Monday, April 20, 2020

The religion of science

There couldn't be a better time to believe in science, to trust that reading the RNA structure of Covid-19 is useful and to hope that a randomised control trial of immunisation will come up with a coronavirus vaccine that works. I trust the processes of medical science and through what little I know I also understand that those processes take time, and I'm prepared to wait. Broadly speaking I also believe what I'm told about the origins and transmission of the virus. Yet despite all this my faith in science is a cautious one because it must always be the case that science doesn't hold all the answers just as it doesn't ask all the questions. Making simple connections between truth, fact and scientific research can be intellectually lazy. The idea that something is right just because it wears the badge of 'scientific research' or because it studied a 'large population' has widespread appeal. And that appeal has been seized upon and cultivated by a generation of advertisers keen to convince us that 'a million housewives can't be wrong' (1967), that a particular brand of toothpaste protects us from decay, or that one sort of breakfast cereal is better for us than another. In this sense it's ridiculous that we should always 'follow the science'. Of course we need to evaluate it, to look at contradictory evidence and replication - but we also need to be aware of the values and assumptions that are its bedfellows as well as the work that evidence does as it combines and recombines with other forces. Scientific communities have developed reasonably good processes for dealing with some of these issues. The peer review system plays its part, but there is always room for improvement. Although it's hard to argue against knowledge sharing and open access, that all comes with some caution. If anyone can publish online or upload a YouTube video, how are we to assess the credibility of scientific claims as non-experts? Perhaps one way is to trust the scientific community on its own terms. We could also remind ourselves that claims are only ever claims, and that evidence is always - yes always, open to question. I want a Covid-19 vaccine more than I want a vitamin supplement or CBD, but I don't believe that those in white coats are the priests of a new religion. Any vaccine developed will be backed by powerful forces, it will be manufactured, and then distributed across similar networks to those that have contributed to the spread of the virus. And in an unequal world, suffering and its amelioration will be unevenly distributed, and there's a science in that, too.

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