After almost two years of COVID-19, our culture of discussion and deliberation is reaching new lows. Some time ago, a decades-long trend in academia spilled over into society and is now dissolving the last remains of civil discourse. While it was unnerving to discuss the merits of introducing a 46th gender into experimental mathematics, the current discussion (or lack thereof) is shaking the foundations of western democracy. Rather than fostering the exchange of ideas and opinions—the ‘gold standard’ in any democracy—the current division is both a mere by-product of an unhealthy debate culture and an actively fostered result of it. We’re meant to talk past each other.
Over the past years, politics and media have chosen to rely upon ‘experts’ as the new be-all and end-all of their appeal to authority. By constantly referring to a supposed scientific consensus, not only do they shut-down the potential falsification process that should be a part of scientific research, but they also exclude any opposing opinions as invalid, since those aren’t the opinions of ‘experts.’ This process can most famously be witnessed in the case of the climate change debate, where the ominous 97% of scientists—which has been called into question—has been used for decades to shut down any criticism of the mainstream narrative. The same method is now being used with the COVID-pandemic, with the same exclusion of minority opinions from public and scientific discourse, and the same defamation of the general public whenever it refuses to ‘trust the experts’ that were elected by the media.
While majorities might be an essential factor in a democratic process, they aren’t in science. When Copernicus developed his heliocentric model, the majority of scholars opposed his ideas—that didn’t make it any less true. The findings of Ignaz Semmelweis about hygiene strike us as almost self-explanatory, yet they were strictly opposed by his contemporaries (who assigned Semmelweis to a mental asylum). It is the arrogance of our times to assume that such mistakes could happen only in the supposed darkness of our religious and pre-enlightened past.
The realities of academic and scientific research aren’t simple. Research needs to be funded and much of researchers’ time is dedicated to acquiring or allocating funding. Not every research area is equally easy to fund; some topics are almost impossible to fund, while donors throw money at other fields. Even if research isn’t overtly political (see: sexism in glaciology), by selectively supporting specific types of goal-oriented research to support political agendas, that research in itself stops being independent: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” Criticism about such practices is voiced, but rarely echoed in mainstream media.
This contrasts with the perceived role of selected ‘experts’ in the media, who are portrayed to us as independent despite often having multiple stakes in interest groups or businesses surrounding the topic at hand. To listen unreflectively is highly irresponsible naivete at best and deeply manipulative scientism at worst.
When such arguments are made alongside claims that there is a majority of ‘experts’ who, in both cases, support the common narrative (and one needs to bear in mind that climate studies and epidemiology are both fields that exceed the common man’s ability to question the scientific arguments in depth), we’re left with a situation in which a democratic decision-making process is abandoned in deferral to the ‘experts’ chosen by the media.
In the democratic process, having a democratic vote isn’t just a ‘right’, but also a responsibility—not least to inform oneself as thoroughly as possible on a certain matter. It is a grave misunderstanding of our times to believe that ‘informing yourself’ is merely a matter of receiving information from a variety of mainstream news outlets (or even better, ‘experts’) and picking the flavour of one’s choice. Especially in an age of (dis)information, finding quality information can be harder than ever before.
It is remarkable, that in all these years of climate- and COVID-debates, rarely, if at all, has a TV station succeeded in setting up a discussion on equal footing (so not five ‘experts’ against a ‘denier’) between two different sides of the argument that has been neutrally moderated. Discourse as a means of gaining insight has vanished completely. What’s left is partisan talking points that confirm one side of the narrative.
For either side of the political spectrum, science is turned from a means of inquiry into a propaganda tool: the issue is presented as scientific when it is really a political one. I, like many others, probably can’t judge whether the spike proteins within a vaccine could be harmful. But I can spot contradictions within an argument, judge whether something that sounds like a legitimate counterargument is taken seriously, or if it is being ignored and discarded as a conspiracy by politicians and media alike.
Why should I trust the same politicians who have been either mistaken or lying to us concerning COVID, with constantly moved goalposts? First, we had to wash our hands; then, ‘flatten the curve’, wear a scarf, wear a mask—then a different type of mask—and keep our distance; be locked down; get vaccinated; get vaccinated again; be locked down again; get vaccinated a third time (call it a booster), until we’ve reached the point where vaccination is becoming mandatory.
Why don’t we hear about those countries that have clearly taken a different path and not fared much worse (if at all)? Why is it acceptable that there is almost a witch hunt for unvaccinated people, blaming them for the exhaustion of our intensive care units, while conveniently ignoring that intensive care units have been stretched to their limits on a yearly basis during flu season? Why didn’t we invest into bolstering our healthcare system over the past two years, but instead reduced the number of beds in intensive care, while at the same time paying bonuses to hospitals once they reach 75% of the capacity of intensive care beds? How did we manage to develop several experimental vaccines in under a year, but appear to be remarkably reluctant when it comes to looking into other effective treatment possibilities?
These are but some of the questions that deserve to be asked and to be discussed openly if we are to take policies seriously. Often, they aren’t scientific or medical questions: they are political. And that’s what makes them tough, because in a democracy there is no excuse for a voter to leave a political choice to an ‘expert.’
Looking at the way politicians and media use these ‘experts,’ there’s a tendency towards living in a constant state of emergency. Whether it’s climate or pandemic, there is never any time to lose, or millions will die. Effectively, we’re witnessing the decay of the last remnants of the democratic process as the democratic decision-making process is abandoned in favour of deferral to the ‘experts’ chosen by the media. And what better way to excuse the feeling of inevitable disenfranchisement than a constant state of emergency? Never was it sweeter to let democracy die.