A Veneer of Objectivity

In “Unmasking Scientific Expertise” (Issues, Summer 2021), M. Anthony Mills exposes the danger of the vacuous “follow the science” slogan that has been used by politicians, scientists, and others throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to command allegiance to particular scientific conclusions or policies and to shut down what is sometimes reasonable disagreement. The pandemic is rife with disagreements over the science or the scientific backing of public health actions. Some of those disagreements are militant enough to evoke the (admittedly overused) metaphor of a science war. The possible explanations for scientific disagreements are many. Here is a non-exhaustive list of explanations for the sometimes-stark disagreements among scientists, public health experts, and other science advisers during the pandemic, some of which Mills discusses.

Normal science in real time. Reasonable uncertainty over unsettled science generates normal, rational disagreement. There is nothing unusual here in need of a special explanation. It seems unusual only to outsiders who are not used to seeing scientific disagreements livestreamed and live-Tweeted.

Fast science, bad science. The pandemic has provided a breeding ground for bad science owing to the urgency of the situation. Fast science promotes bad science, and bad science promotes scientific disagreement.

The pandemic is rife with disagreements over the science or the scientific backing of public health actions.

Belief factions. Belief factions are rival networks of knowledge users, sometimes though not always formed along lines of political affiliation, that preferentially believe, endorse, or share information coming from within the network. Even seemingly politically neutral matters such as whether hydroxychloroquine is effective can become polarized by belief factions. Different science experts may be part of distinct networks.

Epistemic trespassing. Given the enormity and multidimensional nature of the problems faced, experts from different fields have become COVID researchers or thought leaders. They commit epistemic trespassing when they overstep their expertise, potentially leading them to spuriously challenge the “real experts.”

Different disciplines, different disciplinary frameworks. Individuals from different research traditions such as evidence-based medicine and public health epidemiology sometimes rely on different standards or principles of evidence, reasoning, and decisionmaking, leading to disagreements that can be resolved only through higher order analysis.

Policy proxy wars. Policy conflicts rooted in disagreements over values or decisionmaking can masquerade as disagreements over science or evidence, fought by appealing to (or producing) research favorable to one’s preferred policy and criticizing or discrediting unfavorable research rather than deliberating over the values and decisionmaking at issue.

Pandemic theater. Disagreements among experts may be exaggerated, amplified, dramatized, or concocted in network media, on social media, by politicians, or by others.

Of course, a list of explanations for disagreements among politicians and members of the wider public would look a bit different. Distinct explanations might better explain distinct disagreements. Because these distinct explanations often demand different responses, it is important to consider which explanations apply in a given case.

Finally, absent from this consideration is the notion that experts are not actually following the science. Though nonexperts may sometimes ignore the science, when scientific experts disagree it is more likely that they are interpreting or weighing research findings differently, perhaps for reasons above.

Assistant Professor

Department of History and Philosophy of Science

University of Pittsburgh

M. Anthony Mills argues that the technocratic rhetoric of “following the science” hides the role of judgment and values behind a veneer of objectivity. On Mills’s analysis, this mismatch between the appearance of value-freedom and the reality of value-ladenness has contributed to the twin crises of loss of trust in scientific expertise and general political polarization.

I agree with Mills’s diagnosis. Policy-relevant science is necessarily “shot through with values,” to use the phrase of the philosopher of science Janet Kourany. And the mismatch between the value-free ideal and value-laden reality has indeed caused significant problems. But the underlying mechanisms are more complex than Mills indicates.

Trust in scientific expertise is itself a partisan phenomenon. Survey studies by the sociologist Gordon Gauchat and the Pew Research Center show that over the past five decades, liberals have had steady or even increasing trust in science and scientists, while conservatives have gradually lost trust. But even this is an oversimplification, as conservatives have maintained trust in what the sociologists Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap call “production science” (science as used by industry) and lost trust only in “impact science” (science as used by regulatory agencies for goals such as restricting pollution and protecting human health). At the same time, many conservative voters support environmental and public health policies, even when their elected representatives do not. For example, long-running surveys by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication indicate that about half of conservative Republicans have supported regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant since at least 2008.

The mismatch between the value-free ideal and value-laden reality has indeed caused significant problems. But the underlying mechanisms are more complex than Mills indicates.

This paradoxical set of conservative attitudes toward science policy is plausibly due to the way that certain industries have used public relations campaigns and “merchants of doubt”—a term introduced by the historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway to refer to scientists paid by industry to raise often-specious concerns about impact science. Merchants of doubt have sometimes weaponized the value-free ideal in these public scientific controversies, attacking the work of climate scientists or environmental epidemiologists as “politically motivated” “junk science.” Meanwhile, these industries’ own scientific staff typically know about the hazards posed by their products, at the same time as outsiders are being paid to act as merchants of doubt. This dual strategy, hiring merchants of doubt to attack impact scientists while concealing the findings of their own regulatory scientists, has evidently been effective in confusing the public—especially conservatives—and delaying regulation.

As the science policy scholar Sheila Jasanoff has demonstrated, the value-free ideal was supposed to ensure the legitimacy of technocratic policymaking at agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. By being value-neutral, science was supposed to provide an apolitical foundation for policy, immune to partisan politics. Instead, the value-free ideal has been weaponized by regulated industries to challenge the legitimacy of any unfavorable policies. The value-free ideal has undermined itself not so much because of general scientific hubris, but more because it has been susceptible to profit-motivated exploitation.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy

Department of Cognitive and Information Sciences

University of California, Merced

M. Anthony Mills calls for us to rethink the proper place of scientific expertise in policymaking and public deliberation. His inventory of the consequences of “follow the science” politics is sobering, applying to COVID-19 no less than to climate change and nuclear energy. When scientific advice is framed as unassailable and value-free, about-faces in policy undermine public trust in authorities. When “following the science” stifles debate, conflicts become a battle between competing experts and studies.

We must grapple with the complex and difficult trade-offs and judgment calls out in the open, rather than hide behind people in lab coats, if we are to successfully and democratically navigate the conflicts and crises that we face.

I want to expand on one of Mills’s points, namely that public conversation is increasingly preoccupied with who is or isn’t following the science. Our democracy is pathologically tribalized, as Mills says, when science becomes “a shibboleth,” and rules “begin to resemble cultural prohibitions more than public policies: taboos to be ritualistically followed or transgressed.”

When “following the science” stifles debate, conflicts become a battle between competing experts and studies.

Perhaps the most pernicious consequence of following the science is what it does to us as political beings. Debate, negotiation, and compromise are shunted aside as disagreements take on a Manichean good/evil character. Resistance to mandates about masking, restaurant shutdowns, or vaccines is no longer understood in terms of mistrust in authorities, concerns about unanticipated consequences, or political interests. It is cast as the rebellion against rationality writ large. The political correspondent Tim Dickinson in the February issue of Rolling Stone didn’t blink when blaming Americans’ vaccine hesitancy on their “surrender” to a “kind of unreal thinking.”

But “you can’t fix stupid,” as people across the political spectrum often chant. And because democracy offers little recourse to “correct” what opponents see as each other’s irredeemable cognitive defects, our political discourse takes on a fanatical impatience. News headlines have noted the increasing anger among the vaccinated. Editorials shame the unvaccinated for their “idiocy” or “arrogance,” and social media are filled with comments proposing that we let the willingly unvaccinated die. All the while, vaccine hesitancy transforms into outright hostility.

Fanaticized discourse, in turn, legitimates strong-arm policy. The Biden White House, which brands itself as an administration that “respects” and “follows” science, will restrict nursing homes’ access to Medicare and Medicaid unless staff meet vaccination quotas. This move mirrors threats made by Governor Greg Abbot of Texas and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida to defund mask-mandating school districts. Both follow-the-science policy and its populist nemesis prefer executive decree over democracy, which risks making our gridlocked political system even worse.

The philosopher Karl Popper warned about this in The Open Society and Its Enemies: “They split mankind into friends and foes; into the few who share in reason with the gods, and the many who don’t.… Once we have done this, political equalitarianism becomes practically impossible.” Although his book was more concerned with Marxists and Fascists who claimed to know the essence of human society, Popper’s warning applies equally to the effort to make science politically authoritative. What we need most right now is not a society that respects science, but one that respects disagreement.

Associate Professor of Social Science

New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

Author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy (MIT Press, 2021)

As the public health establishment stared down the oncoming pandemic in early 2020, quite a few members of this community pointed out a conundrum: if they convinced the country to ramp up a massive response to SARS-CoV-2, and, by doing so, successfully prevented it from becoming a serious problem, critics would nevertheless bemoan the waste of public resources. What pandemic, they’d say, smugly and stupidly.

But noting this possibility hardly settles the question. Massive anticipatory responses to novel pathogens, or potential hurricanes, or date-sensitive computer glitches, really can be wasteful, and self-serving for bureaucracies that hold themselves forth as fixers.

My colleague Anthony Mills’s invocation in his Issues article of the 1976 “swine-flu fiasco,” as the New York Times called it, shows us that the political perils of success in heading off a serious problem are not merely theoretical. Because the problem with swine flu remained potential—because catastrophe failed to materialize—the preparations to combat it were seen as a politically motivated stunt.

Former New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s run as a media darling in 2020 shows something like the opposite. Even as his state suffered some of the country’s worst COVID-19 outcomes, Cuomo’s willingness to hold himself forth as a responsible, science-following leader left commentators musing about whether he could replace Joe Biden atop the Democratic ticket. Cuomo showed that policy failure could be spun into political gold, at least for a time. Sometimes seeming good beats being good.

Mills tells us, “Reestablishing an appropriate role for science in our politics … requires restoring the central role of politics itself in making policy decisions.” I heartily concur. But I worry that this makes a saner discourse sound much too easy to achieve. Because I fear that what the public wants, at bottom, is someone who will do exactly the right thing, every time, without any vexing complications.

I fear that what the public wants, at bottom, is someone who will do exactly the right thing, every time, without any vexing complications.

That is not a realistic expectation, of course. Once conflicting values—held by different individuals, or even by single persons—are taken into account, it is usually not even a sensible concept. But “follow the science” has been a siren song precisely because it tells people that they do not have to confront the unrealism of this desire. If all we have to do is be led to the science, the burdens of self-government fall away.

Doing politics is the proper way to resolve difficult questions such as whether it is worth it for us to force people to wear masks—but it is painful. That makes getting to a healthier, more openly political discourse very difficult. If one side begins the process, the other side can simply call them “political” (often an effective slander) and congratulate themselves on their willingness to be “scientific.” This is one of those problems for which a clear sense of what is wrong does not immediately lead to a solution.

That said, a discourse that understands the proper relationship between politics and science can’t hurt, and we should be glad that Mills is leading the way.

Senior Fellow

American Enterprise Institute

Cite this Article

“A Veneer of Objectivity.” Issues in Science and Technology 38, no. 1 (Fall 2021).

Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, Fall 2021