Sunday, September 12, 2021

How the Covid pandemic is changing science

How the Pandemic Is Changing the Norms of Science | Tablet - John P.A. Ioannidis: 

September 8, 2021 - "The crisis caused by the lethal COVID-19 pandemic and by the responses to the crisis have made billions of people worldwide acutely interested and overexcited about science. Decisions pronounced in the name of science have become arbitrators of life, death, and fundamental freedoms. Everything that mattered was affected by science.... One problem with this new mass engagement with science is that most people, including most people in the West, had never been seriously exposed to the fundamental norms of the scientific method. The Mertonian norms of communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism have unfortunately never been mainstream in education, media, or even in science museums and TV documentaries on scientific topics....

"Indeed, change did happen — but perhaps mostly for the worst.... Lack of communalism during the pandemic fueled scandals and conspiracy theories, which were then treated as fact in the name of science by much of the popular press and on social media. The retraction of a highly visible hydroxychloroquine paper from The Lancet was a startling example: A lack of sharing and openness allowed a top medical journal to publish an article in which 671 hospitals allegedly contributed data that did not exist, and no one noticed this outright fabrication before publication.... 

"The pandemic led seemingly overnight to a scary new form of scientific universalism. Everyone did COVID-19 science or commented on it. By August 2021, 330,000 scientific papers were published on COVID-19, involving roughly a million different authors. An analysis showed that scientists from every single one of the 174 disciplines that comprise what we know as science has published on COVID-19....  At first sight, this was an unprecedented mobilization of interdisciplinary talent. However, most of this work was of low quality, often wrong, and sometimes highly misleading. Many people without subject-matter technical expertise became experts overnight, emphatically saving the world.... Many amazing scientists have worked on COVID-19. I admire their work.... However, alongside thousands of solid scientists came freshly minted experts with questionable, irrelevant, or nonexistent credentials and questionable, irrelevant, or nonexistent data.

"Social and mainstream media have helped to manufacture this new breed of experts. Anyone who was not an epidemiologist or health policy specialist could suddenly be cited as an epidemiologist or health policy specialist by reporters who often knew little about those fields but knew immediately which opinions were true. Conversely, some of the best epidemiologists and health policy specialists in America were smeared as clueless and dangerous by people who believed themselves fit to summarily arbitrate differences of scientific opinion without understanding the methodology or data at issue.

"Disinterestedness suffered gravely.... During the pandemic, ... conflicted entities were raised to the status of heroes. For example, Big Pharma companies.... Other potentially conflicted entities became the new societal regulators.... Big Tech companies, which gained trillions of dollars in cumulative market value from the virtual transformation of human life during lockdown, developed powerful censorship machineries that skewed the information available to users on their platforms. Consultants who made millions of dollars from corporate and government consultation were given prestigious positions, power, and public praise, while unconflicted scientists who worked pro bono but dared to question dominant narratives were smeared as being conflicted. 

"Organized skepticism was seen as a threat to public health. There was a clash between two schools of thought, authoritarian public health versus science — and science lost.... Honest, continuous questioning and exploration of alternative paths are indispensable for good science. In the authoritarian ... version of public health, these activities were seen as treason and desertion. The dominant narrative became that 'we are at war.' When at war, everyone has to follow orders. If a platoon is ordered to go right and some soldiers explore maneuvering to the left, they are shot as deserters. Scientific skepticism had to be shot, no questions asked. The orders were clear....

"This is a dirty war, one without dignity. Opponents were threatened, abused, and bullied by cancel culture campaigns in social media, hit stories in mainstream media, and bestsellers written by zealots. Statements were distorted, turned into straw men, and ridiculed. Wikipedia pages were vandalized. Reputations were systematically devastated and destroyed. Many brilliant scientists were abused and received threats during the pandemic, intended to make them and their families miserable." 

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