“Science” has become a political catchword. “I believe in science,” Joe Biden tweeted six days before he was elected president. “Donald Trump doesn’t. It’s that simple, folks.”
But what does it mean to believe in science? The British science writer Matt Ridley draws a pointed distinction between “science as a philosophy” and “science as an institution.” The former grows out of the Enlightenment, which Mr. Ridley defines as “the primacy of rational and objective reasoning.” The latter, like all human institutions, is erratic, prone to falling well short of its stated principles. Mr. Ridley says the Covid pandemic has “thrown into sharp relief the disconnect between science as a philosophy and science as an institution.”
Mr. Ridley, 63, describes himself as a “science critic, which is a profession that doesn’t really exist.” He likens his vocation to that of an art critic and dismisses most other science writers as “cheerleaders.” That somewhat lofty attitude seems fitting for a hereditary English peer. As the fifth Viscount Ridley, he’s a member of Britain’s House of Lords, and he Zooms with me from his ancestral seat in Northumberland, just south of Scotland, in between sessions of Parliament (which he also attends by Zoom).
At Oxford nearly 40 years ago, Mr. Ridley studied the mating patterns of pheasants. His fieldwork involved much crouching in long country grass to figure out why these “jolly interesting” birds are polygamous—unlike most other avians. With the Canadian molecular biologist Alina Chan, he’s finishing a book called Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 to be published in November.
It will likely make its authors unwelcome in China. As Mr. Ridley worked on the book, he says, it became “horribly clear” that Chinese scientists are “not free to explain and reveal everything they’ve been doing with bat viruses.” That information has to be “dug out” by outsiders like him and Ms. Chan. The Chinese authorities, he says, ordered all scientists to send their results relevant to the virus for approval by the government before other scientists or international agencies could vet them: “That is shocking in the aftermath of a lethal pandemic that has killed millions and devastated the world.”
Mr. Ridley notes that the question of Covid’s origin has “mostly been tackled by people outside the mainstream scientific establishment.” People inside not only have been “disappointingly incurious” but have tried to shut down the inquiry “to protect the reputation of science as an institution.” The most obvious reason for this resistance: If Covid leaked from a lab, and especially if it developed there, “science finds itself in the dock.”
Other factors have been at play as well. Scientists are as sensitive as other elites to charges of racism, which the Communist Party used to evade questions about specifically Chinese practices “such as the trade in wildlife for food or lab experiments on bat coronaviruses in the city of Wuhan.”
Scientists are a global guild, and the Western scientific community has “come to have a close relationship with, and even a reliance on, China.” Scientific journals derive considerable “income and input” from China, and Western universities rely on Chinese students and researchers for tuition revenue and manpower. All that, Mr. Ridley says, “may have to change in the wake of the pandemic.”
In the U.K., he has also noted “a tendency to admire authoritarian China among scientists that surprised some people.” It didn’t surprise Mr. Ridley. “I’ve noticed for years,” he says, “that scientists take a somewhat top-down view of the political world, which is odd if you think about how beautifully bottom-up the evolutionary view of the natural world is.”
He asks: “If you think biological complexity can come about through unplanned emergence and not need an intelligent designer, then why would you think human society needs an ‘intelligent government’?” Science as an institution has “a naive belief that if only scientists were in charge, they would run the world well.” Perhaps that’s what politicians mean when they declare that they “believe in science.” As we’ve seen during the pandemic, science can be a source of power.
But there’s a “tension between scientists wanting to present a unified and authoritative voice,” on the one hand, and science-as-philosophy, which is obligated to “remain open-minded and be prepared to change its mind.” Mr. Ridley fears “that the pandemic has, for the first time, seriously politicized epidemiology.” It’s partly “the fault of outside commentators” who hustle scientists in political directions. “I think it’s also the fault of epidemiologists themselves, deliberately publishing things that fit with their political prejudices or ignoring things that don’t.”
Epidemiologists are divided between those who want more lockdowns and those who think that approach wasn’t effective and might have been counterproductive. Mr. Ridley sides with the latter camp, and he’s dismissive of the alarmist modeling that led to lockdowns in the first place. “The modeling of where the pandemic might go,” he says, “presents itself as an entirely apolitical project. But there have been too many cases of epidemiologists presenting models based on rather extreme assumption.”
One motivation: Pessimism sells. “You don’t get blamed for being too pessimistic, but you do get attention. It’s like climate science. Modeled forecasts of a future that is scary is much more likely to get you on television.” Mr. Ridley invokes Michael Crichton, the late science-fiction novelist, who hated the tendency to describe the outcomes of models in words that imply they are the “results” of an experiment. That frames speculation as if it were proof.
Climate science is already far down the road to politicization. “Twenty or 30 years ago,” Mr. Ridley says, “you could study how the ice ages happened and discuss competing theories without being at all political about it.” Now it’s very hard to have a conversation on the subject “without people trying to interpret it through a political lens.”
Mr. Ridley describes himself as “lukewarm” on climate change. He accepts that humans have made the climate warmer, but doesn’t subscribe to any of the catastrophist views that call for radical changes in human behavior and consumption. His nuanced position hasn’t protected him from attack, of course, and the British left is prone to vilify him as a “denier.”
Climate science has also been “infected by cultural relativism and postmodernism,” Mr. Ridley says. He cites a paper that was critical of glaciology—the study of glaciers—“because it wasn’t sufficiently feminist.” I wonder if he’s kidding, but Google confirms he isn’t. In 2016 Progress in Human Geography published “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.”
The politicization of science leads to a loss of confidence in science as an institution. The distrust may be justified but leaves a vacuum, often filled by a “much more superstitious approach to knowledge.” To such superstition Mr. Ridley attributes public resistance to technologies such as genetically modified food, nuclear power—and vaccines.
If you spurn Covid-19 vaccination, Mr. Ridley says he would “fervently argue” that it is “the lesser of two risks, at least for adults.” We have “ample data to show that—for this vaccine, and for others, going back centuries.” He calls vaccination “probably the most massive and incredible benefit of scientific knowledge.” Yet it’s “counterintuitive and difficult to understand,” which may explain why its advocates have been vilified through the centuries.
He cites the example of Mary Wortley Montagu, a British aristocrat, who pushed for smallpox inoculation in Britain after witnessing its administration in Ottoman Turkey in the early 18th century. She was viciously pilloried, he says, as was Zabdiel Boylston, a celebrated Boston doctor who inoculated residents against smallpox during a smallpox outbreak in 1721.
Vaccines have been central to the question of “misinformation” and the White House’s pressure campaign against social media to censor it. Mr. Ridley worries about the opposite problem: that social media “is complicit in enforcing conformity.” It does this “through ‘fact checking,’ mob pile-ons, and direct censorship, now explicitly at the behest of the Biden administration.” He points out that Facebook and Wikipedia long banned any mention of the possibility that the virus leaked from a Wuhan laboratory.
“Conformity,” Mr. Ridley says, “is the enemy of scientific progress, which depends on disagreement and challenge. Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts, as [the physicist Richard] Feynman put it.” Mr. Ridley reserves his bluntest criticism for “science as a profession,” which he says has become “rather off-puttingly arrogant and political, permeated by motivated reasoning and confirmation bias.” Increasing numbers of scientists “seem to fall prey to groupthink, and the process of peer-reviewing and publishing allows dogmatic gate-keeping to get in the way of new ideas and open-minded challenge.”
The World Health Organization is a particular offender: “We had a dozen Western scientists go to China in February and team up with a dozen Chinese scientists under the auspices of the WHO.” At a subsequent press conference they pronounced the lab-leak theory “extremely unlikely.” The organization also ignored Taiwanese cries for help with Covid-19 in January 2020. “The Taiwanese said, ‘We’re picking up signs that this is a human-to-human transmission that threatens a major epidemic. Please, will you investigate?’ And the WHO basically said, ‘You’re from Taiwan. We’re not allowed to talk to you.’ ”
He notes that WHO’s primary task is forestalling pandemics. Yet in 2015 it “put out a statement saying that the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century is climate change. Now that, to me, suggests an organization not focused on the day job.”
In Mr. Ridley’s view, the scientific establishment has always had a tendency “to turn into a church, enforcing obedience to the latest dogma and expelling heretics and blasphemers.” This tendency was previously kept in check by the fragmented nature of the scientific enterprise: Prof. A at one university built his career by saying that Prof. B’s ideas somewhere else were wrong. In the age of social media, however, “the space for heterodoxy is evaporating.” So those who believe in science as philosophy are increasingly estranged from science as an institution. It’s sure to be a costly divorce.
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