Just when you thought Dr. Anthony Fauci couldn’t do any more harm in the fight against COVID: He just appeared on CBS’s Sunday interview program Face the Nation and ridiculously claimed that criticizing him presents “a distinct anti-science flavor because I represent science.”
He added, ludicrously, “That’s dangerous…I’m not going to be around here forever, but science is going to be here forever. And if you damage science, you are doing something very detrimental to society long after I leave.”
Let me get this straight. Senator Rand Paul criticizing Fauci’s agency for giving grants to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to conduct dangerous “gain of function” research on bat viruses—and criticizing him personally for obfuscating about that while testifying before a Senate committee—is equivalent to attacking science itself?
Or that those—like me—who have complained that Fauci seems to like his newfound celebrity far too much to be an effective face for fighting the pandemic, and others pointing out his distinct partisanship—a criticism to which he responded on Face the Nation by bringing up the Capitol Riot of Jan. 6, thereby proving the point—damages science? Give. Me. A. Break.
Fauci wasn’t the only major American public health leader to recently act as if disagreement is synonymous with “anti-science.”
In a Washington Post interview, Francis Collins, the outgoing head of the NIH, criticized Americans for “believing in conspiracy theories” about the pandemic and claimed that “truth is losing.” He also advocated that those who “purposely misinform” the public about public health issues and science, “be brought to justice.” Good grief.
There is no question that we are experiencing a crisis of confidence in our public health, science, and medical sectors. But this predicament did not arise in a vacuum. Nor is it due to malefactors deceiving the public. Criticisms of Fauci, Collins and the WHO, are the effect—not the cause—of the crisis.
Moreover, there are abundant rational reasons for widespread mistrust. For example, as I have pointed out here on more than one occasion, our most prestigious scientific and medical journals have become highly ideological in their approach to medical and scientific issues that are culturally contentious. This political poisoning of “science” breeds distrust in the process and raises reasonable doubts about the conclusions published in these journals when they involve public policy or issues of social discord.
More to the point of the public’s response to the pandemic, there are fewer settled “truths” about the coronavirus than our leaders would have us believe. For example, what protection against reinfection does natural immunity provide, and how does a previously recovered case of COVID impact the question of whether to be vaccinated?
A seemingly important finding relevant to these questions was just reported in the New England Journal of Medicine—yes, it still publishes non-ideological science papers alongside ideological screeds. The study found that “the risk of having a severe reinfection” after recovering from COVID “is only approximately 1 percent of the risk of a previously uninfected person having a severe primary infection.” In other words, natural immunity provides significant protection against serious disease.
That’s certainly encouraging and distinctly relevant to the question of whether across-the-board vaccine mandates are justified. But I couldn’t help but note the deafening silence among our public health leaders to this seemingly important report. Why, it is almost as if that study doesn’t exist. Did they think we wouldn’t find out? Or do they just want us to meekly obey?
It is also important to remember that the pandemic is not yet two years with us and has proved a frustratingly moving target. Witness the international panic just sparked by the emergence of a new variant called omicron.
Is it going to be worse than delta? Is it going get around our body’s’ immune resistance, whether natural or stimulated by vaccines? The WHO has warned that the risk is “very high,” leading some countries to institute travel restrictions and consider renewed lockdowns. But South African doctors who have treated vaccinated patients with omicron report that the disease has been “mild.”
So, which is it? Nobody can say with certainty yet because the variant has been insufficiently studied. And even when more is known, the same data may be interpreted in different ways by scientists and doctors of good will and debated with intellectual vigor.
That’s not a problem. To the contrary, that is precisely how the scientific method is supposed to work. That’s because “science,” properly understood, is not a creed—as some in the political establishment and media seem to think. Rather it is a powerful method for gaining and applying knowledge about the workings of the physical universe.
Its tools are observation, careful measurement, testing, and the like. The “method” also includes skepticism and robust debate—even about seemingly settled issues. Indeed, attempting to silence criticism of a supposedly settled “scientific consensus” interferes with the proper practice of science, which requires freedom to express heterodox hypotheses and challenge reigning orthodoxies without fear of career retribution or “canceling” by the powers that be. That’s why Fauci’s claim that criticisms of him are the same thing as attacking “science” was so ridiculous. His purpose was not to further scientific accuracy but to stifle discourse, suppress dissent, protect orthodoxy, and burnish his own reputation. Ironically, if anything his claim is “anti-science,” that is.