught up with authoritarian leaders who, in denying scientific insights, have been dismissive of the coronavirus. However, they are not the only authority figures challenged by the pandemic: Scientists are, too, as editor-in-chief, Rune Lykkeberg writes in this commentary.

In our society, there is a strong preconception about science. It is not, as critics of Donald Trump and certain proponents of post-truth theories would argue, that people no longer believe in experts. Instead, the preconception is that there is only one science and that this science holds the definitive truth about society, and if we listened to science, we would do the right thing.

“Science is clear,” Trump’s many critics in the U.S. say about COVID-19. “Listen to science,” and “Follow science.”

A recent poll by The New York Times found that 76% of Americans trust Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to provide accurate information about the pandemic; only 26% believe Trump does that.

According to Fox News, 72% of Americans trust Fauci’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while just 44% trust Trump’s handling of it. Other polls suggest even less support for Trump.

“Physical reality“ has made a political comeback during the coronavirus crisis, and that alone is interesting. Finally, a clear distinction between what Trump says and what people experience in their everyday lives has been established. Trump’s lies are not only contradicted by critics, but also denied by events in the real world.

Trump said it was just a small flu that would go away with rising temperatures. Four months later, the number of infections have surged in the U.S.; 140,000 Americans have died and the country has been both socially and economically ravaged by the pandemic.

Reality Tested

Trump in the U.S. and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have refused to acknowledge reality and the understanding one derives from this reality. Those who have denied that reality, as have Trump in the U.S. and Bolsonaro in Brazil, will pay.

Moreover, their pitiful leadership is having dire consequences for their citizens. And when Trump lies, makes mistakes and attacks science, it is politically expedient to take the opposite view: There is one truth, science holds it, and we must follow it.

The funny thing is that when Trump says something that is actually reasonable and substantiated by studies, such as saying that school openings do not necessarily pose a high risk for spreading the pandemic, his opponents reject that also as madness.

Not only are authoritarian leaders being tested by reality, but so are the assessments made by government scientists. Moreover, we have heard leading scientists and officials stating that the pandemic would not spread to their respective countries. And that one should definitely go skiing in February, for example, and that there was no reason for public alarm. Fauci has also been wrong.

We have seen great public support for the experts, but we have also seen several examples where their assessments have been incorrect. Sweden, whose public health expert has handled the coronavirus pandemic, has currently not made any headway when compared to countries like Denmark, where crisis management has been more politically directed and controlled.

Prejudice Toward Science

The point is not that scientists are making as many mistakes as Trump and Bolsonaro. Scientists, themselves, have often emphasized that their knowledge was uncertain and preliminary; that they were dealing with a new phenomenon, and that they would rather talk about scenarios than predictions.

The point is that it is unscientifically prejudicial to say there is only one science that holds the truth for all matters in society and which can be translated into political action.

Society is a complex phenomenon composed of many different bodies of knowledge, with often varying political assessments among those different bodies of knowledge. Over time, one can reach scientific consensus on a diagnosis that prescribes action, as with the climate. Scientists can make recommendations and suggestions, but science cannot lead the world.

Most researchers will be the first to recognize this. I agree that we need to listen to the science. However, we must listen to it as a matter of institutions that provide an informed basis for an open and public knowledge process. Moreover, we must jointly draw the conclusions that lead to political action.

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