On December 8, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom instituted the country’s strictest statewide lockdown, citing experts who warned the pandemic would grow out of control if urgent measures were not taken. Just months later, in late January, Newsom suddenly lifted the order, saying that declining case growth meant the policy had worked.
The evidence suggests otherwise. When Newsom lifted his order, hospitalizations and deaths were both substantially higher than when he had issued it, and the state’s COVID data portal showed that ICU capacity in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley was close to 0 percent. The lockdown was not working, and the pandemic grew out of control anyway.
Stay-at-home orders, supported by a broad scientific consensus at the beginning of the pandemic, fell short in California. The per-capita case rate is close to Tennessee’s despite the fact that the Volunteer State never instituted a lockdown and allows indoor gatherings of up to ten people.
There are several reasons behind California’s failure to control the coronavirus, but it’s clear that lockdowns were not the magic bullet that scientists and public health experts promised they would be. The “scientific consensus” in favor of implementing punishing lockdowns seems to have been disproven and the scientists that once pushed for them are now rushing to change course.
California’s experience with lockdowns is emblematic of a wider problem with modern science: the pursuit of “scientific consensus.” Instead of embracing evidence-based science and working to increase the American public’s awareness of key scientific topics, some scientists are behaving like religious zealots and attempting to justify policy with moral authority, not fact.
Richard Feynman said that science is “a belief in the ignorance of experts.” Modern scientists need to do a better job of showing the public that science is fueled by doubt and the constant revision of ideas as new evidence comes to light. The moral authority enjoyed by the religious community results from belief in immutable principles, but scientific theories should be constantly revised and reassessed.
Building consensus is a politico-religious concept, not a scientific one. Consensus involves creating broad agreement amongst a group of people, but science should never lean on agreement to provide a false sense of comfort. When forming their worldviews, scientists must emphasize the evidence, not the opinions of their fellow scientists.
Some of history’s most important scientists fought against the “scientific consensus” to make their mark. Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift wasn’t accepted by the scientific community until after his death. Mendel’s seminal work on genetics was also initially rejected. Kepler, Galileo, and Copernicus, the list goes on and on.
Even the mRNA vaccines, which promise a speedy end to the pandemic, were almost a victim of scientific consensus: Katalin Kariko, the creator of the underlying technology behind the vaccines, was dismissed for being unrealistic and almost lost her job in the midst of overwhelming opposition from her colleagues. We are all lucky that she didn’t. Kariko’s experience demonstrates that experts who stick to dogma are not always right. The development of mRNA vaccines isn’t the same as crafting lockdown policy, but in both cases, the consensus did not anticipate the evidence and should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism.
During the pandemic, alternate proposals for managing population risk have been maligned relentlessly if they go against the consensus narrative. Researchers have been silenced by peers and by scientific organizations that seek to discredit instead of debate. One proposal, the Great Barrington Declaration, questioned the logic of mass lockdowns and proposed a targeted approach that maintained normalcy for low-risk individuals. The authors of the petition, Jay Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorff, and Sunetra Gupta, are highly respected biomedical experts with five graduate degrees between them. But negative coverage of the petition in the media paints them as inexperienced and arrogant for opposing the consensus. The reality is that the authors of Great Barrington are simply scientists inviting debate on their ideas.
Debate inspired by alternate theories is a defining feature of the scientific process. Seeking consensus at all costs and censoring inconvenient ideas leads to poorly thought out policies like the stay-at-home orders which crippled California’s economy and did not reduce caseloads.
Consensus-based science also makes it easier for fringe groups to gain a foothold in the public discourse. Standing up to the consensus is a selling point for climate deniers and anti-vaxxers - if scientific truth is a matter of polls and percentages such as the oft-cited “97% of scientists believe in climate change,” why not argue that climate change is a hoax and offer up a poll of your own?
When paired up with the Internet’s vast echo chambers, detractors of evidence can build their own consensus. Someone who believes that masks make you sick can find ready acceptance for their theories online. To them, building support for a new consensus or new version of the truth is no big deal because mask wearing is justified with moral authority, not clear-cut evidence. Rigorous scientific standards for mask quality didn’t even exist until recently, nearly a year after the CDC first recommended their use. Now, newer proposals such as double-mask wearing are being portrayed as the updated consensus without enough evidence to support them.
This is the most insidious feature of consensus-based science: it encourages factionalization of the truth and a war of words instead of a debate over evidence. Before long, scientific discourse over mask-wearing isn’t about the evidence. It’s about how many people believe conspiracy theories about masks and the fight to convince them otherwise. In this way, the missionary pursuit of consensus makes science appear religious.
If science is to survive the 21st century and the Internet’s echo chambers, we must return science to its doubt-driven roots. The alternative is a public that mistrusts science when it needs science the most. If the public views science as a political project dominated by experts who attempt to build consensus opinions, people will be dismissive and fail to follow scientific recommendations when the next pandemic strikes.