When Science Becomes a Cult

Skepticism is at the heart of the scientific method.  Question everything.  Test everything.  Scientific knowledge is established by evidence, not authority.  The method is sound, but the execution may be imperfect.  That's why I have faith in the methods of science but not necessarily in scientists.

Experts in science have a store of credibility that can be maintained only by their performance.  I have a great deal of trust in the meteorologists at the National Weather Service because their forecasts are 80%–90% accurate (no weatherman jokes, please — I used to be one!).  But if most of their predictions began to fail, I would turn elsewhere for my weather forecasts.

So it comes as a surprise that so many in the public have expressed a growing trust in medical scientists, even after a series of spectacular failures.  According to a newly published survey by Pew Research, public confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interest of the public increased from 35% in 2019, with "a great deal of confidence before the outbreak," to 43% in April 2020. 

Granted, some of the public health failures surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic were the result of incomplete data, but many of them could have been avoided: 

  • Experts wildly over-projected the number of deaths, relying, in part, on a computer model that was poorly coded and unvetted.
  • Experts locked down the entire country, ignoring differences in population density between rural areas and cities and vulnerability due to age and underlying conditions.
  • Experts ignored lessons from the 1918 pandemic, which showed that lockdowns result in more infections and deaths by preventing herd immunity (National Academy of Sciences).
  • Experts told us not to wear a mask, then told us that everyone must wear a mask, despite studies that suggest that cloth masks are ineffective.
  • Experts tell us the masks protect those around us, ignoring previous research that showed that masks are much more effective in protecting the wearer (Plos One Journal). 
  • Experts told us we need to "flatten the curve" before we can open up society.  Now some are moving the goalpost, saying we should wait until vaccinations are administered.
  • Experts did little to communicate the inherent uncertainties of their projections and the advice they were dispensing, thus creating a false sense of public trust. 

The public's growth in confidence, following these failures, parallels the reaction of cult followers who, after a failed doomsday prediction, double down in their adherence to the cult and its leadership.  A rational response to failed predictions and bad advice would be to reject any new declarations, or at least approach them with skepticism.  But cult followers place their faith in authority rather than evidence, so their confidence is largely unshaken by contradictory data. 

This newfound confidence in medical scientists correlates directly with political affiliation.  Among Republicans (and those leaning Republican), there was virtually no change in public trust, which stands at 31% this year (a 1% decrease from 2019).  But among Democrats (and those leaning Democrat), confidence rose from 37% in 2019, to 53% in 2020 — a 16% increase.  The difference in public confidence between the two parties amounts to 22 percentage points.

The correlation is not hard to explain.  Progressives believe that government is a benign entity that functions for the benefit of the people.  They are enamored of the power of government to create a "just society."  Most Democrats, therefore, reflexively trust the advice and authority of government experts and are heavily invested in government-funded science.  Despite numerous mistaken predictions, bungled advice, and ill-conceived public policies, Democrats are certain that these experts have only the public good in mind and that no one is better qualified to advise and shape public health policies.

Most Republicans, on the other hand, are deeply suspicious of big government and believe that society thrives when government's power and scope are strictly limited.  In the words of James Madison, "[i]t will not be denied that power is of an encroaching nature and that it ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it" (Federalist 48, 1788). 

Just as most Democrats instinctively trust the advice and authority of government experts, most Republicans instinctively view their advice and authority with skepticism.  The misjudgments and mistakes by federal and state experts during this crisis, along with the implementation of draconian lockdown measures, only confirm Republican suspicions of government and the "encroaching nature" of power. 

Though such skepticism should be welcomed by anyone who values the scientific method and academic freedom, Progressive Democrats have always claimed they hold the high ground when it comes to science.  From climate change to green energy, they style themselves as the party of science, painting Republicans as anti-science troglodytes. 

But the Pew survey has exposed the hollowness of this claim.  Democrats are not the party of science, but the party of government-controlled science, the "scientific-technological elite" whom President Eisenhower warned of in his famous farewell speech.  These are the experts who pull the strings of public policy and shape the outcomes of science through government funding rather than academic freedom.  Even if their motives were pure and their science were sound, they are not entitled to the public's confidence simply by virtue of their position.  Yet this is precisely what Progressives believe.

The cultic devotion to government-controlled science rejects any form of skepticism that stands in the way of the official narrative.  Competing viewpoints and vigorous debate, which are the hallmarks of advancing science, are not integral to the Progressive paradigm.  While Progressive confidence in medical experts was rising, Progressives were ignoring, denouncing, and silencing dissenting scientists.  The medical opinions of some of these scientists turned out to be correct.  But that makes no difference: cultists genuflect to authority, not evidence.

William DiPuccio, Ph.D. teaches earth and physical sciences and served as a weather forecaster for the U.S. Navy.  You can find his publications and videos at Science Et. Cetera.