As Lao Tzu wrote, the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Humans and their institutions are flawed. When one institution gets an undue amount of attention or influence, this often means its collapse is near.
Earlier this year, the pandemic brought several institutions—particularly the scientific community and the media—to the fore. The media saw the pandemic as an opportunity to shore up a failing business model. As fear gripped the population, many people who were previously disconnected plugged in. In the first half of 2020 alone, the New York Times saw 1 million new digital subscribers—substantially higher than the 600,000 new digital subscribers it had averaged annually over the past five years.
The pandemic was also an enormous opportunity for the scientific community. The National Institute for Health website has a long list of newly available grants. At the time of writing, the search engine logged 1,226 results. Adding them all up, I get a figure of around $2.2 billion.
Is this a new dawn for journalism and science funding? Or is it a classic bubble? The evidence suggests the latter. This week, the Reuters Institute at Oxford University released the latest survey results about public attitudes toward the institutions that had stepped into the limelight in the United Kingdom. The results are not favorable.
The survey asked people how often they were tuning in to what journalists, politicians, and experts were saying about the pandemic—and how trustworthy they found this information to be. In April, the survey found that only 6 percent were distrustful of the information and were tuning it out. By August—only five months later—this number rose to 15 percent.
This metric does not capture how many people were skeptical of the policy response to the pandemic or even the pandemic itself. Undoubtedly, there were many people who were skeptical and still tuned in to see what was being said. What was being surveyed was disaffection with the whole debate and, presumably, with the institutions involved in that debate. In only five months, the percentage of people who trusted scientists had fallen from 88 percent to 82 percent. That may not seem like a huge decline, but recall that this was in only five months. News agencies and the government, predictably, fell much harder: from 57 percent to 45 percent and from 67 percent to 45 percent, respectively.
This was only among the general population. At a higher level, non-partisan members of the intelligentsia could not help but notice the almost farcical politicization of previously reputable scientific outlets. In mid-October, the preeminent science journal Nature endorsed Joe Biden for president. The editors told us that Biden was the “only choice” because of his “trust in truth, evidence, science and democracy.” What a science journal editorial board has to tell us about truth, much less democracy, remains a mystery to me (I have attempted to discuss both philosophy and politics with many scientists). Other journals, like Science and The New England Journal of Medicine, followed suit. It is difficult not to read this as simple hubris. Scientists felt empowered by the pandemic and took the opportunity to do what many of them had wanted to do for years: tell people how to think and what to do.
One Nature reader decided to unsubscribe because he now had to subject the journal to the same scrutiny he had previously reserved for the news media: “In my opinion these declarations mean [Nature] have traded away their reputation for some inexplicable reason and their output now has to be seen through a potential bias filter.”
The reader also noted that the journal’s standards had been slipping in recent years—something more critical minds within the scientific community also acknowledge. There are many reasons for the slipping standards, from a decrease in tangible scientific discoveries, to the clumsy abstract modelling and increasingly poor quality of the statistics-driven studies. But the overall direction is much lamented among top-tier scientists, even if they are reluctant to say it publicly for fear of losing their funding.
One need not be a “peer-reviewed” psychologist to understand that histrionics are often a response to internal insecurity. Perhaps this is the best way to read the experts’ attempted takeover of politics in 2020: the last hurrah of a previously impressive but now atrophied institution. In the 1950s, scientists could wow the public with promises of nuclear power and space flight. In the 2020s, the journals are just another tired voice in an increasingly unimpressive political sphere.
During the pandemic, many expert-sanctioned actions have interfered with many lives. On this basis alone, it is a statistical certainty that many of these actions and their effects will eventually become scandals. In the U.K., for example, more than half of total excess deaths during the pandemic period were deaths at home from non-COVID diseases. This indicates that a good portion of the excess deaths in the U.K. is the result of people avoiding going to the hospital—and there is no reason to think that the same is not true in other countries. Political leaders and their experts have yet to stomach this shocking figure, but it is unlikely to remain hidden for long.
We do not yet know how many suicides the lockdowns caused, but the initial evidence is unnerving. A University College London study of 70,000 adults in the U.K. showed that in the first week of lockdown, 10 percent of people had suicidal thoughts. A full 2 percent harmed themselves or attempted suicide. More ominous still, the findings “appear to hold true even as lockdown restrictions are being eased.” This is presumably because experts and the media are still encouraging people to be fearful, leading to chronic anxiety—especially in those who already have poor mental health.
These scandals will break out in public inquiries, in courtrooms, and in the media in the coming months and years. But the evidence already suggests that the expert bubble is starting to burst. Scientists and their representatives in the media and government, especially those with an inflated view of their public roles, may soon find that the power they have always craved is a poisoned chalice.
John William O'Sullivan writes from Dublin, Ireland.
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