Woe is the Science Establishment. They’re wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth because a reputable poll from the University of Chicago found that only 48 percent of the public has a “great deal of confidence in the scientific community.” Unsurprisingly, the distrust is not evenly divided throughout society. According to the poll, 64 percent of Democrats expressed trust in the scientific community, contrasted with only 34 percent of Republicans.
To say the least, such a partisan divide is not healthy for society. But it can’t just be waived away or cured by calls from the scientists to “trust us.” No. To cure a problem, its cause must first be identified accurately so that remedies can be fashioned and applied. But the science establishment refuses to engage in such dispassionate introspection. Instead, they moan, “People believed in the polio vaccine. Why won’t they trust us now?”
Let me count the reasons. Back in the early 1950s, the science establishment did not wield “science” as a political cudgel to effectuate cultural change. Jonas Salk and Albert Bruce Sabin and their co-researchers—the creators of the polio vaccines—didn’t use their achievement to impose a stifling “the scientific consensus” upon society from which dissent was not allowed. Rather, they focused solely on preventing polio. Politics and cultural agendas were irrelevant to their lifesaving work, to the point that even an egregious and deadly mistake didn’t erode the public’s trust.
Contrast the purely scientific approach to eradicating polio with today’s political activist approach to science. Yes, objective bench scientists should still be trusted. But many of the leaders of the scientific and medical sectors have increasingly corrupted the essential work of science by abusing their authority to push policy down distinctly ideological paths. Not only that, but those who don’t follow the Party Line on issues such as COVID-19 and climate change face the potential ruination of their careers.
In 2020, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote an important column in the Wall Street Journal decrying the pollution of the hard sciences by politics, writing: “As ideological encroachment corrupts scientific institutions, one might wonder why more scientists aren’t defending the hard sciences from this intrusion. The answer is that many academics are afraid, and for good reason. They are hesitant to disagree with scientific leadership groups, and they see what has happened to scientists who do.”
This kind of behavior was also engaged in during COVID-19. We all witnessed the stifling of heterodox scientific opinions about how to best combat the pandemic—such as the denigration of reputable scientists as “fringe” who signed the Great Barrington Declaration. Moreover, the repeated authoritarian imposition of the supposed “scientific consensus” about controversial policies such as lockdowns, vaccines, and masks by the science establishment, liberal politicians, the mainstream media, and Big Tech have been so thoroughly digested by the conservative public that they need not be repeated here.
Less well known, but just as damning, is the recent revelation about how Dr. Francis Collins, then-head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Dr. Anthony Fauci stifled free discussion about the genesis of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a bombshell story supported by extensive email evidence reported by Fox News, reputable scientists worried at the beginning of the pandemic that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was both engineered by—and emerged from—the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Collins and Fauci seem to have quickly aborted free inquiry about this important question.
From the story: “Fauci hastily organized a call with dozens of worldwide virologists, and notes from the meeting obtained by Special Report reveal that suspicions of the lab leak theory were suppressed over concerns of how the public would react to news of possible Chinese government involvement.”
More: “In the meeting, fears were raised by then-National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins that ‘science and international harmony’ could be harmed and accusations of China’s involvement could distract top researchers.”
To say the least, that’s not how “science” is supposed to work. Worse, deciding the answer to the causes of the pandemic before the investigation had commenced for the unscientific purposes of protecting the reputation of science and assuring “international harmony” comes across today like an intentional cover-up of a potentially embarrassing disclosure about the NIH’s involvement in funding “gain of function” research at the Wuhan lab. No wonder Fauci has been so irritable under questioning of that matter by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
The partisan science credibility gap isn’t only about COVID. Conservatives have noticed the attempted power grab by climate scientists that would deploy the same types of autocratic policies imposed during the pandemic to fight global warming. For example, one proposal published in the influential science journal Nature urged the imposition of “personal carbon allowances”—which would ration our purchases of gasoline and the eating of disfavored foods like meat. These limitations would be enforced through the deployment of advanced computer technologies capable of tracking individual’s carbon emissions, akin to those used in China’s tyrannical social credit system. Meanwhile, the American Political Science Review, the world’s most prestigious political science journal, published an article calling for “authoritarian climate governance” to impose anti-global warming policies—such as a carbon tax—which advocates have been unable to enact through democratic means.
Added to this disturbing litany is the ubiquitous progressive political ideology promoted in the world’s most respected medical and bioethics journals. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and The Lancet have published articles calling for the imposition of critical race theory-type policies in the practice of medicine. So have some state and local public health departments. Other articles in the NEJM and the Journal of Medical Ethics advocated forcing doctors to perform legal but controversial interventions such as abortion and transgender transitions.
Given these and many other examples of ideologically skewed “science” that could be listed—none of which would have been engaged in by polio vaccine researchers—is it any wonder that the scientific community is not trusted by most conservatives?
This cannot continue. Contemporary societies require trustworthy sources of expertise. But trusting “the experts” is no longer a given. We need a scientific community that bridges political divides. But rebuilding that trust infrastructure will require the scientific community to eschew ideology and pursue truth objectively, without regard to favored cultural priorities or desired partisan outcomes.