Let us pray, now, for science. Pray for empiricism and for epidemiology and for vaccines. Pray for peer review and controlled double-blinds. For flu shots, herd immunity and washing your hands. Pray for reason, rigor and expertise. Pray for the precautionary principle. Pray for the NIH and the CDC. Pray for the WHO.
And pray not just for science, but for scientists, too, as well as their colleagues in the application of science — the tireless health care workers, the whistleblowing first responders, the rumpled, righteous public servants whose long-ignored warnings we will learn about only when the 12-part coronavirus docu-disaster series drops on Netflix. Wish them all well in the fights ahead. Their weapons, the weapons of science, are all we have left — perhaps the only true weapons our kind has ever marshaled against encroaching oblivion.
It may sound paradoxical to plead for divine sanction of scientific pursuit. But these are dicey times for science and for scientists, and they need all the help they can get. As the coronavirus spreads, it is exposing the fraying seams of our overextended world. In societies as different as China and the United States, those seams are starting to look similar. The failures to contain the outbreak and to understand the scale and scope of its threat stem from an underinvestment in and an under-appreciation of basic science.
Sure, this is not exactly breaking news; decades of global environmental heedlessness paint a grim picture of modernity’s responsiveness to scientific foreboding.
But this novel coronavirus illustrates the problem more acutely. If it doesn’t kill us it should at least shake us out of the delusion that we can keep ignoring the science and scientists who are warning about the long-term dangers to our way of life. Religious texts say that societies face destruction when they forget God. The coronavirus, like the accelerating climate-related disaster, shows what we face when we decide to blind ourselves to science.
This is what happens when you ignore and silence front-line doctors who warn of impending disaster, as authorities in China did in the early days of the outbreak: a possible global epidemiological and economic catastrophe.
This is what happens when you gut the United States’ pandemic-response infrastructure, as President Donald Trump has spent the last few years doing: a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that botches the most basic defense against disease — testing for it.
I wish these were one-off errors that we could attribute to authoritarian Chinese Communism or routine Trumpian incompetence. But they point to an underlying global dysfunction, one that transcends political parties and styles of government.
Science has always faced threats. Its purpose is to shed light on truth, and there have always been those who would stifle the dangerous facts scientists unearth. But today the stakes are higher. How we’ll fight the gravest threats humanity faces will depend on how governments and citizens understand and interpret the findings and cautions of science.
And what we’ve seen so far in the global response to the virus should frighten you. Our inattention to science is sometimes laid to Americans’ supposed “scientific illiteracy,” but the truth is more complicated. If it’s true that a lot of Americans don’t know a lot about science, it’s because across American society, science is actively undermined, underfunded, ignored and suppressed.
On social networks and in too many corners of the mainstream media, scientific expertise is cloaked by a fog of propaganda, misinformation and scam ads for essential oils and that one mystery food every gut doctor in America is begging you to throw out. From the food industry to the drug industry to the oil and gas industry, corporate America routinely hides science under a haze of well-funded oppo. The gun industry did one better: Under legislation pushed for by the National Rifle Association, the federal government until recently was hamstrung in even funding scientific research into gun violence.
Our collective inability to communicate about science has thoroughly perverted our politics. Because science has become so deeply intertwined with partisan dogma, people’s very conception of scientific expertise has been hijacked by tribal reflex. Today, a lot of people seem to determine how much they trust scientists based on their political ideas, which is backward and bizarre.
What we’re left with is a society embarrassingly ignorant about the world around us. The vice president thinks smoking doesn’t kill, condoms are “very poor” protection against disease, and the best way to curb an HIV outbreak is through prayer. The president says global warming is a hoax and attempts at conservation are making American life too inconvenient.
It’s not just politicians. The number of Americans who say vaccines are important is declining — and anti-vax conspiracies cross partisan divides, finding fans among Northern California hippies and some corners of the GOP.
Hence my call for divine intervention. Science and scientists face crushing opposition. In addition to silent-spreading disease and a burning planet, they must take on the moneyed, the godly, the dictatorial and Mike Pence.
If we won’t support them and won’t listen to them, the least we can do is pray.