Following the science should be an intellectual exercise, but it’s become one in which regular people seek comfort and affirmation during an undeniably difficult time
Author of the article:Sabrina Maddeaux
Publishing date:Dec 10, 2021 • 22 hours ago • 3 minute read • 61 Comments
Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve heard one refrain over and over again: “follow the science.” It’s a well-intentioned line that’s hard to refute and generally serves as good advice. But somewhere along the way, levelheadedness turned emotional, and quests for transparency and truth turned dogmatic. Many people’s dedication to science began to resemble something decidedly unscientific: religion.
Following the science should be an intellectual exercise, but it’s become one in which regular people seek comfort and affirmation during an undeniably difficult time. Like traditional religions, that comfort is found in rituals, personal and collective sacrifice, and moral judgments on purity. Anyone who questions or critiques public health responses –– which may be based on science, but are subjective decisions –– are often cast as heretics.
Rigorously cleaning and sanitizing surfaces we’ve long known aren’t major sources of transmission is largely a comfort ritual. Erecting plastic barriers that may actually worsen ventilation is also often about psychological reassurance.
Wearing masks as you walk to your table in a small restaurant, but not for the next two hours as you eat, drink and socialize, is not just ritualistic, but a theatrical display. The same goes for QR code menus and directional stickers in aisles. These things may look like science, sound like science, and even feel like science, but they’re stretching what science actually demands.
On social media, what began as an honest pursuit of knowledge and hard data created new communities and infallible idols during a period of isolation. One of the fundamental roles of churches and other places of worship is to provide social organization and connection. Pews are replaced with follower counts, and collective hymns with retweets and memes.
The main connection between these communities and their newly popular leaders is an often uncritical dedication to following the so-called science and demanding others adhere to it. Straying from the flock is discouraged; “doing your own research” has become something to mock.
Historically, religions thrive during times of crisis. Polling shows that the faith of many religious Americans was strengthened during the pandemic, even as their places of worship closed. Google searches for “prayer” have spiked worldwide.
But the reality is that traditional religion is in decline, and more people than ever consider themselves agnostic, atheist or simply nonpracticing. However, the psychological needs served by religion during crises remain; people still crave comfort, community and a sense of control.
Science became many of these non-believers’ de facto religion; something to cling to, worship and help make sense of it all. There would be little harm in this, if it weren’t for the fact that science is actually important and perverting it to serve our psychological and social needs poses obvious dangers. It risks clouding our collective decision-making and ultimately undermining the trustworthiness of truly objective facts and data.
To be clear, our understanding of science can and should evolve as we learn more. One week’s objective fact may not be next week’s objective fact. But much of the same crowd that lectures others on accepting changing science has a glaring blind spot: the science changes, but their own mindsets and judgments don’t, particularly when it comes to conflating hygiene theatre and moral virtue. Their pandemic approach remains decidedly Old Testament, steeped in sacrifice and a punitive worldview.
We’re convinced we’re in a period of enlightenment, but our reality increasingly hews closer to the Middle Ages, when science was seen as a way to reinforce theological and moral beliefs rather than a pure pursuit of knowledge.
It’s no secret that religions have an unfortunate habit of being hijacked by those with ulterior motives, whether that be political or personal power, or the pursuit of wealth and fame. It’d be naive to think opportunists and bad actors aren’t already trying to capitalize on the blind faith and moral rigidity of the most hardcore “follow the science” worshippers. This is why, going forward, questioning what’s presented to the public as science is more important than ever.