To discuss politics or current events is to engage with buzzwords, each of which signal a set of socially embedded meanings and subsequent emotions. Take “Critical Race Theory,” for example; to some, CRT means an analytical lens through which to accurately read history, especially US history. For others, CRT is taken to mean the indoctrination of young people in K-12 schools, or the ideology of America-hating Marxists.
There are plenty of other examples: “woke,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Make America Great Again” – each used as a certain linguistic sign unique to one’s worldview. Some are more innocuous than others.
One of the more harmful – or even dangerous – of these is “Follow the Science.” Coined during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic by science journalist Faye Flam, the phrase was intended to be a reminder for people to heed the conclusions provided by apolitical scientific evidence. Predictably, though, the term was appropriated and then weaponized by opposing forces in American political discourse, both of which claimed to have data and reason on their side.
One side of this debate were those who trusted American institutions – from the media to academia – and were thus frightened of COVID-19. These people seemed to believe that, at least when it came to public health, the government and its employees wouldn’t lie to everyday Americans. (At least when it came to novel coronaviruses, apparently.)
The other was those who were skeptical of the voracity and honesty of “mainstream media,” and who thought that shutting down the economy or handing out stimulus checks were bad ideas.
The former group – for convenience’s sake, let’s call them Believers – liked to shout at the latter any number of emotionally charged arguments: that there were plenty of studies indicating the benefits of mask-wearing, the devastating number of coronavirus fatalities or that there was no evidence to suggest that the pandemic originated in a gain of function research lab in Wuhan. The latter group – let’s call them Skeptics – liked yell at the former that the studies the Believers cited were based on junk science; that it was likely that COVID-19 deaths were being overreported; or that common sense would suggest that it was at least likely that the novel coronavirus was the result of a lab leak.
Now that the dust has settled and the pandemic for all intents and purposes is over, the verdict about who was right is in: Though their own logic (or lack thereof) is often flawed, the Skeptics were more legitimate than not.
Here are four of the most prominent examples: First, when mRNA vaccines were first administered to the public, it was claimed that the jabs were up to five times more effective at protecting people than natural immunity. That claim has now been proven starkly wrong. According to a study from Israel, the vaccinated were 27 times more likely to be infected by COVID-19 and show symptoms than those who had previously contracted the virus.
Second, in 2021, it was claimed that there was no chance that COVID-19 originated from a biomedical lab in Wuhan, China. Now, the official governmental prognosis, at least in the opinion of the Department of Energy, is that Covid “most likely” originated from a Chinese gain of function research lab, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
Third, the issue of masks. Before the pandemic, there was little to no evidence to indicate that wearing a mask prevented the transmission of respiratory illnesses. But when the pandemic began, the data magically changed: masks were the difference between life and death. According to the Believers, you were, at most, responsible for the sickness and even death of others; in the least, you were completely disrespectful of the health of others.
Now, however, a definitive study by Cochrane, which is considered one of the gold standard medical journals, has shown that wearing a mask “probably makes little or no difference” in reducing the spread of illness. In other words, the scientific opinion that once ruled has returned to its rightful place as the consensus scientific opinion.
Fourth, the problem of overestimating the dangers of covid. According to Robin Dretler, a physician at Emory University, it is possible that up to 90 percent of those who are in the hospital for COVID-19 are actually in the hospital for some other reason. Those people hospitalized “for” covid are likely in the hospital for something else, not covid nor respiratory illness.
Why is it that the Believers were so wrong? Was it simply an inability to read the available data? Or something else?
As far as I can tell, it’s not that they are necessarily incompetent – although some are, to be sure. Rather, the explanation lies in some combination of two possible explanations: that ensconced bureaucrats are likely to manipulate data and its subsequent public messaging in order to cover their own mistakes; or that there is a general confusion about what public health policy is or should be.
In no person is the ensconced bureaucrat more embodied than Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, and posterchild of Covid Believer policy making. In epidemiologist Martin Kulldorf and physician Jay Bhattacharya’s opinions, Fauci has been downright wrong on almost every single covid policy – from natural immunity to protecting (or not) the elderly to school closures to masks to contract tracing to collateral public health damage (such as the effects of lockdowns on mental health).
Whether Fauci is corrupt or simply incompetent isn’t clear, but his connections to the Wuhan lab (he allocated a significant amount of NIH grant money to Wuhan) from which COVID-19 likely leaked makes the latter possibility a dubious prospect.
But what is clear is the way in which Fauci has appropriated such buzzwords such as “Follow the Science” for his own purposes. In June 2021, Fauci pompously claimed – in the third person no less – that anyone disagreeing with him was synonymous with disagreeing with “Science.” “Science” in this case is apparently some sort of empirical law determined by the god-king-doctor Fauci.
Another possibility is that Fauci and other public officials have missed the point of their jobs: not to completely eradicate covid, as California Governor Gavin Newsom suggested – an impossibility – but rather mitigate the risks to those who are most vulnerable, in this case the elderly and those with other afflictions.
There is an inherent risk in everything we do. Unintentional injuries are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the CDC. It shouldn’t – it can’t – be the responsibility of the government to protect from every risky activity in which we freely participate. True, there are reasons for them to limit dangerous activity (speed limit signs are a good example), but the idea that they can police micro-decisions an individual makes is to err on the side of authoritarianism. And when it comes to covid policy, to try and force someone to wear something like an altogether useless piece of cloth over one’s face is just a silly case of governmental helicopter parenting.
This fact, however, is something that a now blasé phrase like “Follow the Science” can’t accurately convey – especially when it is appropriated by political actors with sketchy motivations. For science itself is simply a logical conclusion based upon observation and empirical evidence. It is necessarily devoid of any real qualitative analysis – analysis that only a set of morally embedded beliefs can reach.
We should recognize pleas to “Follow the Science,” then, with skepticism, just as we might with any other buzzword circulating in our cultural zeitgeist. There’s no actual capital-S “Science” that exists; it’s always tainted with some element of the human. It’s the parsing of the quantitative – the empirical – from the qualitative – the human – that’s the tricky part.
Benjamin Haines is a 24-year-old history graduate student from Shreveport.