The Pandemic Issue

W hom to believe? The relentless and often unpredictable coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has, among its many quirky terrors, dredged up once again the issue that will not die: sci- ence versus pseudoscience. The scientists, experts who would be the first to admit they are not infallible, are now in danger of being drowned out by the growing chorus of pseudoscientists, conspiracy theorists, and just plain troublemakers that seem to be as symptom- atic of the virus as fever and weakness. How is the average citizen to filter this cacophony of information and misinformation posing as science alongside real science? While all that noise makes it difficult to separate the real stuff from the fakes, there is at least one positive aspect to it all. A famous aphorism by one Charles Caleb Colton, a popular 19th-century English cleric and writer, says that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” The frauds and the paranoid conspiracy mongers who would perpetrate false science on a susceptible public are at least recognizing the value of science— they imitate it. They imitate the ways in which science works and make claims as if they were scientists, because even they recognize the power of a scientific approach. They are inadvertently showing us how much we value science. Unfortunately they are just shabby counterfeits. Separating real science from pseudoscience is not a new problem. Philosophers, politicians, scientists, and others have been worrying about this perhaps since science as we know it, a science based entirely on experiment and not opinion, arrived in the 1600s. The original charter of the British Royal Society, the first organized scientific society, stated that at their formal meetings there would be no discussion of politics, religion, or perpetual motion machines.

The first two of those for the obvious purpose of keep- ing the peace. But the third is interesting because at that time perpetual motion machines were one of the main offerings of the imitators, the bogus scientists who were sure that you could find ways around the universal laws of energy and make a buck on it. The motto adopted by the society was, and remains, Nulli- us in verba, Latin for “take nobody’s word for it.” Kind of an early version of Missouri’s venerable state motto: “Show me.” You might think that telling phony science from the real thing wouldn’t be so difficult, but events, historical and current, tell a very different story—of- ten with tragic outcomes. Just one terrible example is the estimated 350,000 additional HIV deaths in South Africa directly caused by the now-infamous conspiracy theories of their own elected President no less (sound familiar?). It’s surprisingly easy to dress up phony sci- ence as the real thing by simply adopting, or appearing to adopt, the trappings of science. Thus, the anti-vaccine movement claims to be based on suspicion of authority, beginning with medical authority in this case, stemming from the fraudulent data published by the now-disgraced Andrew Wake- field, an English gastroenterologist. And it’s true that much of science is based on suspicion of authority. Science got its start when the likes of Galileo and Copernicus claimed that the Church, the State, even Aristotle, could no longer be trusted as authoritative sources of knowledge. But Galileo and those who followed him produced alternative explanations, and those alternatives were based on data that arose independently from many sources and generated a great deal of debate and, most importantly, could be tested by experiments that could prove them wrong. The anti-vaccine movement imitates science, still citing the discredited Wakefield report, but really offers nothing but suspicion—and that is paranoia, not science.


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