By and large, I dislike the purveyors of pop science. Whether it be a correspondent at a local newspaper or dedicated platforms like IFLScience, platforms like that purport to make science easy and digestible, and they do. Kinda.
Here, lemme explain.
A typical sequence of events might go a little something like this: a physicist working on a particle accelerator notices something odd in the results of a particular test. Some of the particles appear to behave in unexpected ways, so they go back through the data to try to figure out why. There’s no immediately apparent reason for the anomaly. It could be an incorrectly calibrated sensor, or it could be a discovery that overturns physics as we know it. They figure it’s the latter, but since they can’t replicate the results, they write up a report and submit it for peer review. Several other scientists will duly examine the data, attempt to replicate the anomaly, and lo and behold, it was faulty equipment, not a world-changing paradigm shift in physics as we know it.
This sort of thing happens more often than you might think. Physics is an easy example because the interactions observed by modern particle accelerators are so tiny, and the energy involved so huge, that it’s easy to make mistakes. But, it happens elsewhere, too. Is this fossil a previously undiscovered species of dinosaur, or does it look funny because of injury or illness? Is this new chemical a possible cure for cancer, or does it just kill cells in a petri dish? Lots of things kill cells in a petri dish. My Glock does a pretty good job of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to replace chemotherapy any time soon.
Modern scientists work under a number of assumptions about the way the world works. They’re loath to discard existing theories without overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and they’re perfectly aware of the fact that most of these “discoveries” won’t stand up to scrutiny. That’s why the peer review system works, for the most part. Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s unlikely that a bunch of people are going to make the same mistake in exactly the same way. If the results stand, then we’ve learned something new. Maybe drinking Bailey’s from a shoe imparts a connection to the funk. Or maybe, Old Gregg misplaced a decimal point somewhere. No harm, no foul, happens to the best of us. Mistakes are part of the process.
The problem with pop science is it doesn’t wait for that last part. Like most “news” outlets, they’re driven by sensationalism. Einstein being wrong generates more clicks than a faulty sensor in a particle accelerator. So they conveniently ignore the part where the discovery of the week isn’t much of actual discovery and tart it up to make the sort of headline that makes neophytes and amateur enthusiasts cream their pants with excitement. Clicks beget clicks as the article is shared, and those sweet ad revenue bucks come rolling in. A few months down the road, the rest of the story comes out, but by that point, everyone has moved on and no one gives a damn.
Under most circumstances, this isn’t really much of a problem. What you or I believe about the Standard Theory has as much actual bearing on the direction and outcome of research as the astrological sign of the accelerator. It doesn’t care that mercury is in retrograde, any more than it cares that you got really excited for five minutes about a potential new breakthrough. But 2020 wasn’t exactly normal circumstances, was it?
COVID-19 was unique in several ways, but the biggest was that we just didn’t know. Early data suggested that it wasn’t much worse than the flu. Early data suggested that it was probably going to be contained in China. Early data suggested a lot of things that didn’t pan out, but the scientists did their level best to inform the public as soon as they could about their latest findings, and the media and politicians ran with it.
Only, unlike most of these overhyped “discoveries”, no one forgot about COVID. It wasn’t going to go away. As the best available data changed and those results were reported, people were quick to point out that it didn’t match what they were told last month, or hell, even last week. “Hey, why are you telling us to wear masks? Why are we in lockdown? You said this wasn’t a big deal.”
The average layperson isn’t used to the idea that “facts” are rarely concrete. They’re not used to the idea that facts, in the scientific sense, are more assumptions and theories backed up by data than immutable truths of the universe. They’re certainly not used to the idea that they can change seemingly on a whim as newer, better data comes to light.
When dealing with a full-blown pandemic, that can be bad enough, but when you start throwing politics into the mix, things get well and truly dangerous. Both the Left and the Right are well known for downplaying or even denying data when it’s inconvenient, and both have a nasty habit of changing positions and pretending that they’ve always felt or thought a particular way about a subject.
Liberals latched onto the idea that COVID could be a handy way to beat Trump. After failing to unseat him with the impeachment, he very well could have walked away with the 2020 election by playing the martyr. Instead, he and his administration appeared to waffle on COVID, because they just didn’t have solid information to go on. Now, maybe a Democrat could have done better, maybe not. It didn’t matter. They had something juicy to clamp their jaws on, and they did it.
Conservatives, meanwhile, went the opposite direction. They saw how the other guys were using COVID to make a play, and ran with the idea that they were overhyping it for political gain. Suddenly, not wearing a mask or breaking lockdown became a sign of resistance. People who wore masks were called sheep, brainwashed. All kinds of stupid conspiracy theories rose up because the creators knew they’d play well with that side of the aisle. And now that the vaccine is out, not getting vaccinated is the go-to sign of resistance.
As a result, people died. People are still dying. And they’ll continue to die, because for a significant portion of the country, masks and vaccines and social distancing, the big buzzwords of the last year, have taken on political connotations. They’re dying because decades of sensationalized science reporting have created a perfect storm of hype and disappointment that lends itself all too well to being used for political gain.
From start to finish, this whole thing was stupid and avoidable. What’s worse, it’s repeatable. The population isn’t going to stop growing anytime soon. As more and more people walk the earth, the chances of a new pandemic grow as well. In a perfect world, we’d learn from our mistakes handling COVID and be ready for it. But, since the battle lines have already been drawn, we won’t be. And there’s a really good chance the next one won’t be anywhere near as cuddly. Our only hope is it does something really and obviously unpleasant, like making dicks explode. Or hey, better yet: zombies. Now there’s a plague I can get behind.
Kevin is a thirteen-year veteran of the North Carolina Army National Guard, with deployments to Egypt and Syria. He was going to be a lifer like you, but then he took a staircase to the knee.