As science became highly politicized in 2020, it faced a crisis of credibility. Despite being on the frontline of fighting the novel coronavirus and developing vaccines in a record time, it finds its trustworthiness severely diminished.
Science is a cumulative body of knowledge acquired over time. It is the process of observing the world by watching, listening, and recording the information. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines science as a “system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation.” Science is not dogmatic. It requires its general “truths” to be verified with the possibility of being falsified. The events of 2020, however, would show that ideological bias and dogma crept into the domain of science.
As the coronavirus was wreaking havoc in the People’s Republic of China (China), credible news about its spread and effects on the human population was unknown. The nature of the authoritarian communist regime in China made it almost impossible for any meaningful information to filter out to the rest of the world. At the same time, the faulty analysis put out by the likes of Ramanan Laxminarayan, a senior research scholar at the Princeton University in the US, and Samir Bhatt of the Imperial College London predicted several million deaths due to Covid-19 in a matter of months in India and US alone.
The world looked towards the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations body responsible for international public health, both for credible information and guidance. However, from the earliest day of the deadly virus outbreak, the WHO has been “both indispensable and impotent” (the New York Times). Not only the WHO praised Beijing in dealing with Covid-19, writes the New York Times, it also “concealed concession to China and may have sacrificed the best chance to unravel the virus’s origin.”
The WHO took a long time to declare the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic. The delay severely constrained the response time of the governments across the world. WHO’s stands on masks, social distancing, etc., were inconsistent, adding to the chaos and confusion. In one of the latest U-turn, the WHO changed its longstanding definition of ‘herd immunity’ without explanation.
People also looked towards Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and world’s leading expert in his field, for guidance and truthful information. When Dr. Fauci appeared on one of the cable news channels on March 8, 2020, he made the following statement: “When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a bit better. It might even block a droplet. But it is not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is… when you think masks you should think healthcare providers as needing them and people who are ill.” Fauci later backtracked, saying the reason he wasn’t truthful was for the public good, to allow supplies to go to “the people, namely the healthcare workers.” Fauci followed the same pattern of backtracking recently on the issue of herd immunity.
One of the most significant events that hurt the scientific community’s credibility came from the Lancet’s retraction of a research paper. The Lancet is one of the world’s oldest and best-known peer-reviewed general medical journal. It had published a research paper that appeared to suggest that hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), a known anti-malaria drug, increased deaths in Covid-19 patients. The publication of the research resulted in the halting of several global trials of HCQ for Covid-19. The paper was later retracted by the Lancet, citing inconsistency in the data. The New England Journal of Medicine also retracted a similar study. Media investigation later found out that the research was bogus. It was published by a US-based healthcare analytics company whose “a handful of employees appear to include a sci-fi writer and an adult content model.”
Race to discredit HCQ as a possible treatment for Covid-19, media reports would suggest, was partly because US President Donald Trump appeared to promote it. Media reports also suggested that the Western pharmaceutical lobby invested in the lucrative vaccine research was also behind the efforts to discredit HCQ, an inexpensive alternative.
Politicization of the Lancet is also borne out by the fact that it had earlier published an editorial criticizing India’s move to repeal an article in its constitution. The amendment extended several constitutional protections not previously available to the people of the states of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh.
To achieve objectivity, scientists try to avoid confirmation bias at all costs. The process of peer review by critics with different and opposing views attempts to remove any such biases. But barring some exceptions, the medical and scientific community remained silent when the mainstream media and the big technology companies applied strict censorship measures to curtail contrarian viewpoints. Any opposing view, including articles, research papers from the medical and scientific community, was shot down and removed from social media sites. YouTube deleted a press conference by a group of frontline doctors who vouched for the efficacy of HCQ in treating Covid-19. The Johns Hopkins Newsletter retracted an article that questioned the Covid-19 death statistics.
Despite their overt political and ideological inclinations the scientific community, by and large, also remained a mute spectator when politicians imposed arbitrary rules and restrictions on their citizens in the name of science. Many parts of the world are implementing strict lockdown measures and school closures in the name of science, math, and data.
Questioning is part of scientific exercise. Skepticism helps those involved in science to stay objectives in their scientific endeavor. With the appearance of the loss of objectivity in 2020, the scientific community has a herculean task of regaining some of its trust back.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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