scientist examining a slide
PHOTO: Science in HD

We need good science today more than ever. We need a calm, logical, rigorous, scientific way of thinking and acting. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, science and the scientific community often let society down. We must understand why and what must be done to lessen the chances of it happening again.

Scientists are human, all too human. They are not gods. They are not all-knowing. They are prone to ego, vanity, guessing and wishful thinking, just like the rest of us. They are prone to rationalizing rather than rational thinking. Many scientists like to build on what they know rather than let what they have just discovered undermine deeply held beliefs. They are human.

Scientists are not by definition good, ethical people. Science has been used to wage war just as much — if not more — than to promote peace. Science has no moral compass. It goes wherever the science leads it.

However, science contains paths to truth, paths to knowledge, paths to discovery that are profoundly important. Science can tell us what the world is, what the facts are, what works and what doesn’t.

Right now, we face a much greater enemy than COVID-19. We face an internet-enabled industrial-scale fakes new and misinformation onslaught. State actors and misinformation entrepreneurs peddle fake news, lies, propaganda with a view to gaining power and wealth. They see major opportunities in a customer segment that is irrational, emotional and cult-like. Cults are one of the biggest business opportunities of the 21st century, and cult branding is the new innovation.

The science establishment was slow to recognize that COVID-19 was airborne. Consequently advice on ventilation was not developed quickly enough. It was also slow to recognize new symptoms such as loss of smell and taste. In the early days, there was contradictory advice in relation to the use of masks. Some of the data modeling that occurred was naïve and lacked an understanding of the real world. There were arguments from certain scientists promoting pseudoscience such as herd immunity.

Good science undermines cults and promotes reason. Poor science facilitates, encourages and legitimizes cults because it gives the propaganda entrepreneurs some nasty truth to mix with their fake news.

Some of the science was misguided and wrong. Some of our scientific establishments were too slow, cautious, and overly influenced by politics. Some were promoting eugenics-style cull-the-herd approaches under the guise of herd immunity.

Politicians who said they were “being led by the science” did a disservice to science by their pandering. For politics to work it must be a jack of all trades because society is always more complex than one discipline or group.

We should no more believe that science has all the answers than that God has all the answers. We do a disservice to science and society when we hold up scientists as our new all-knowing gods. They are fallible and need to be questioned. We must demand of them that they recognize and learn from their mistakes.

The internet is a cult-making machine. Much of the tech industry’s business model is fake news, fake engagement. We must rein in the worsts elements of the internet. A robust, evidence-based, science-informed, societal-level approach can do that.