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Hat tip: Michael Levitt

Source: Tablet

Timothy A. Cleary/AFP via Getty Images
TIMOTHY A. CLEARY/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

How the Pandemic Is Changing the Norms of Science

Imperatives like skepticism and disinterestedness are being junked to fuel political warfare that has nothing in common with scientific methodology

BY JOHN P.A. IOANNIDIS

SEPTEMBER 08, 2021

n the past I had often fervently wished that one day everyone would be passionate and excited about scientific research. I should have been more careful about what I had wished for. The crisis caused by the lethal COVID-19 pandemic and by the responses to the crisis have made billions of people worldwide acutely interested and overexcited about science. Decisions pronounced in the name of science have become arbitrators of life, death, and fundamental freedoms. Everything that mattered was affected by science, by scientists interpreting science, and by those who impose measures based on their interpretations of science in the context of political warfare.

One problem with this new mass engagement with science is that most people, including most people in the West, had never been seriously exposed to the fundamental norms of the scientific method. The Mertonian norms of communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism have unfortunately never been mainstream in education, media, or even in science museums and TV documentaries on scientific topics.

Before the pandemic, the sharing of data, protocols, and discoveries for free was limited, compromising the communalism on which the scientific method is based. It was already widely tolerated that science was not universal, but the realm of an ever-more hierarchical elite, a minority of experts. Gargantuan financial and other interests and conflicts thrived in the neighborhood of science—and the norm of disinterestedness was left forlorn.

As for organized skepticism, it did not sell very well within academic sanctuaries. Even the best peer-reviewed journals often presented results with bias and spin. Broader public and media dissemination of scientific discoveries was largely focused on what could be exaggerated about the research, rather than the rigor of its methods and the inherent uncertainty of the results.  

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John P.A. Ioannidis is Professor of Medicine and Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health, as well as Professor (by courtesy) of Biomedical Science and Statistics, at Stanford University. His complete COVID-19-related publications can be found here.