Mar 17 2020

Being Anti-intellectual During a Pandemic

In the past I have written a defense of elitism and expertise, and articles exploring the phenomenon of anti-intellectualism. For those who reject science this is a core issue – they must attack expertise, reject consensus, and defend populism as their justification for promoting the idea that the consensus of scientific opinion is wrong. They do so with the same tired and rejected arguments they have for decades, which I guess is in line with their anti-intellectualism.

Recently Michael Egnor, who writes for the anti-science Discovery Institute, and with whom I have tangled before, wrote a stunning defense of anti-intellectualism. He marshaled all the old tropes, which I have already dealt with, but I felt it was especially poignant in the middle of a pandemic. We are actually seeing in real time the consequences of science-denial, of rejecting the advice of experts and basing opinions on your “hunches”, and of approaching reality with a general attitude of anti-expertise populism.

The core of Egnor’s anti-intellectual attack is the notion that – those scientists have been wrong before. First – of course they have. Science is not a crystal ball. It is a set of methods for slowly, painstakingly working out how reality functions. It is full of false hypotheses, dead-ends, mistakes, and occasional brilliance. But mostly it’s careful tedious work, which is then put through the meat-grinder of peer-review. Science is messy, which is why I spend perhaps the majority of my time writing here and on SBM discussing the messiness of science, the pitfalls, the institutional failures, and the changes that many think will help make the institutions of science incrementally better.

But Egnor’s populist screed cannot deal with all this nuance. So he has to create some ridiculous (and easily disproven) strawman of my position. He actually misinterprets my reference to moral purity as if I were referring to science acceptance, but I was quoting a study that was referring to the desire for moral purity among science deniers and populists. There is no purity in science – it is messy and complicated.

He frames his recent article as a defense of “Joe Blow” writing:

Consider Joe Blow. Joe has no scientific education. He’s a truck driver. He works a couple of jobs to support his family, he pays his taxes, coaches his son’s little league team, and goes to church on Sundays. He is anything but a scientific expert, but he does know a few things.

Joe has been told since the 1980s that the world is going to end due to global warming. It sounds like those crazy guys with the placards who say the world is gonna end tomorrow. The earth’s sell-by-date keeps getting pushed forward — polar ice caps were supposed to melt, but didn’t, polar bears were supposed to go extinct, but didn’t, sea levels were supposed to inundate coastal cities, but didn’t, and tens of millions of climate refugees were supposed to perish fleeing the catastrophic heat. Joe’s still waiting.

First he sets up Joe Blow as a “real” regular American – as if scientists don’t ever coach little league or pay their taxes. He is setting up a false culture war. The anti-scientists can’t win the science war, so they desperately want to fight a culture war. The reality is – whenever people from different segments of society meet and have increased interaction they generally discover that they have far more in common than they suspected. But populism requires a cardboard fictional enemy to point to – not real people with complex lives, and generally the same set of hopes, desires, and fears as everyone else. (And to be clear, when I talk about anti-scientists I am not talking about the public at large, but people like Egnor who are actively and publicly promoting anti-scientific ideas.)

Next Egnor moves onto one of his favorite narratives, that egghead elite scientists have been predicting the end of the world forever and it never happens. But to create this narrative Egnor has to ignore a lot of reality. One way in which he does this is by confusing popular reporting with scientific consensus. None of the things that he states have not happened yet were part of any scientific consensus. You can cherry pick the most dire warnings of individuals from the past (which he does) but that is not the same thing as a hard evidence-based consensus. The effects of global warming are starting to happen now, and they are pretty undeniable. But the more dramatic effects, like the ones he states, were not predicted to be here today. Mostly scientists have been trying to extrapolate what things will be like by the end of this century, or even later. But popular discussion often misinterprets the unavoidable but distant consequences of global warming as imminent threats.

He doubles-down on this strategy –

” He is also still waiting for the apocalyptic global cooling he was told about in the 1970s (Joe ain’t no scientist, but he has a good memory). He remembers watching Paul Ehrlich on TV in the late 1960s warning that overpopulation was going to cause billions of people to die of starvation and cause nations to disintegrate over the next couple of decades.”

There was never any consensus for global cooling in the 70s. That is a now debunked myth – while this was early days for modeling climate change, there were far more papers predicting warming in the 70s than cooling. But that is an inconvenient fact that does not help Egnor’s narrative, so he ignores it. Ehrlich is also famously an outlier in his doomsday predictions. I have debunked his predictions myself. The fact that Egnor has to distort what the consensus was in order to argue that the consensus was wrong is very telling.

It get’s worse:

Joe remembers being told by scientists in the 1990s that AIDS was going to spread to the heterosexual community and kill millions of Americans. He remembers the panic over Y2K, when nothing happened except that some scientists got big grants to study it. Joe has heard a lot about the science replication crisis — he doesn’t fully understand it, but he knows that it means that a whole lot of science is basically made up.

Here Egnor is railing against scientists warning about what could happen if we don’t take action, not what will happen. This is especially relevant today. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said a few days ago, “…we are overreacting because if it looks like you’re overreacting, you’re probably doing the right thing.” That is the whole point of risk reduction – you act before the worst case scenario unfolds in order to prevent it. Then the Egnor’s of the world will whine that the worst-case predictions did not come true, therefore those egghead scientists were wrong.

HIV did spread to the heterosexual community. To date about 700,000 Americans have died of HIV, and about that number die every year worldwide. The reason the number of deaths isn’t higher is because of an aggressive research campaign that quickly discovered HIV as the cause of AIDS and then rapidly developed a drug regimen to treat it. HIV is now a manageable chronic illness, and those infected can live near normal life expectancy. The understanding and treatment of HIV is a stunning success story in science, but Egnor manages to reframe it as a failure.

Y2K is the same thing. Do you know why there wasn’t a global meltdown in 2000? Because the world spent $100 billion changing and updating code to prevent it? So now Egnor can pretend, really in his ignorance, that it was all a hoax to get grant money. (Where have we heard that before?)

The last line of that quote brings it back to what I was discussing above. Clearly the institutions of science have challenges and problems. Every human institution does. You can always focus myopically on all the problems and failures and then argue that the system is basically broken. But a more honest and constructive approach is to look at the entire system, completely and fairly, to see what works and what doesn’t. You could look at democracy and argue that it is a failure, at capitalism, at religion. Science is no different. Yes, most published scientific studies will end up being wrong. But consensus is not built on overinterpreting individual studies, or assuming they are always right, or ignoring the problems of science. Consensus is built on many studies showing the same thing over a long period of time. Replication builds consensus.

Egnor, however, wants to equate the opinions of a single outlier with a consensus of expert opinion built over decades with dozens or perhaps even hundred or thousands of studies.

There is much more wrong in Egnor’s article that I don’t have time to address, but it is all more of the same. Egnor ultimately wants to hide behind his fictional “Joe blow” as if he is somehow defending “regular” people. The reality is that Egnor is a trained expert (a neurosurgeon), and he is writing for a well-funded institution which gives him a large platform. Egnor is an elite. He just chooses to use his platform to spread misinformation and bad ideas, using poor logic and distorted cherry-picked evidence.

But nothing brings all of this into focus more than a pandemic. I respect the dignity of all people, and our civilization depends of people of various backgrounds and skills working together. In reality there are no “elites” in the pejorative way that Egnor and others mean. There are just people with different training, experience, and skill-sets. Now is the time to recognize that we need scientists to do their job, to research COVID-19 and the SARS-Cov-2 virus, to develop a vaccine, to recommend pandemic-prevention procedures, to do the hard work of evaluating risk vs benefit, and to communicate effectively to the public. The populists of the world who have railed against intellectuals have first denied the pandemic. Then they declared it a conspiracy. Meanwhile they are touting all sorts of fake treatments and cures to exploit the emergency. In the end, after the effects are hopefully managed, they will argue that it was all overblown – an unnecessary panic. They will Y2K the pandemic.

Meanwhile science is our best tool against the pandemic and many other threats. For a moment, at least, people will remember that.

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