The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a staggering surge of armchair virologists and epidemiologists. It’s not a bad thing – the effects of the pandemic are so profound and far reaching, it would be foolish not to try and educate yourself. However, the rising interest has exaggerated a troubling trend in the public’s perception of science: a growing pseudo-religion of “scientism”. Science is a powerful tool to gain understanding and insight, but it isn’t without its flaws. Pure faith in credentials without close examination of the evidence at hand is counter-productive to the scientific method itself. At its best scientism breeds ignorance, but at its worst, it can directly mislead and manipulate those with the best intentions.
Mass media is one major catalysts for the conversion to scientism. Unfortunately for news networks, most of scientific studies do not generate eye-catching headlines. As a result, only a few exceptional studies ever get coverage. And the coverage that studies do get is often misleading. The skepticism presented by conflicting studies is often overlooked, creating a false perception of consensus. The portrayal of science in television and movies reinforces the idea of its monopoly on truth. Science itself sometimes contributes to the problem. Francis Crick’s choice of words when naming his “Central Dogma of Molecular Biology” is laughably unscientific.
The problem here isn’t trust in science; the trouble begins when trust morphs into faith. The true value of science over other ways of knowing comes from its constant revision. Theories are challenged and changed, hypotheses are tested, and paradigms shift. The process allows for a constant updating of our knowledge. The danger of a rigid belief in science lies in the stagnation of what we know. Once ideas cannot be challenged, they cannot be changed, and the entire field will grind to a halt.
Though it will be challenging, members of the scientific community must address the growing prevalence of scientism. Transparent communication and outreach will be a powerful tool to correct misconceptions about the scientific method. Free access to scientific journals will help lift the veil and make science more accessible. Most important, scientists must combat the perception of themselves as agents of truth. Though I firmly believe in the power of science to unravel many mysteries of our universe, acknowledging its limitations will go a long way in dispelling religious adherence.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put science at the forefront of public attention, which has helped to increase engagement and accessibility. However, misunderstandings of the scientific method led to widespread frustration as evidence was collected and conclusions changed. To avoid sowing further doubt in scientific institutions, it will be important to be transparent about the limitations of science. In the world of empiricism, open mindedness is a virtue – but so is skepticism.