April 30, 2021 - 11:52am

When I read Tom Chivers’ post about Young Earth creationism I groaned inwardly. Not because I objected to what he’d written — it’s very good — but because it contained the news that the likely next leader of the DUP is a creationist.

Great, I thought, that’s all we need. If this man is elected then the self-appointed science vigilantes are going to go ape. 

Science vigilantism overlaps with the ‘fake news’ panic. It imagines that the citadel of reason is under attack on all sides by the reactionary forces of darkness. More recently this siege mentality has been extended to envelop the ‘expert class’ in general.

This Manichaean worldview of a society divided between rationality and irrationality is, of course, an aspect of the culture war as imported from the US. However, it’s America that shows that while the world is full of people who believe peculiar things, this needn’t stop scientists from getting on with their work. In no other western country does Christian fundamentalism have a greater influence, and yet no other country scoops more Nobel prizes. I’m not suggesting that these two facts are causally related — just that the former does not prevent the latter.

Of course, if we can tolerate the presence of Young Earth creationists or alternative medicine advocates in the public square, then we should we also tolerate the science vigilantes? If the very mention of homeopathy makes someone hop up-and-down with undiluted rage then can’t we put up with their eccentricity too?

Yes, of course, we should. 

But where there is cause for concern is when science vigilantism has a chilling effect on necessary debate — for instance, when social media companies censor content that conflicts with the official scientific position (however defined). 

The danger here is that mistakes made by the scientific establishment can have much more damaging consequences than crankery does. Covid policy is case in point.

Examples include the delaying of UK lockdown on official scientific advice; or the failure to close borders early enough; or the World Health Organisation’s early advice on masks; or the various failures of epidemiological modelling; or errors made in the treatment of Covid patients; or the misapplication of the precautionary principle in relation to vaccine risks. 

The list goes on and on — indeed the very origin of the pandemic may lie in a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong.

There’s no simple explanation for the fallibility of scientists and scientific bodies. In some cases we can point the finger at bureaucratic arrogance; in others, political interference is to blame; and then there’s the basic fact that our scientific understanding of any novel pathogen is inevitably a work in progress.

But whatever the explanation, it’s vital that we don’t place science on a pedestal. It is after all a human activity and thus subject to human frailties.

Putting the scientific establishment beyond challenge is too high a price for silencing the cranks.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.