This is what drives me crazy about a lot of the public discourse on coronavirus. When did people get the idea that science is a democracy?
For the last many weeks I have been writing about the coronavirus pandemic, and, because everything that goes up online these days leaks out around the world at least a little bit, I have been hearing from some very far-flung people who want to debate science with me.
In order to avoid possible misrepresentation and to clear the air, I feel it is important for me to declare unequivocally that I am not a scientist. But neither are they.
This puts us in the mutually awkward position of having no idea what any of us is talking about. And please let me stipulate that I am not saying we have no right to talk about or be interested in science.
If anything, for those of us who have no idea what we are talking about, science is basically magic. And of course we want to talk about magic. It’s so cool. I have loved magic since I was a little kid. We ooh and ah, don’t we?
But this is the important thing. If you and I are not scientists, we must both acknowledge to ourselves that we are not scientists. We must understand that not being scientists means we have no authority whatsoever when we talk about science. Doesn’t mean we can’t talk. But it may mean we should confine our remarks to ooh and ah.
For those of us who are not scientists, when we talk about wonder drugs that can cure coronavirus in nothing flat, when we talk about what ventilators do, when we talk about herd immunity or polymerase chain reaction tests and especially when we talk about bats, we have to understand that we are all basically talking about magic.
How in the heck did that guy do that? I could swear he sawed that lady right in half and now she’s walking around in a long dress!
We can debate the lady sawed in half trick, and I have, ad nauseum. Obviously it’s two very short women in one long dress. But we non-scientists should express an opinion about the accuracy of polymerase chain reaction tests only if it’s going to be the punch line to something that starts, “Coronavirus walks into a bar.”
What if we have read some scientific journal articles? That’s worse. Now we have no idea what we’re talking about, but we think we do. And we don’t. Know why? Because we are not a scientist.
Is that undemocratic? Yes. Science is one of the least democratic of all realms. It may be democratic at the front door, but then, forget it. Anybody can knock to get in, but if you do get in and if you manage to get upstairs to the classrooms, forget democracy. Up there it’s the rigid hierarchy of knowledge and qualification.
Does that mean we can’t be a scientist if we don’t have a big fancy diploma? Yes. Obviously. Theoretically, you could get on top of polymerase chain reactions by working on it all by yourself in a cave in Oklahoma, but why? Wouldn’t you be curious what everybody else was doing in polymerase chain reactions? The place to find out is school.
School won’t be easy, but, you know what? Going to school will actually be easier and a heck of a lot more efficient than trying to do it by yourself in a cave.
So, yes. Diploma. If you’re such an expert, where’s your degree? When did the other experts agree that you were an expert? If never, why? The fact is, you won’t have any idea if you know anything at all unless and until you test yourself against the experts.
And that’s mean and brutal. Let’s say you think you know something. You tell your dissertation director you want to submit an article about it to a scientific journal. She looks at what you’ve got. She says, “This is not original. This is derivative crap that’s five years behind the curve. I should kick you out of the program for this.”
God forbid you manage to make an end-run and shoehorn your article into some obscure sloppily edited un-peer-reviewed journal somewhere. Then the experts are going to descend on you like ravenous seabirds, and the only thing left will be your rings and your watch.
In the emails and Facebook comments I have received from people unhappy with my coronavirus coverage, I detect very strong parallels with similar responses I have gotten to things I have written in the past about climate change. There is a distinct pattern at work here. If I were a scientist, I could probably express it as a kind of algorithm, but, as it is, I have to depend on spellcheck to spell algorithm for me.
People with the narrowest academic backgrounds who also have the strongest cultural ideological objections to what they hear from the broad scientific consensus are the most likely to claim and believe that they are smarter than the scientists. The less qualified we are to debate the scientific consensus and the more we hate what the consensus tells us, the more likely we are to discover someday just gazing at ourselves in the mirror that we are Albert Einstein.
So what is that as an algorithm? It’s like, if ignorance is X and bias is Y, and M is the mirror, and if C is the consensus and Y is you… no, wait, Y is already bias. OK, forget you. But if AE is Albert Einstein…
It’s what I said.
Is science settled? Do they know everything already about climate change and coronavirus? Absolutely not. But, you know what? Finding out that scientists debate things is not like a big breakthrough. If you had asked the scientists, they would have told you long ago that they debate and argue these topics fiercely all the time among themselves. But please note the final phrase. Among themselves.
Not among us. Sorry. We are not actually invited. A person must fight and dig and grind for years to establish himself first before he can even get an invitation to the big front-line debate, let alone get anybody there to listen to him. It’s not rock and roll. Science stars are not discovered on street corners.
So who do we listen to, us non-scientists, if the big-deal scientists can’t even make up their minds? Well, first of all, they can make up their minds. That’s called the consensus.
In 1857 the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur demonstrated that the fermentation of wine is caused by microorganisms. Sure, there was debate at the time. But eventually the consensus was that Pasteur was right, enabling science to move on to the next problem, preventing microorganisms from spoiling the wine.
Is there a so-called scientist out there somewhere today who might argue that Pasteur was wrong? Probably. I’m sure you could find someone to say that for you, especially if you offered him a bottle of wine. But the consensus is unchanged, and today’s consensus is the foundation for tomorrow’s great breakthrough discoveries.
The answer to the question, who do we listen to, is that we listen to the consensus. Why do we listen to the consensus? Because we are not remotely qualified to question the consensus. Remember: this stuff is all basically magic to us. If the consensus is that the guy didn’t really saw the lady in half, it was a trick, then that’s what we have to go with. It’s not an election, and we don’t get to vote.
Time for another crack at algorithms, which, by the way and in spite of the popular conspiracy online theory, are not named for Al Gore. Is there an algorithm for when we should probably keep our mouths shut? I think maybe. It has to do with how badly we hate what we hear.
We really badly want to go eat Mexican food in a crowded restaurant. The broad consensus of the scientists is that there may be a severe second wave of the pandemic if everybody does that. We hate that. We want to go eat Mexican food.
So let me see if I can do this. If X is how much we want to go eat Mexican food and Y is how little we know about the science of the pandemic expressed as a positive number (how do you like that?), then X times Y is how much we ought to keep our mouths shut. In other words, the more we dislike what we hear and the less we know of the science, the worse it’s going to be if we open our mouths.
I should say this: I do get messages from thoughtful people who are trying to parse the genuinely confusing news about the science of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of them challenge me on why I listen to some scientists and not others. Fair enough.
All I know is that I try to find my way to the consensus, not the adversarial fringe. I miss the target, sometimes. Please do not ask my editor why I am not allowed to write about fluoride anymore. I know that he is acting for my own good.
This is more what I mean. I received this message yesterday from a reader: “Ventilator treatment, as described on internet, lungs fill with liquid, drugs given so body absorbs, this can damage kidneys and liver and works slowly enough to let lungs fill up so drown in our own 'fleam'. Every surgury has a vacum pump, why not suck out?”
I would be so proud if the next big New York Times headline could be: “Dallas Observer Reader Stops Coronavirus Deaths with Why Not Suck Out Theory.”
It seems unlikely. Can we at least agree on that?
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