By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.
Two weeks ago I wrote about Vaccine Effectiveness and Scientific Communication. Today I want to follow up on that with something related that was published last year in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (est. 1890), When Science Becomes Embroiled in Conflict: Recognizing the Public’s Need for Debate while Combating Conspiracies and Misinformation (Stephen Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol, and others). That title is filled with meaning, and the article was written by nine serious scholars from an august group of research universities. It exhibits much that is good and essential in the academic approach to our common problems. But as someone who among other things has been an academic since he first entered the Main Library filled with 3 million books, I also recognize that it has blind spots that we all have in common.
From the Abstract:
Most democracies seek input from scientists to inform policies. This can put scientists in a position of intense scrutiny. Here we focus on situations in which scientific evidence conflicts with people’s worldviews, preferences, or vested interests. These conflicts frequently play out through systematic dissemination of disinformation or the spreading of conspiracy theories, which may undermine the public’s trust in the work of scientists, muddy the waters of what constitutes truth, and may prevent policy from being informed by the best available evidence. However, there are also instances in which public opposition arises from legitimate value judgments and lived experiences. In this article, we analyze the differences between politically motivated science denial on the one hand, and justifiable public opposition on the other. We conclude with a set of recommendations on tackling misinformation and understanding the public’s lived experiences to preserve legitimate democratic debate of policy. (emphasis added)
Democracies and expert opinion. Yes, all governments need “expert” advice to function in service of the common welfare and often these experts are scientists. This is not the place delve into the nature of American democracy, but one might note that what the people want and need and what their erstwhile political leadership delivers are not one and the same. Not that they ever have been, but this book by Jane Mayer, who is the granddaughter of Allan Nevins, is as good a place to start as any.
The question that is not directly addressed here is: Who are these scientists and what are their motivations? The default position of the powers-that-be has been to view scientists as disinterested seekers of the truth of the natural world. However, as pointed out so well by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in Merchants of Doubt , scientists and their patrons who are “science adjacent” can be anything but disinterested. The people inevitably have figured this out, with the scientific and political responses to COVID-19 as the exemplary case. But 30+ years into the Statin Era, deaths from cardiovascular disease (CVD) are still the most common cause of death in the United States. It is not an accident that deaths from CVD have declined only marginally by 2.8% over the past ten years and remain highest in areas that are poorer and/or medically underserved. At the other end of the spectrum, neither is it unrelated that as the “science” of economics has become more influential over the past 40+ years, economic welfare has decreased for most people. 
Conflict, Disinformation, and Conspiracy Theories. Yes, conflicts both imagined and real often lead to conspiracy theories. This has been covered in a remarkable book by Thomas Milan Konda, Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusions have Overrun America (2019). And why is this? The reasons are many, but in my view this passage has considerable explanatory power:
Contemporary research has found that people who see their situation deteriorating are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories. Feelings of increasing powerlessness, especially of a diminution of socio-political control, lead people to conspiratorial conclusions. Believing that one’s plight is caused by a conspiracy can provide ‘a clear explanation for a negative outcome that otherwise seems inexplicable.” Such powerless can also lead to increased religious intensity or greater acceptance of authoritarian leaders, but when these feelings are linked with overwhelming, shocking events…the odds of turning to conspiracy are increased.” (p. 32)
As Richard Hofstadter put it in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, this also relies on a Manichean outlook that presumes the conflict of good versus evil related to the “megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted yet assured of ultimate triumph (with) the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary.” When I first read Hofstadter as the proverbial college freshman, I thought he was overwrought. Now I tend to believe that he exaggerated only a bit, during the era in which Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination was a fundamental text of the nascent Professional Managerial Class (PMC) that was soon to be confused by a book written as sociological satire.
Conspiracy and the Undermining of Trust in Science and Government. Yes, but “Science” and “Government” have done quite well at undermining themselves on their own, as noted every day at Naked Capitalism, especially regarding COVID-19, of which this article is a case study.
Politically motivated science denial versus justifiable public opposition. This is analyzed well in the article and will be considered below.
A primary focus of this article is the “COVID-19 infodemic.” This is an apt term to describe the past three years and has been defined as “an abundance of low-quality information (i.e., information that turns out to be false), disinformation (i.e., false information that is intentionally spread to mislead people), and conspiracy theories.” That much of this “low-quality information” has been published in “peer-reviewed” journals seems to be unappreciated by the authors. The political fault-finding here is what one might expect and is not particularly useful: “Trump’s dissemination of misinformation has been linked to reduced compliance with pandemic control measures, which eventually translated into higher COVID-19 infection and fatality growth rates in U.S. counties that predominantly voted for Trump in 2016 than those that voted for Clinton.” Facile, but perhaps.
The early responses to COVID-19 were primarily theatre, not “science,” and one can only have high hopes for the Covid Crisis Group’s book that was pre-reviewed at NC on April 24: Lessons from the Covid War (pre-ordered). I am reminded of a recent conversation with a retired internist colleague. She asked my whether I have been “boosted,” and I replied, “No.” She then asked in her PMC glory, “Is that because of the Great Orange One with all his misinformation?” Stifling a giggle, my reply was, “No. I was immunosuppressed for most of the year after my two Pfizer shots and did not want to risk another unnecessary challenge to my immune system.”
After a nod that I interpreted as assent I continued with, “What seems most sensible to me is the mRNA vaccines are experimental and do not work, in that they prevent neither infection nor transmission. In any case, I have not been convinced that boosters will work on the current variants of SARS-CoV-2. Or that the purported tunable character of mRNA vaccines as a practical and rapid response to emerging infections will ever matter with a rapidly evolving virus such as SARS-CoV-2. And besides, cheap and easy non-pharmaceutical interventions such as effective masks, improved ventilation, and air filters are much more likely to work in the short term, with anti-virals coming next, and then effective intranasal vaccines that will stop SARS-CoV-2 before it starts. Up to now, virtually all of our efforts have been devoted to intramuscular mRNA vaccines, which may cause too many side effects to be safe enough to justify their widespread use.” No argument in response and even a short disquisition on vaccine effectiveness and how that is measured! Medical school memories, I suppose.
How has COVID-19 affected our democracy, according to Lewandowsky and co-authors? Primarily by interfering with economic freedom and individual liberty (leaving the relationships between democracy and “economic freedom” aside for the time being). As they rightly emphasize, “Any infringement upon civil liberties must be thoroughly examined before it can be justified as an unfortunate exception in the interest of public health.” But this was not done effectively, or at all during the pandemic. Nevertheless, shutdowns and work-from-home did protect some of us, including yours truly who was able to work a mostly normal schedule and can survive and sometimes thrive for extended periods in a hermit-like existence.
Nevertheless, “these social restrictions have disproportionately impacted women, single parents, minority groups, refugees and migrants, and poor people who cannot afford to buy basic personal protective equipment (PPE).” Or the “essential workers” who did not have the option or the wherewithal to stay home during the successive COVID-19 waves (meatpacking plant workers, for example) or work-from-home for the duration, which for the WFH contingent may last quite a while in some businesses. In one of the most effective passages in the paper the authors note that:
Frustration with, and opposition to, social restrictions are therefore potentially legitimate grievances that deserve to be heard in democratic public discourse. Pandemics deprive people of their feelings of control and security, factors that are known to enhance the attractiveness of conspiracy theories. Some people may therefore be driven towards conspiratorial rhetoric out of psychological or rhetorical needs rather than out of an intrinsic disposition. Although the epistemic status of argumentation is independent of the proponent’s circumstances, those circumstances or grievances may be relevant to determining the appropriate response. The need to recognize and empathize with these grievances is amplified by the fact that the pandemic has had the most severe impact on low-wage and low-skill employees. These employees were hit in multiple ways, from wage insecurity for hourly workers to dense living conditions and the inability to escape crowded and unsafe workplaces. (emphasis added)
Although they are generally ignored in common PMC discourse, the truth of the matter (i.e., “epistemic status of argumentation” in perfectly fluent academic jargon) is that legitimate grievances of the working class should be recognized and understood (one can hope) and disagreement with the status quo of our political economy should not be taken as evidence of one’s deplorable character. And indeed, “the pandemic has had the greatest effect on low-wage and low-skill employees…wage insecurity, dense living conditions…crowded and unsafe workplaces.” At which point I must point out that the “low-skill employee” trope has no place in legitimate academic discourse, however common it is.
Only a professor or the completely oblivious (not always the same) could view a waiter, line cook, barista, bartender, meatcutter in the “meat factory” in Nebraska or Kansas, certified medical assistant, or nurse’s aide as a “low-skill employee.” But I digress again to note that the problem with too many of my PMC colleagues is that they have never had to actually work for a living, which has been one of the many lessons learned from COVID-19. For an excellent recent and concise philosophical treatment of work, see A Philosopher Looks at Work by Raymond Geuss, a child of the American working class who found himself at Cambridge.
Which brings us to scientific argumentation and scientific denial, the latter of which “arises when people reject well-established scientific propositions that are no longer debated by the relevant scientific community.” Common examples are biological evolution, anthropogenic climate change, and the link between HIV and AIDS. As with many standard academic approaches, an acronym exists: FLICC: Fake experts – Logical fallacies – Impossible expectations – Cherry-picking – Conspiracy theories.
Fake scientific experts have been a thing at least since Big Tobacco enlisted scientists and physicians to deny the link between smoking and lung cancer, which was proven, even if the molecular mechanisms remained unknown for 40 years, as I have noted before by Richard Doll and Bradford Hill in the early 1950s. The relevant science is more accessible in The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  Logical fallacies include “straw man arguments” and false dichotomies. Another example is conflation of logical and temporal prediction. An example of the former is: Fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and the climate will get warmer. The latter has been common since the ancient prediction of eclipses and the development of celestial mechanics. These forms of prediction are not related. Impossible expectations include “proof of global warming,” which, while it cannot actually be proven by the deluge that hit Fort Lauderdale earlier this month, that Glacier National Park should be renamed National Park when our children have grandchildren, if not sooner, is good evidence for AGW. Another may be that “herd immunity will save us from COVID-19.” Cherry picking is self-explanatory. As I have taught my graduate students: Once is an anecdote, twice is data, three times is a result. Conspiracy theories can be an adjunct to denial, which often has understandable origins for those who will listen.
The brief for the distinction between science denial and scientific argumentation is not particularly convincing, as has been illustrated throughout COVID-19. The Great Barrington Declaration may have been associated with something called the American Institute for Economic Research, but the authors are scientists associated with Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard Medical School, just as are many of the 937,000+ signers of the declaration. Scientific truth is not a matter of declaration. Herd immunity against coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-2 remains “problematic,” and this has been known for a long time. Dr. Anthony Fauci famously told us he “represents science.” The context of that statement does not support the notion that he believes he “is science,” as commonly reported (it is no accident that a Startpage search returns mostly articles from the Right side of the political spectrum). But the statement was cringe-inducing and reminded too few actual scientists of John 14:6, in which Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” The mRNA vaccines about which Dr. Fauci was talking in his interview with CBS News were at the time, and remain, “problematic.”
Finally, the authors conclude with: “When science has an impact on policy and on people’s daily lives, two fundamental rights of the public collide: the right to be heard, and the right not to be misled. We propose that this tension can be resolved, and legitimate democratic debate be facilitated, in at least two ways.” Perhaps “coincide” rather than “collide” should be used to describe the relationship between these two fundamental rights. These first recommendation is:
Misleading and inappropriate argumentation must be identified…Rapidly evolving crises can overwhelm the scientific process, which cannot provide firm answers at the speed at which they are demanded by the public and policy makers. However, lack of scientific knowledge or scientific uncertainty does not legitimate misleading or inappropriate argumentation.
Indeed, but the correct and proper answer from the “scientific process” is “We do not know, but we will work hard to find answers that are needed for the public at large.” With COVID-19, this was not the answer. It was clear from the beginning that the physicians who dealt with the first wave of COVID-19 in Wuhan were correct in their response that what they were seeing required rapid and effective measures, to include travel bans, masks, social distancing, and other immediate acts in the face of an apparently novel, acute disease that kills. Instead, the scientific and political establishments argued among themselves about SARS-CoV-2 origins and pathobiology and conducted several experiments on millions of people, without their consent. I wrote earlier in this series that the mRNA vaccine experiment worked but the outcome was uncertain. What I meant is that all properly performed experiments work but they often produce an answer that is inconvenient if not unwanted. Which is the case with COVID-19 vaccines, so far. The good scientist revises her hypothesis and continues with her research. The bad scientist, who is often a marketer in disguise, doubles down on his original hypothesis and cashes in as soon as possible.
The second recommendation is:
The functional role of inappropriate argumentation must be interrogated (another favorite but out of place academic term). Do people believe and voice those arguments to express a relevant aspect of their circumstances? If people voice conspiratorial rhetoric, do they express a deep-seated belief or does the rhetoric serve other functions such as loss of control.
What strikes me most about this recommendation is that it applies to both the skeptical and perhaps conspiratorial public and the soi-disant scientists and administrators and denizens of corporate C-suites and their research directors who run the other side of the argument. All you have to do for the scientific side is replace “conspiratorial” with “self-interested,” as in having a vested interest in the outcome. And therein lies what I view as the problem with “science embroiled in conflict.” Fully half of the conflict comes from each side. The benefits have manifestly accrued to only one side of the argument during COVID-1, though. That result is to be expected, unfortunately.
Which leads me to the question “Why?” I do not know. I have looked. Many proffered answers are facile. There can be no unitary answer, but I have watched our “Social Capital” dwindle to nearly nothing during a working life that began just before Neoliberalism asserted itself as the dominant and only acceptable paradigm of political economy. Unless and until we rebuild our social capital in the form of “conventions, spaces, practices, and norms of conduct” that will not fail us, either in day-to-day life or in the crises that confront us from time to time, “Nothing will fundamentally change,” as the politician has said. We have work to do.
 Their recent book is The Big Myth: How American Business Taught us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market (Bloomsbury, 2023). Ninety pages in and it is not clear how “market fundamentalism” is anything but an essential attribute of modern, especially neoliberal, capitalism, whatever the regulatory environment.
 I violate Professor Horowitz’s Rule here and generalize from my own necessarily limited experience, but as a 17-year-old high school graduate I was paid $53,000 per year in 2023 dollars, including overtime at time-and-a-half – double time on holidays with meaningful fringe benefits, to work at the lowest level (a shovel and sling blade were my most commonly used tools, along with a dump truck and forklift) in Maintenance at a heavy chemical plant (union, of course) for a transnational corporation whose business address at the time was Number One Times Square. Similar jobs were readily available to many who wanted them in an economy that paid the most experienced hourly workers in that plant (relief operators who could perform every production task) $192,000 a year in 2023 dollars. Is it any wonder that many of them owned a boat and a small cabin on the river, and that they were (mostly) politically quiescent. Or that their children are often obstreperous in the early years of the new millenium.
 “In the twenty-nine months between October 1951 and March 1954, 789 deaths were reported in Doll and Hill’s original cohort (of 41,024 physicians). Thirty-six of these were attributed to lung cancer. When lung cancer deaths were counted in smokers versus nonsmokers, the correlation virtually sprang out: all thirty-six of the deaths had occurred in smokers. The difference between the two groups was so significant that Doll and Hill did not even need to apply complex statistical metrics to discern it. The trial designed to bring the most rigorous statistical analysis to the cause of lung cancer barely required elementary mathematics to prove its point.” The Emperor of All Maladies, p. 249. Of course, not all people who smoke get lung cancer, but of those who get lung cancer about 90% smoke or have smoked. Correlation and causation.
The early responses to COVID-19 were primarily theatre, not “science,”
Yes indeed, I would agree, but I would add that it was Bête Noire.
Unless and until we rebuild our social capital in the form of “conventions, spaces, practices, and norms of conduct” that will not fail us, either in day-to-day life or in the crises that confront us from time to time, “Nothing will fundamentally change,”
That’s not going to happen. Those “conventions, spaces, practices, and norms of conduct” are curated by those who pay the scientist, the labs, the schools, and the media which molds those “norms of conduct.”
Most democracies seek input from scientists to inform policies
To conflate “democracies” and the function and progress of “science” is fanciful thinking. It’s not science per se that is the problem, it’s the ends to which it is put. I did a quick word search and I don’t think “ethics” appeared, even once in the article.
The statement that “all governments need ‘expert’ advice to function in service of the common welfare and often these experts are scientists” sounds good, but the reality is that a government that is controlled by corporations/ruling elites seeks not the “common welfare” but maintaining their privileged positions, a la Caroll Quigely.
Those who pay the scientists AND get to massage or hide the results.
The Scientific Method follows the path of Money, often dirty.
Good spot on the absence of the words ethics or ethical. For me any scientific finding should be read with “he who pays the piper calls the tune” in mind.
Thanks for the overview of a very complex topic. As someone who has spent a good chunk of my professional life reading environmental impact assessments of various forms I’ve encountered numerous examples of bad science or bad epistemology placed within policy contexts.
Its one of my bugbears that far too many scientists overstate their own abilities to establish anything close to scientific ‘truth’. Even within science there are enormous unacknowledged problems associated with gatekeeping and overspecialisation.
Gatekeeping has obvious issues – long before covid one of the best known examples in the literature was in the UK post-Chernobyl. The scientific committee established by the government solemnly proclaimed that there could be no impact in Britain. Several months later radioactive sheep turned up in the Cumbrian highlands. It turns out that the scientific committee was entirely composed of Oxbridge physicists, none of whom were aware of the copious studies found in soil science journals on the bioconcentration of caesium in acid soils. It hadn’t occurred to the government to include some biochemists or soil scientists in the committee, and it hadn’t occurred to anyone in the committee to ask any non-physicists for comments. For that matter, it hadn’t occurred to anyone in the media, including science journals, to challenge the original conclusions.
In my experience, a huge problem with many scientists (and engineers) is that they lack an awareness of the limits of their own expertise. I’ve witnessed many times very good scientists Dunning-Kruger themselves when straying outside their own particular area of knowledge, rather than admit they didn’t know. Sometimes even the ‘public’ knew better. I once worked closely with a geologist who was widely considered the top man in his field. He was very careful in explaining difficult concepts to laypeople and he was a gentleman who would never contradict anyone (expert or layperson) in public – I learned to read his body language to know when someone in a meeting (usually an engineer) said something stupid. On one occasion, he stiffened when three ‘experts’ talked down a non-expert (a local farmer) in a public information meeting about the impact of a deep basement excavation on groundwater. They were apparently blissfully unaware that groundwater can flow – sometimes very rapidly. The farmer knew this (he did, after all, know all about the wells on his land). The specialists did not, and hadn’t taken it into account in their design or analysis and came close to ridiculing the farmer for his concerns. They were quietly pulled aside after the meeting and informed of their error. But of course nobody apologised to the farmer.
Another core issue is the applicability of standards which are often on very shaky scientific ground, simply for convenience. The ‘safe’ levels of many compounds are often based more on the limitations at the time of setting the limits for measurements (this applies to dioxin, as one example) than on any firm scientific evidence. The use of E-coli levels as a indicator of bacterial/viral contamination in freshwater is wholly outdated, but because the standards have become inshrined in guidance, this is widely ignored.
In many ways, I think things are getting worse. In the past few weeks I’ve seen online two examples of well-known science writers call out supposed bad science in an entirely inappropriate way. In one case, it was all too obvious that the writer didn’t understand the first thing about the topic. Once upon a time generalists like science journalists were very, very careful about calling out a specialist on any topic. But it seems now that its good for your career, so long as you pick the right target.
Years ago I asked, playing devil’s advocate, if using clean potable water (perhaps our most precious resource, no?) to rinse out plastic containers before recycling was worth it and you replied that it was. Since then I believe it’s become known that many plastics (I think Yves specifically referred to either “clear” or “white” plastic) are not easily recycled. The mountains of plastic in Africa (https://tse4.mm.bing.net/th?id=OIP.XFlat9yaFHIWCsKmp1dwtgHaE80) would seem to confirm it. But I am not a scientist or expert on recycling plastic. Do you still think that clean water should be used on plastic to avoid contaminants for the recycling process? Not trying to put you on the spot, just looking for your informed opinion.
So far as I’m aware, it makes little difference whether its clean or not apart from general hygiene in the initial processing center (sometimes they are sorted by hand). There are lots of different plastic streams and sorting systems – PE is relatively easy to recycle if segregated, PVC is not. Most plastics now are not fully segregated so far as I know as its just proven too difficult, so they tend to be recycled into low grade product, if at all.
There are various new processes online – the holy grail is chemical cracking where they can be broken down to base chemicals for re-use, but so far as I know this isn’t done on a large scale yet. But its been many years since I did a deep dive into the topic, so I could be out of date.
I would say in general a quick rinse is best, just out of respect for people down the line who may have to handle the material or clean out the machines, but its not likely to make much of an impact on any end use.
And locally, even though we have separate garbage and recycling bins, for the past two years there has been no recycling, it all goes into landfill. One of the employees told me that they had lost their recycling contract but hoped to find a new recycler, so didn’t want to publicize it as they wanted everyone to continue to comply…
My garbage pick up does the same thing…
“Its one of my bugbears that far too many scientists overstate their own abilities to establish anything close to scientific ‘truth’. Even within science there are enormous unacknowledged problems associated with gatekeeping and overspecialisation.”
It’s one thing when people overestimate themselves by just bull-headedly charging into another field. It’s another when their ego is always always always the most important.
I don’t understand the willingness to double and triple down even as you come to see that you are obviously wrong, but it happens.
Many thanks. Agree with your analysis. Indeed as soon as I saw University of Bristol I guessed my old dept (Social Medicine – has changed name since my time) which has/had host of people who commonly dealt with these kind of issues so was surprised it was psychology dept.
Lots I could add based on what I’ve experienced Monday and Tuesday in an NHS hospital, including signing a form fully indemnifying anybody and everybody in the NHS regarding a still BNF listed, fully licensed prescribed medication….. But all the sordid story ultimately traceable back to fact money has completely skewed mental health research and I must get right arm back into the Bradford sling asap so no time to write more.
Anyway nice to be back home. It’s only because of a 2-1 victory in a war between consultants in 3 disciplines, refereed by a brilliant nurse practitioner!
That nothing close to the recommendations proposed herein are actually being given consideration nor seeing much action tells me all I need to know about our societal political governmental situation: we the people are not considered, theater is primary, and cui bono is the first place to look for any explanations.
We are all left to decry the successful failure of common sense, the scientific method, and policy that benefits the public at large.
The emperor has no clothes and those who point this out are outlawed or excommunicated. Any reasonableness is seen as a weakness and exploited.
That we have arrived here and still whine and bemoan the situation – and don’t focus exclusively on decisive action to remedy the escalating problem. This, for me, only demonstrates further how decisively we have succumbed.
Is it fear? Lack of courage or conviction? Laziness? Our enjoyment of discourse? Our inability to decide on what would be better – so a failure of creativity?
Or is it that those who promulgate the status quo have won so decisively we can’t even imagine an alternative?
What is missing is the feedback loop to “Reality”. There is no penalty for being wrong in especially in the social sciences. Regular people deal with the consequences of the scientists being wrong, while the researcher is 5 research contracts down the line.
I have come to have an appreciation for Chairman Mau’s cultural revolution in recent years as more and more wrong headed thinking is pushed on the rest of us by experts who have no experience in the real world, but are completely convinced with religious zealotry of their righteousness
Major Misinformation the Authorities failed to suppress at the time.
Fortunately, the Powers-that-Be now have far more control over information flow and suppressing uncomfortable facts and their debate than did the Catholic Church, scientific and medical establishments.
A. The Earth circles around the Sun;
B. Homo Sapiens never mated with Neanderthals;
C. Scrubbing with disinfectants reduces transmission of bacterial diseases by doctors;
D. Stress causes ulcers, not Heliobacter;
E. Volcanic disruption killed the dinosaurs;
F. Continents never drift:
G. Thalidomide doesn’t cause birth defects, and
H. Everyone, not merely CEOs and psychopaths, behave exactly as Homo Economicus.
I’m sure there are one or two other instances I’ve overlooked.
How did I forget Phlogiston and Spontaneous Generation?
And there is the aether.
Well, I’m not ruling the aether out after reading a colleague’s book.
I am a physicist by training, one time main board director of a large energy company.
I do not regard my self ever belonging to the PMC nor am I now a member of the ‘deplorables’, although my start in life was similar.
Despite have some reservations about some commentary of the covid situation I was enjoying this article until the section involving AGW. After that I had difficulty concentrating on the rest.
Why do some ( many?) scientists believe they have to parrot the ‘line’ on something they probably have passing knowledge of. Does the author really understand radiation physics necessary to make judgements on what is going on in the atmsosphere? Making glib statements about introducing greenhouse gasses is actually stepping right in the middle of the smelly stuff he was attempting to explain.
‘The science’ is as far from real science as its possible to be.
As someone who has been an avid Alpine mountain hiker for many years and who has also studied physics, I can say that the last 25 years has seen an unprecedented retreat in mountain glaciers that is the result of something very bad that has been happening recently. This correlates with a rapid rise in atmospheric CO2 since we started measuring atmospheric CO2 concentration. (Yes, yes, correlation is not causation..but it lends evidence to the causation argument.) The thermal effects of atmospheric CO2 were known in the 19th century from some remarkable experiments conducted before the Civil War and many eminent scientists have issued warnings since then about the possibility (and later, the existence) of AGW from human activity.
To say that you have to be a highly trained expert to understand the radiation physics “Energy from the sun – Energy radiated back into space = Energy remaining on Earth to heat environment” is a rather uncharitable view of the scientifically curious public at large. I think that accepting that AGW exists is anything but glib, based on the evidence we have, and is a reasonable position for scientists and non scientists to hold. We should act intelligently on this assumption, given that the ice is disappearing, rivers are drying up and a food crisis may be in our not-too-distant future.
20 years ago we took guided walks on Franz Josef and Fox glaciers in NZ. but now both have receded so much that they only offer helicopter tours due to inaccessibility on foot.
Closer to home here, all of the present glaciers in the Sierra Nevada were formed during the little ice age, it only took a few degrees Fahrenheit difference to create them, we’re witnessing the flip-side to that.
Its predicted to hit 40C this week in parts of Spain – 104F. This is absolutely unprecedented.
Oil Industry scientists predicted the temperature rise with stunning accuracy half a century ago. We are not looking at correlation, but observations confirming theoretical predictions.
No, they didn’t, and no, we’re not.
The previous responses to your comment make me think of the coming AI chatbot revolution, and how consensus will be created in the future on various social media networks by big data. Both commentors who replied to you make the argument that the climate change has been big or extreme lately, which doesn’t address whether the changes can or should be attributed to human activity.
This brings me to the point that you can’t have science without philosophy (particularly epistemology). Our post-modern society demands that we believe (or pretend to know) things that are absolutely unknowable. The scariest part is that our most “serious” thinkers seem unwilling to recognize this simple truth.
In some ways, the the demands that we submit to the beliefs imposed by the state remind me of the Roman Empire and its demands of participation in the worship of state gods. Back then, an agnostic, or even a realistic Christian or Jew could argue for the harmlessness of these acts of obeisance. Today, however, with mRNA experimental treatments and the net zero carbon emissions goals, they seem to be demanding a bit more than the sacrifice of some words or burnt flesh. Actually, I think this matches up nicely with my thesis that political power is directly proportional to wealth. Anyone not of the upper class today is considerably less powerful than previous generations of poor in generations past. It’s a new age…
Our environment is low trust, and deservedly so, because elite behavior never has consequences. I don’t think any “expert” institution can retain trust if it can’t or won’t self police. There need to be standards and their must be consequences for violating those standards. If senior public health figures were, for example, stripped of their credentials for standards violations, future statements might carry more weight.
Thank you KLG for this article. Sadly I concur with Zagonostra above. I have a science degree (chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology) from the late 1970s so while much is probably out of date it nonetheless provides me with knowledge of important scientific concepts and vocabulary. This understanding has meant I am able to follow discussion around COVID-19 without being intimidated by the complexity of the arguments. I was dismayed at the misinformation we were subjected to as well as the nasty results for so many people.
Here is an illustration of the power of Big Business to prevent the public good in something I have been very involved in. Over the last 18 years I have worked in a broad coalition (unions, doctors, nurses, profs, students, retirees, etc.) to get prescription drugs included in the Canadian public health system. Every study has shown it would improve health, lessen the burden on our healthcare system, save money, and be fairer than our current system. The big break came when the Canadian Labour Congress adopted “pharmacare” as its top priority 5 years ago, mobilising thousands of people across the country to work toward it. Now over 85% of Canadians want drugs covered by medicare and we almost got it before Covid. But Big Pharma, Big Insurance, and Big Pharmacy regrouped and have prevented it through extortion targeted at politicans (we won’t provide drugs if you do pharmacare), cajoling of politicians (we’ll invest in research and trials if you drop it), and dishonest advertising.
Nonetheless 85% of the population still want it. The struggle continues…
I wondered at the section impugning conspiracy theories. There are some wild conspiracy theories bouncing around these days, but what word other than ‘conspiracy’ fits the efforts of Big Tobacco or the efforts of Big Oil to protect their interests using ‘scientific experts’ (even cheaper to buy than politicians) coupled with control over the public debate microphone. [For that matter does the word ‘debate’ fit what passes for ‘public debate’ in a u.s. culture which has been schooled to view principles of argumentation and rhetoric as curiosities for philosophers to play with?] The nearly instantaneous and mysterious origins of the mRNA vaccines from the murk of experiment to become the FDA EUA blessed panacea cure for the Corona flu, virtually mandated for many, used to inoculate a large portion of the nation’s people, combined with aggressive campaigns to stifle all other public health measures — at least tends to suggest conspiracy.
Where this post began discussing conflicts originating from the infringement upon civil liberties in the interest of public health — I must object to that framing. In my opinion, the initial Corona shutdown — perhaps better described as a partial shutdown — was a poorly crafted and poorly executed half-measure that proved costly and ineffective. The amazingly rapid passage of the CARES act bought off the lower minions with cash payments, while softening up small landlords for the predations of the Financial Sector’s acquisition of rental housing, and sweetening the deal with some cash flows to sustain small businesses and many not so small businesses along with trillions of dollars of giveaways to Big Finance. As the partial shutdown proved ineffective, the mRNA vaccines made their magical entrance. Whoever could — continued to work from home, and the temporary flows of cash to the lower minions continued for a while even as many found themselves compelled to return to work in environments where the Corona flu could effectively spread. I recall the civil liberties arguments beginning as the mandates to become vaccinated or else began. By that time, I believe most people had become aware that the lockdowns had not worked, and the vaccines did not work as advertized and had many unhappy and little reported side-effects that they did hear reported by anecdote or experienced directly. The performance of the public health measures and vaccines undermined any claims that the interests of public health motivated vaccine mandates or the promotions of the public health agencies and Big Pharma.
The concluding paragraph of this post asks the question “Why?” [has this deterioration of Social Capital come to pass]. I do not believe it facile to offer the answer as Profits — Financial Gain. Social Capital — a variant of Common Good — became mythical when Neoliberalism became the no alternative philosophy of political economy. “We have work to do.” — Indeed!
If you mean “magical entrance” in the sense of appearing out of nowhere (as opposed to the way they were oversold), that’s not quite right. GM gives an excellent bit of background here
Covid has been a total eye-opener. I started out with total faith in the health care establishment to at least attempt to cure any ill that I had–now I believe that any treatment choices will be simply made on the basis of profit.
If I got severe Covid, the hospital is the last place I would go.
The unending stream of bad advice from public health has been nothing short of incredible. That we still don’t have clear advice on Covid being an aerosol, that even a small country like El Salvador could have useful health advice (“Go outdoors, get sun, lose weight if you can, get plenty of sleep”). We couldn’t’ even be bothered to do even that little. And something sane like ensuring that everyone was tested and had adequate VitD levels isn’t even mentioned. No money in it, as simple as that.
I was astonished early in the Delta wave, when Wallinsky was saying, “you are vaxxed, take off your mask, you can’t transmit the disease.” And I was watching the excellent contact tracing out of S’Pore showing very clearly transmission through vaccinated individuals.
Some random guy reading the internet, was more on top of it than our “highly credentialed health professionals.” They are completely bought, and useless at best, hazardous at worst.
All I can say after reading this is “wow, what insight.” Thank you KLG.
Thank you. [as I blush]
You state What seems most sensible to me is the mRNA vaccines are experimental and do not work, in that they prevent neither infection nor transmission.
My own understanding is that the mRNA vaccines do not ALWAYS prevent infection or transmission, and that their effectiveness declines over time, but that there is much evidence that they reduce hospitalization and death. I believe that they do “work” to this extent. Is this incorrect? I have based my immunization behavior on this premise, including getting a second bivalent booster shot this week. I am an immunocompromised man in his mid-70s. I also wear an N95 mask when in public, minimizing my time in indoor settings.
I apologise for going slightly off-topic, but I’ve always had a deep suspicion of Hofstadter’s analysis. The very first sentence of the book is this:
“Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds.”
So it’s nothing to do with class, its just a problem of ‘uncommonly angry minds’… Where have we heard that before?
Not off-topic at all. A problem with Hofstadter, and Trilling, is that class in the technical sense has essentially no meaning in The Liberal Imagination of the mid-20th Century. It also seems to have had little meaning to someone as towering as Isaiah Berlin, although his followers disagree. The same is true in the early-21st century for many of the same reasons, “uncommonly angry minds” obscures more than it reveals, but it does make denizens of the Professional Managerial Class (PMC) feel good about themselves. Then there is the title of the collection of Trilling’s essays entitled The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent, which is edited with an introduction by Leon Wieseltier. Revealing title. Wieseltier, by the way, edits the new quarterly called Liberties. It is an outstanding source for understanding the “Liberal” hive mind. Many of the articles are interesting in their own right, too.
One other thing: At the end of the post I left out the link to the collection on Social Capital edited by Elinor Ostrom and T.K. Ahn. Oops.
Thanks for reply. I see we are in agreement on Hofstadter et. al.
Now we can say honestly that the ‘liberal imagination’ has no class!