As political philosophies of government go, democracy, however flawed, is my favorite. Its weakness, that it can be and occasionally is manipulated by the power elite, cannot be disputed. Imperfect though it may be, on balance it beats all other forms of government.
But when it comes to scientific knowledge I am most emphatically not a democrat. Science, in my view, belongs to kings. Scientific facts are not up for vote. Scientific truth does not serve the common will. “My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge” is not a permissible credo in the world of science. I am an unapologetic scientific elitist.
Many people don’t understand this point of view. Permit me to make an analogy. Whether you’re a cab driver, a checkout clerk in a grocery store, a deliverer of packages — noble and essential trades all, and particularly courageous in these troubled times — you understand what it feels like for someone to come along and tell you your business. When some snide observer sidles up to you and tells you what you’re doing “wrong” and why, you are justified in feeling the familiar frustration of being condescended to. Hours turning into days turning into years of doing the same job has given you superlative insights and a legitimate expertise for your work, and that work cannot easily be understood by the casual observer, no matter how “clever” that observer might be.
Imagine, then, what it must be like for scientists. These are men and women who have labored for decades acquiring a very arcane, highly specialized, enormously difficult body of knowledge that they diligently apply to their work on a daily basis, forty, fifty, sixty hours a week — for years. Then along comes someone who doesn’t know anything at all about what scientists do, doesn’t even understand the language scientists speak nor the methods they use, and insists they are wrong. Not only do they insist they are wrong, they arrogantly demand they receive equal time and equal respect for their ignorance. They dismiss out of hand what the scientist says, and assert their personal point of view with a misplaced confidence that can only be described as unmitigated hubris.
A Facebook commenter recently began a sentence with the words, “I don’t care what the scientists say.” That the speaker was talking to a scientist when he wrote that and that his rhetorical overture went unchallenged is a testament to how inured even scientists have become to this kind of pandemic ignorance. If the speaker doesn’t care what scientists say, what is he basing his opinion on? His personal “expert” opinion? The opinion of politicians? The opinion of religious leaders? His “gut” instinct?
Carl Sagan said, “I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.” He concludes by saying, “Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.” In other words, we don’t have to jump to unwarranted conclusions based on our gut. We don’t need to “get off the fence” and assert our opinions. It’s okay to wait for more evidence. A bad theory is worse than no theory at all. And yes, the preponderance of scientific opinion doesn’t just count for something, it counts for a lot. Scientists are not always right, but they are right more often than anyone else when it comes to matters of science.
So when scientists tell me that coronavirus wasn’t deliberately engineered in a lab, and they offer evidence that I can easily understand why this is so, I accept what they tell me. I am not a biologist nor an epidemiologist, who am I to dispute them? More to the point, I do not have any reason to dispute what they say. Even more to the point still, I’m not going to assert that they are wrong and insist, without evidence, that everyone who doesn’t believe what I say and disbelieves what they say is stupid.
Before I go on, I want to make one thing clear. The possibility that coronavirus could have evolved at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and been accidentally released from there is being legitimately looked at. That is not the same thing as the Bond Villain-variety notion that it was deliberately created as a bioweapon and is being used by some dark force in the world to disrupt the world economy. There is absolutely no evidence of that, and there is very strong forensic evidence that not only is that not the case, it is highly unlikely. As I pointed out in a previous article, the novel coronavirus COVID-19 defies all computer models. Based on computer models, no one could have predicted that it would have had any significant harmful effect on humans. That it does has completely surprised everyone.
Also, I’m not going to go into the absurd-on-its-face idiocy that coronavirus is a byproduct of 5G technology. There are some conspiracy theories that are so risible — like the Alex Jones stuff of, say, 9/11 “Trutherism,” or the moon hoax theory, or flat-earthers — as to be beneath contempt, and do not even merit a response. Such lunacies are so silly they haven’t even risen to the dignity of mere error.
We ought to see clearly by now how dangerous it is when we let bad theories govern us. Because the president of the United States is stupid and given to believing stupid theories, tens of thousands of Americans have died, and hundreds of thousands more will probably die before this awful pandemic is done with us. That is the direct consequence of belief in bad theories. That is also the direct consequence of having to endure nine more months of the presidency of this child-raping murderer. America had the chance to boot him out of office in January and the Republicans blew it.
Conspiracy theorists aren’t harmless eccentrics, they are a malignant influencing force for the promotion of ignorance. They have eroded the precious fund of human wisdom and caused us to become distracted by pointless irrelevancies. They cater to our worst impulses, our paranoia, our discomfort in not knowing, our capacity to see patterns where none exist.
In short, we as a species need to grow up, and we need to do it in a hurry. We are running out of time. We have enough evil in the world without imagining more of it, and that without evidence. Because if we don’t grow up we are going to die. It’s just that simple.
This pandemic is the least of our problems. We are in the midst of an extinction level event, global warming, and if we allow ourselves to be distracted from the actual evils of the world with illegitimately manufactured evils — global warming denialism, runaway corporate greed and unprecedented political corruption — then we will become the authors and finishers of a doomsday of our very own making. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.