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The Year Ahead 2021: The Post-Truth Pandemic

Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific research that was previously conducted and published under the public's radar has now become chum for politically partisan feeding frenzies. To succeed in this new era of ideological distortion and bad faith, scientists will have to go on the offensive.

On July 31, 2020, my college at the University of Oxford hosted a Zoom seminar featuring talks by several internationally renowned scientists. The session was intended primarily for internal faculty, but, owing to the pandemic-inspired practice of disseminating scientific findings as widely as possible, other researchers and interested members of the public had also been invited. When my turn came to speak, I opened my PowerPoint and was immediately assailed with abusive messages in the chat window. To quote one verbatim: “FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING SHEEP NEW WORLD ORDER PIECE OF SHIT.”

The title of my presentation was, “Explaining international differences in masking policies in the COVID-19 pandemic,” but I could have just as well been speaking about lockdowns, testing and tracing, shielding, or dozens of other related topics. In each case, policymakers had assured us from the outset of the pandemic that they were “following the science,” and yet “the science” on those topics had yet to be firmly established. Almost every new publication was contested, sometimes by fellow scientists, and sometimes – aggressively and even violently – by members of the public.

How had I, a medical doctor and Oxford professor, attracted such a retinue of abusers with the time and energy to pursue me through the (virtual) gates of an academic seminar? Who organized these trolls, and why did they feel the need to fill my inbox with obscenities and threats?

Let’s go back to the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 was sweeping the world, and research was progressing at an unprecedented pace and scale. Scientific databases quickly became clogged with preprints whose provenance and quality were hard to judge. Though a few questions about the virus were quickly resolved, many others were not. Many findings were ambiguous, incomplete, unreplicated, or irrelevant, but each had far-reaching implications for the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.

Those of us who conduct scientific research for a living used to bemoan the fact that our findings drew little notice from anyone but a few fellow academics. Memorable claims that half of all scientific papers are never read, or that it takes an average of 17 years for research results to have any real impact, may be apocryphal, but they nonetheless captured a real problem. Scientists like me simply never anticipated that we would be catapulted into a mirror-image universe where lobbyists seize on our preprints for their own purposes before we have even responded to peer reviewers’ criticisms.

In this Alice in Wonderland setting, the public response to science has been so magnified that it is impossible to control. “Facts,” even when generated and published in good faith, immediately are run through an ideological meat grinder and beaten into a political mold, while scientific uncertainty becomes a weapon in the hands of elected officials and unelected interest.

Under these conditions, the normal conduct of science becomes a fraught exercise. Once you place a fact – however cautiously – into the public domain, it remains there. There are no take-backs, and the longer that definitive answers to pressing scientific questions elude us, the more that scientists’ own flawed assumptions, premature conclusions, academic rivalries, political allegiances, and private lives become the story. To the trolls, we are all “at loggerheads.”

The fusillade of abuse, rage, hatred, intimidation, and obscenities directed at me in the Zoom seminar came from an anonymous user who had signed in as a white male. His verbal violence was a classic example of what scholars have termed “toxic white masculinity.” This category of behavior also includes aggressive and emotive guardianship of immutable (but unsubstantiated) truths; disparagement of supposedly female traits (including acknowledgement of vulnerability and uncertainty, expressing care for others, and taking common-sense precautions like wearing a mask); and describing opponents with terms like “snowflake” and “sheep.”

Misinformation, lies, and twisted half-truths are nothing new. But as the philosopher Jayson Harsin has argued, the post-truth “infodemic” surrounding COVID-19 is both larger and more sinister than anything seen in previous public-health crises. To those seeking to weaponize information for their own ends, the glut of scientific preprints that has accumulated in response to the pandemic is manna from heaven.
COVID-19 may have already changed science forever. The pandemic and its aftershocks have shaken the pillars of dispassionate inquiry by forcing us to reconsider how academic findings are reported, disseminated, and shared with the public. We cannot climb out of the rabbit hole and return to a status quo of under-attended seminars. For the foreseeable future, science will be a kind of public act, and scientific communication will be a bare-knuckle fight between good-faith actors and the trolls.

How can science survive all of this? For starters, we scientists will need to be more self-reflective, developing a heightened awareness of our own identities, values, and ethical commitments as researchers working for the public good. Embracing this role means engaging – however painfully – with the brickbats and slurs. Through close readings of the criticism and personal attacks we receive, we can make more sense of the current political climate and identify potential methods for safeguarding empirical knowledge. But to be effective, we will have to put in the epistemological work of defending our underlying assumptions about the nature of reality and how that reality might be known.

Scientists also must become more adept at deconstruction. To overcome attempts to distort our findings, we need to identify and then circumvent the constraints of particular discourses and linguistic conventions.

Consider the Great Barrington Declaration, a recent public letter and petition released by a group of fringe academics advocating a herd-immunity strategy for dealing with COVID-19. Their proposal – that “vulnerable” populations should be ring-fenced while the “non-vulnerable” go about their lives without restrictions – rests on misinformation, but was presented as respectable science. And while it was immediately countered by mainstream scientists, the most effective rebuttals came from ordinary users who signed the highly polished online petition with names like “Dr. Johnny Fartpants,” “Professor Notaf Uckingclue,” and “Mr. Banana Rama.”

We should take our hats off to Dr. Fartpants. The message for the trolls is that our gloves are off, and we understand their game. In fact, I will be using my own trolls’ behavior as data in my next paper.

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