It was at the center of the global crisis unleashed by the coronavirus and generated opposite reactions. Many cling to the hope that she will find a solution through a vaccine or treatment, but others blame her for failing to prevent it and wrap her in conspiracy theories.
Snce the advent of the modern era, science has occupied an increasingly important place in society, advancing on the place that religion had occupied for centuries as the symbolic computer of the world. Just as for much of human history, rulers turned to faith and religious leaders to legitimize themselves, have long appealed to scientific knowledge as the foundation of their actions.
But it is difficult to find in the past a moment like the present, in which science and scientists have a totally leading role on the global political and social scene . Since the start of the pandemic, many governments have delegated to experts the making of some of the most drastic decisions remembered in more than half a century.
Epidemiologists, infectious diseases and virologists became public figures and began to be more listened to than presidents and prime ministers . Some, like Anthony Fauci in the United States and Anders Tegnell in Sweden, even became popular icons, and many people consider them almost as bearers of the truth.
“The dominant liberal social models since the Second World War emphasize individuals and their organizations as actors with power. But the authority of the state is much less primordial and nationalistic than before, and depends on scientific notions such as modern natural law. This intensified with globalization, especially after 1980. So scientific knowledge became the center of any effective collective action. It plays a parallel role to the old roles of church and state, ”said John W. Meyer, professor emeritus of sociology at Stanford University, in dialogue with the media.
At the same time, in many countries an opposing movement began to grow , which sees science as a great conspiracy that seeks to subdue ordinary citizens . They existed before the pandemic, and had their best expression in the rejection of vaccines and climate change, but they became much more visible by opposing restrictions imposed on almost the entire planet to prevent the spread of the virus. For many of these people, COVID-19 does not directly exist. It is an invention of scientists and the media.
” When the facts seem uncertain, rhetoric or persuasive turns can be more effective, even when they spread lies ,” Douglas Allchin, historian and philosopher of science , told Infobae . “Economic interests tend to dismiss prudent planning as mere speculation, because it normally jeopardizes or reduces their own opportunity to make unregulated profits. They unreasonably demand absolute proof as the sole basis of the policy. That discarding of science is a political strategy, not a scientific approach. ”
The achievements of modern medicine speak for themselves. There is no other way to explain that life expectancy in the world has gone from 32 years in 1900 to almost 73 years today . But it is evident that the coronavirus exposed many of its limits. All the doubts and contradictions that were seen in these months – expected, given that it was an unknown virus – revealed that scientific knowledge is far from being absolute.
Given the fear that in itself causes death to become more tangible, many people expect certainty and protection from science, something that they probably cannot give. And that causes a lot of anguish. Some react by reaffirming their faith and trusting that sooner or later they will find a solution to this crisis, which could come in the form of a vaccine or treatment. Others, however, declare war on him .
Two opposite and extreme views on science
It is surprising to what extent governments in many countries transferred responsibility for deciding and communicating what to do to deal with the coronavirus to expert committees. The most iconic case is probably that of the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Brosi Johnson, who had initially chosen not to implement full confinement, radically changed his strategy after Imperial College London released a report that anticipated up to half a million deaths if it followed suit.
Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, lead author of the paper and government advisor, became the face of the new dominant approach in the country. Until they discovered him breaking the quarantine that he himself had urged to meet his lover. After the news spread, he resigned from his post as director, but his recommendations remained in effect.
With an opposite view, Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, occupied a place as important or more important in his country . Since March, his word has been heard more than Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s. His informal and direct style of saying things, contradicting many of his colleagues from other nations with his criticism of confinement as a strategy to combat COVID-19, made him very popular. To the point that there are citizens who got to tattoo their faces .
“The pandemic brought with it an unprecedented level of uncertainty, except in times of war. This uncertainty is related to the characteristics of the virus itself and to the economic impact. Obviously, at the government level, it makes decision-making very difficult. It also makes it very difficult to justify them to the public.. Scientists, such as epidemiologists and infectious disease experts, have been able to provide some level of certainty, due to their modeling of pandemics. Those models are far from perfect, but they provide a rational means of predicting the future from current data. It is a basis for decision-making and offers politicians a justification, ”explained sociologist John Gardner, professor at the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, consulted by Infobae .
It is reasonable for governments to rely on specialist recommendations for making decisions on technical issues. When discussing how to prevent and how to treat a disease, the discussion is a priori scientific , so science must be heard. The problem with this crisis is that the resolutions are of a different scale, and involve social, economic and even legal dimensions.
Raising that decisions of this magnitude are justified because “it is what science says” is a trap of governments, which try to remove their actions from the field of politics, where it is accepted that everything must be discussed. With the argument that “science is not discussed”, his expectation is to avoid criticism and debate that are indispensable in any healthy democracy.
The example of Ferguson and Tegnell shows how far true science is opposed to the idea of absolute certainties . To be a useful tool, you must move away from any form of dogma. Therefore, it does not seem reasonable to take the postulates of a group of scientists as the truth, when others say otherwise.
“Governments should not say that they are ‘following science’, because it is often unclear what policies scientific advice would lead to. Due to uncertainties and complexities, governments can only ‘take science into account’. They should do this and make clear what science they are talking about, so if they decide policies that, at first glance, are against it, it is clear to everyone that this is a greater risk than when they try to agree with it. But this is still the government’s job. For example, in the case of the pandemic, the economic and medical imperatives are cross-cutting, but the economy also produces long-term medical results for the health of nations, so nothing is so simple, ”he told Infobae.sociologist Harry Collins, professor at the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University.
Other political leaders also use science to justify their decisions, but by refusal. Concerned about the damage that the economic collapse caused by all the measures that the pandemic forced around the world may cause to their personal projects, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro decided to capitalize on anti-scientificism, deeply rooted among their followers .
Doubting the existence or virulence of the virus and encouraging conspiracy theories about its origin, they exacerbated a sector of society that looks with great suspicion at all the discourses that associate the cultural establishment . The result was protests in many states to put pressure on the governors, who in both the United States and Brazil imposed restrictions on movement, antagonizing the presidents.