December 10, 2021

There is an agonising sense of bewilderment among the small tribe of educated, anti-lockdown centrists to which I belong. I use “centrists” broadly, to refer to those who lived in a circumspect peace with the existing order. We voted for the big political parties, without particularly liking them. We sent our children to normal schools, even if we worried they were over-tested and under-stimulated. We owned smartphones and bought from Amazon, but were not pining for driverless cars or VR headsets. We could hold a friendly conversation with those on the other side of the Brexit or Trump divides. We saw the necessity of big government, but weren’t in love with it. We thought the liberal, Western project was showing wear and tear, but remained optimists.

We now are well into the second year of Covid’s new and ever-evolving bio-politics. Its measures are intrusive, ineffective and/or nonsensical, and dehumanising. They have been traumatic for almost everyone. But there is an additional trauma for anti-lockdown centrists. The public voices whom we trusted, and the institutions to which we belonged or with whom we identified, have almost uniformly embraced this brave new Covid world. So we suddenly find ourselves in the strange company of libertarians, Marxists, and unaffiliated oddballs. And yet, to us, our anti-lockdown position still seems natural and sensible.

In the Covid response, scientists and science have gained an unprecedented social prominence and authority. We must, we are told, “follow the science”. The result has largely been a case of blind scientists leading equally blind governments and citizens into a ditch. I’d suggest that before deciding when and whether to follow science, we need to reflect on what science is and how it works. And 60 years ago, the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn addressed these questions in The Structures of Scientific Revolutions. It’s a useful — even a necessary one — for understanding the science and politics of Covid.

Kuhn argues in his classic work that the history of science is not a straight-line journey towards ever more scientific truth. Rather, the bulk of scientific activity consists of a continuous process of “normal science”, punctuated only rarely by the revolutions that Kuhn calls “paradigm shifts”. In normal science, scientists work within a given paradigm, a model of how their portion of the world works: their labour is to verify and refine this model. But the models of normal science can come under pressure, when they contradict new theories, or when fitting new data to them becomes increasingly unwieldy.

Scientific revolutions then happen when an old model is questioned, rejected and replaced with a new one. This is a gradual process: the old paradigm’s defenders will need to either die or convert before the new paradigm is fully accepted. Well-known examples include celestial mechanics, where Ptolemy’s geocentric universe yielded to Copernicus, Keppler and Newton; physics (Kuhn’s own discipline), where Aristotle’s laws were replaced by Newton’s, superseded in turn by relativity and quantum mechanics; and natural history, where the young earth on which God created each living species separately and purposively became the unfathomably ancient planet where species evolved from each other through the unguided randomness of natural selection.

Kuhn posits that shifts of this sort are not simply new truths revealed by the accumulation of experimental data. Rather, taken on its own, data is both infinite and incomprehensible. Scientists need models to make sense of data, to decide what to trust, and what to question. Observation, obviously, helps to form these models, but so do pure hypotheses. A paradigm is not accepted only once it is shown that it explains all the data. Rather, the paradigm is accepted early on, and then normal science filters the data through it. Everyday science does not involve a constant questioning of every element in a scientific field. In normal practice, scientists must base their research on unquestioned assumptions. Questioning is rather the exception, that can lead to a paradigm shift, after which normal science resumes under the new paradigm.

For instance, Darwin did not posit the paradigm shift of natural selection because he had seen examples of every extinct and living species in the chain of life. Rather he started from examples that made the paradigm seem plausible, and then endeavoured to fit the whole of the natural world to his assumptions. Because his paradigm won the day, subsequent generations of biologists then set about building on Darwin’s work, adding samples to the record of species, constructing speculative evolutionary histories to fill gaps, and above all factoring in the new data of genetics and molecular biology.

I believe a Kuhnian paradigm shift is now taking place in the scientific fields most relevant to Covid. In this respect, the scientists who have guided the bulk of the Covid response have set up a new paradigm, a new series of unquestionable truths. So, in epidemiology these truths are: lockdowns are an effective and a necessary measure to handle a pandemic, and masks work well against respiratory diseases. In virology and immunology we have: natural immunity is inferior to vaccine-acquired immunity, and injections that alleviate viral symptoms (at least in the short-term), but do not stop infection or transmission, are successful vaccines. Finally, in the field of public health: citizens and governments have the ability and therefore the responsibility to alter the course of a pandemic by the restructuring of daily life.

This paradigm shift is not complete. Some prominent scientists continue to adhere to older paradigms. For them, none of the above principles is a basis for normal science: rather, they are, at best, within the range of the questionable, at worst demonstrably false. The trouble is that dialogue between this old guard and the scientists of the new paradigm is largely impossible, because dialogue works best within a shared framework.

In Kuhn’s thesis, the two sides cannot simply reach agreement by impartial analysis of the same evidence. Evidence is far too complex to make sense on its own; scientific debate can generally only bear fruit within a shared paradigm of how to select and use evidence. Most evolutionary biologists have no interest in any interpretation of evidence that is purported to show direct divine intervention. Similarly, most leading covidologists have no interest, for instance, in studies that indicate that neither masks nor mask mandates affect the spread of Covid.

Since Kuhn published his book, talk of “paradigm shifts” has moved beyond the philosophy of science, and entered the everyday lexicon. This is doubtless because we perceive such shifts not only in the specialised domains of science, but in the framework of moral and social norms that affects us all. At least since the ancient Greek sophists, philosophers have observed that such norms vary from one society to another. But a characteristic of modernity has been a sequence of relatively rapid shifts in norms within a given society.

To pick an example where the old paradigm is truly dead and buried: for much of European history, it was largely held as self-evident that a certain excellence of character and ability came with being born of noble blood. This notion now seems ridiculous to us, and its late-born heir, scientific racism, is going the same way. For other norms, most notoriously those of sexual morality, the paradigm shift is far from complete. Each side appeals to a model of human nature, which it holds as self-evident, and which the other side rejects. Debate becomes a dialogue of the deaf, exactly because each side rejects the other’s paradigm.

Clearly the Covid paradigm shift is taking place not just in science, but in this wider world of moral and social norms. The field of public health necessarily takes us into that world: as its name implies, public health is inevitably a political matter. We are changing our society and our morality when we consider viral spread to be a moral failing, and prioritise its prevention over such basic needs as freedom of movement or physical contact.

It is first and foremost these moral and social changes that have horrified us anti-lockdown centrists. Most of us, probably, are not scientists, although many of us have done a great deal of scientific reading since March 2020. But our core position must be that the proposed new normal of indefinite intrusions on our freedom and our flourishing is unacceptable regardless of these policies’ effectiveness against Covid. In our paradigm, the old normative paradigm that we are bewildered to find is not shared by so many of our peers, social distancing in the long run threatens the death of society, to be replaced by a grotesque ballet of the masked and vaxxed, interacting only at the whim of governments and experts.

There is, however, one aspect of Kuhn’s thought that remains controversial among historians and philosophers of science. Kuhn’s model can be reconciled with the Enlightenment narrative of scientific progress, if we posit that a paradigm replaces its predecessor because it is more true: Einstein’s physics comes closer to describing reality than Newton’s; natural selection of random mutations is a truer explanation of the evolution of species than any teleological drive. But for Kuhn one paradigm replaced another not because it was more true, but only because it was, for a given scientific community, more fruitful and satisfactory, a “better instrument for discovering and solving puzzles”. Criteria for a successful new paradigm included improvements in “accuracy of prediction, simplicity, scope, and compatibility with other specialties”. But these did not amount to “a better representation of what nature is really like”1. The only linear scientific progress Kuhn then acknowledged was that within the normal science that elaborated a given paradigm.

Kuhn’s scepticism towards progress was certainly influenced by the impasse reached by his own discipline, physics. Relativity and quantum mechanics are both extremely powerful paradigms, but they cannot be reconciled: as far as we can tell, they can’t both be true. But hopefully such an impasse is not the last word in physics, let alone the ultimate destiny of all scientific and moral paradigms.

We anti-lockdown centrists are fully prepared to argue on both facts and principles, and we continue to hope that our paradigm will win out. We believe that the new scientific paradigm fails even on Kuhn’s own terms, because it provides no better model for understanding the phenomena. But, beyond that, we maintain that the old paradigms – both scientific and social – really are more true to the natural world and to human nature. So we hope that our communities can be convinced both that most anti-Covid measures have proved ineffective, and that their social price is far too high. Such arguments will not be easy, because dialogue between paradigms never is. The first step is for both sides to see that the debate is indeed between rival paradigms, and that, consequently, the future of both medical science and society are at stake.

  1.  Quotes are from Kuhn’s postscript to the 1969 edition of his book, in which he defended himself against the charge of scientific relativism