In his Spectator column this week, Toby looks at the “head-scratcher” of how progressives seek to both politicise science and appeal to it as an objective source of justification for radical measures like lockdown and Net Zero.
Here’s a paradox. Over the past two-and-a-half years, a cadre of senior politicians and their ‘expert’ advisers across the world have successfully promoted a series of controversial public policies by claiming they’re based on ‘the science’ rather than a particular moral or ideological vision. I’m thinking of lockdowns and Net Zero in particular. Yet at the same time, this group has engaged in behaviour that has undermined public confidence in science. Why appeal to the authority of science to win support for a series of politically contentious policies – and then diminish its authority?
Take Anthony Fauci, for instance, who recently announced he’s stepping down as Chief Medical Adviser to Joe Biden. Even though he once claimed to “represent science” in the eyes of the American people, he misled them about the likely duration of the lockdowns (“15 days to slow the spread”), overstated the efficacy of the Covid vaccines when they were first rolled out, refused to countenance the possibility that COVID-19 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (it later emerged that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, under his leadership, had given a grant to the EcoHealth Alliance, which helped fund ‘gain of function’ research at the Chinese lab) and conspired with other prominent scientists, such as Francis Collins, to besmirch the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration (“There needs to be a quick and devastating published takedown of its premises,” Collins told Fauci in an email). A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal concluded: “His legacy will be that millions of Americans will never trust Government health experts in the same way again.”
Another case in point is a recent editorial in Nature Human Behaviour, one of several journals in the Nature Research stable, the world’s pre-eminent publisher of scientific research. “Although academic freedom is fundamental, it is not unbounded,” it begins, and then proceeds to set out rules that future academic papers will have to comply with in addition to meeting all the usual standards for publication, e.g. peer review. It says the journal won’t publish articles that might cause “potential harms” (even “inadvertently”) to individuals or groups that are most vulnerable to “racism, sexism, ableism or homophobia”. “Academic content that undermines the dignity or rights of specific groups; assumes that a human group is superior or inferior over another simply because of a social characteristic; includes hate speech or denigrating images; or promotes privileged, exclusionary perspectives raises ethics concerns that may require revisions or supersede the value of publication,” it says.
It should be obvious, says Toby, that “far from being politically neutral, these rules embody a particular ideology and in future the truthfulness of a scientific finding will be subordinate to this perspective”. Were this to be political conservatives stating that research would be rejected if it went against their views on, say, family values and religion, then “those progressive scientists applauding Nature Human Behaviour would throw up their arms in horror and point out – correctly – that these rules are at odds with one of the foundational principles of science, which is to pursue the truth, wherever it may lead”.
In the end though, Toby notes, it’s an own goal for those who want to “appeal to the authority of science to promote lockdowns and Net Zero”, as it undermines the concept of objective, politically neutral science and announces that “the only knowledge that will count as ‘scientific’ is that which promotes their agenda”.
Is it a sign of how emboldened progressives now feel that they can make science explicitly ideological yet still appeal to it as the embodiment of objectivity, or is it an indication of overreach that presages a downfall?
Worth reading in full.