Covid-19 has been a terrible blight on humanity and has once again brought to the fore public distrust in science. Historically, this happens when people struggle to understand the complexity of scientific theory.
We need only to remember the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries or the execution of Giordano Bruno - the 16th century Italian philosopher and cosmologist who dared to challenge the church’s vision of the universe - to see how a lack of knowledge and understanding can have dangerous consequences.
I have recently spoken out on vaccines and debunked many of the myths behind them, but I have done this almost yearly for a long time. For the most part, this has been well received, but I’ve been called a liar and deserving of jail time.
When Michael Gove said, “people in this country have had enough of the experts”, he was not referring to you and me, he was referring to the government who realise that information is power, and misinformation can be too. Even worse can be the political vilification of scientists when it serves an end.
We need only look at the scandal around Professor Neil Ferguson, who resigned in May after ignoring a stay at home order, but whose work was highly influential in preventing many deaths during the early outbreak of Covid-19. As a consequence the expert was portrayed as being bad and his work immoral because he went against cultural ideas around marriage and was hypocritical around lockdown rules.
There is good and bad science, and good and bad scientists. Even good scientists make mistakes, while others will simply use their power to deceive. Some, like Andrew Wakefield, have made millions off of poor science and destabilised public trust in one of the most successful public health measures of human history. His now-retracted study postulating a link between vaccines and autism has been completely debunked but still influences some members of the public.
But consider the makers of the new Covid vaccine, they must not just fight against the limits of science, but the ferocious and uninformed attacks of Hollywood celebrities, who many people look up to and entrust more than a “nerd” the government and media have made their enemy.
It's tough to develop a novel treatment utilising mRNA technology, push for social distancing, and argue with Laurence Fox at the same time. It's hard enough to protect people from one angry blob of protein, much less one with a Twitter account and an acting career to finance.
At the same time as engaging in this discourse, we utilise phones, medicines, transport, energy, and other technology which have relied completely on the work of experts. Inclusion into these fields is not a position beyond the realms of many in 2020, where better educational opportunities are within reach.
Unfortunately, and serendipitously, in contrast, it must be the voices of the experts that turn the tide. If we cannot trust our leaders to understand the facts, then we must teach them, but also the general public. There is little use in asking those who fear vaccines to take them unless we explain them in an accessible way. Knowledge is the enemy of fear, and currently fear is the friend of charlatans who prey on the misinformed.
If we were to go back to the work of Bruno, many of his ideas have since been verified by the legions of astronomers and physicists who came after him. One may argue that the censorship of his views inspired new generations, but imagine if such censorship did not exist? A society that welcomed the work of experts, even if it did not suit the prevailing ideology, might be one that’s hundreds of years ahead of where we are now.
So how to move forward? We need more scientists to take the time to explain these concepts, not just in newspapers or blogs, but on television. We need to make this accessible. We need to help people understand and recognise the innate human thirst for knowledge. At the same time, we need to empower those with such dreams to pursue them. We need a world where a vaccine is not a political weapon or a delusional fear, but what it actually is, a marvel of science that will save lives.
And if the politicians don’t like it, then perhaps that tells us something.
Dr Benjamin Janaway is a mental health doctor and science communicator in London
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