Fact Checkers Aren't Scientists
Too often, they're censors
Welcome to my newest project: Natural Selections. My intention with this newsletter is to speak as truly and freely as I am able, and to carry no water for the censors. Also to have fun, to educate and illuminate, to show and tell and learn. Please join me!
The Covid pandemic has brought so much into sharp relief.
Many of our critical supply lines are fragile; there are race and class discrepancies in the distribution of medical and social services; and political divisions make for an ever wider gulf between “us” and “them”—almost no matter who you view as us, and who as them. Closer in, we have witnessed the hunger that humans have for real interaction with other humans, and we know for sure that video calls are not a sufficient replacement. We also know that outside is good for every part of us, mind, body, and soul. This is always true, but especially during a pandemic caused by a virus that is very poor at transmitting outside. And we have seen that the authorities—government officials, journalists at legacy institutions, and fact checkers hired by big tech companies—appear to be so worried that the masses are going to make bad decisions, that they feel compelled to keep information from us, giving us only conclusions. We are told that nodding along in agreement with those conclusions, and acting accordingly, is to #FollowTheScience.
The problem with this is that being complacent, and taking authorities at their word, is the antithesis of science. Fact-checkers may sound authoritative, but they are neither scientists, nor qualified to assess what is, or is not, credible.
Not wanting to be outed as anti-scientific lugheads with soup for brains, however, many of us have been lulled into obedience by a rhetorical trick. For that is what it is: #FollowTheScience is a rhetorical trick. It’s a political move. And science never flourishes when it is in the grip of politics.
The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, a normally dry and staid peer-reviewed scientific journal, recently published a missive from Anna Krylov PhD, a chemist who came of age in the USSR. As she argues in the piece, “Simply put, we should evaluate, reward, and acknowledge scientific contributions strictly on the basis of their intellectual merit and not on the basis of personal traits of the scientists or a current political agenda.” This should be obvious, and yet at the moment, it warrants stating in a scientific journal. Too often, now, fact-checkers seem driven by the latter.
In this newsletter, I will be writing about science in all of its messy glory. That means sometimes getting into the weeds on the scientific process, which requires an assessment of all the possible hypotheses that may explain an observable pattern. Whatever has become the orthodoxy, the conventional wisdom—especially if it was arrived at rapidly and under cover of darkness—is up for discussion. This tension between “settled” wisdom and rigorous challenge is the way that human knowledge progresses, that we become better than we were before. We suppress the challenge at our peril.
I have my predilections and interests, of course, my lens for exploring reality and challenging dogma. I am an evolutionary biologist, so in this newsletter, all things evolutionary are on the table.
Were the landscapes of North America engineered by beavers, before humans ever arrived? Why are there left-handers? Are men and women doomed to an endless tug-of-war over power and style, or can we, in the immortal but differently aimed words of Rodney King, learn to get along? Or even better, learn to understand and build on each other’s strengths and weaknesses?
And, as I wrote in a recent piece in Areo: “What if SARS-CoV2 leaked from a lab? What if there are long-term effects of mRNA vaccines? What if Ivermectin is a safe and effective prophylaxis against, and treatment for, COVID-19?”
In newsletters throughout the year—every Tuesday, and sometimes more frequently than that—I will indeed be writing about beavers and handedness, relationships and the virus we now know as SARS-CoV2. Also parrots and elephants, the Amazon rainforest and coral reefs, brains and sex and love and parenting and childhood and food and more. It’s all evolutionary, so I have a take.
Smack dab in the middle of the 20th century, iconic scientist Enrico Fermi was discussing the possibility of extra-terrestrial life with other luminaries, when he posed this question: “Where is everybody?” The everybody that he referred to was, of course, alien life, specifically “communicating civilizations,” which is that subset of alien life that could and would choose to make contact. Just three of the factors influencing the probability of communicating civilizations are the rate of star formation in the galaxy, the fraction of stars that have planets, and the fraction of planets on which intelligent life develops. When all of the relevant probabilities are assessed together, it seems that we should have met some aliens by now. This is the Fermi Paradox.
Some of the many solutions proposed to the Fermi Paradox have included that planets capable of supporting life are more rare than we think; that intelligent aliens would inevitably drive themselves extinct, through technological hubris or accident; and that intelligent aliens are in fact among us, they just don’t want us to know (this book offers 75 solutions to the Fermi Paradox, and I recommend it).
I propose that another resolution of the Fermi paradox is this: as a world becomes more populous and complicated, fact checkers replace scientists as arbiters of truth. The population thus forgets what science is (or they never learned it), leaving that world bereft of the ability to innovate and discern truth. People in that world will find their horizons shrinking, quite literally, and will never find themselves out among the stars.
PolitiFact—which has partnered with Facebook to be their fact-checking arm—has a six-tier rating system for their truth-o-meter. The most egregious rating, the one that they say they only deliver to the least true statements, is “pants on fire.” This is described as being applied to something that “is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.” Indeed, “pants on fire” connotes something worse than a complete untruth—it suggests a lie. Liar, liar, pants on fire, goes the childhood taunt. Those statements earning a “pants on fire!” rating by PolitiFact must be pretty awful—and so must be the people saying such things!
Well, guess what: That’s not how science works. But then, PolitiFact is not a scientific organization. Any organization that conflates the veracity of a statement, with the intention of a person making the statement, as PolitiFact does with its Pants on Fire! rating, is not even pretending to hide its anti-scientific bent. Here’s one example of where they applied this rating: to the lab leak hypothesis, in September of 2020. Of the possibility that SARS-CoV2 leaked from a lab, PolitiFact wrote, “The claim is inaccurate and ridiculous. We rate it Pants on Fire!” The scientific evidence has not changed since then, but the political winds have, and by May of 2021 PolitiFact had changed their minds, saying in an editor’s note that they have removed this fact-check from their database, as the claim is now understood to be “more widely disputed.” You don’t say.
PolitiFact also relies heavily on constructions like “Experts say there is no evidence that…” as if this is a compelling argument—as if experts can’t be wrong. Any of us can be wrong, regardless of credential. PolitiFact gave a “false” rating (one step up from “pants on fire”) to a claim made by my husband, Bret Weinstein, an evolutionary biologist, and Robert Malone, who is the inventor of the technology platform on which mRNA vaccines are built. Weinstein and Malone said that the spike protein of SARS-CoV2 is itself cytotoxic. The evidence for the spike protein being toxic is plentiful, including in this paper, published in the scientific journal Circulation Research in March of this year, titled SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein Impairs Endothelial Function via Downregulation of ACE 2. About this research, the Salk Institute writes, the researchers “showed that the spike protein damaged the cells”.
In direct conflict with this published research, PolitiFact says merely that “vaccine experts say there is no evidence that the spike protein is toxic or cytotoxic.”
Which experts? On what basis? Are we to believe that PolitiFact has a supply of magical, omniscient experts who are both freed from the usual rules of scientific conduct—leaving all hypotheses on the table, sharing what they know, assessing the hypotheses in a fair and measured manner—and utterly infallible?
If so, I’d like to get me some of those experts.
Of course, such experts are as real as rainbow unicorns and lizard people. They represent the fantasies—unwitting, perhaps, but fantasies nonetheless—of authorities who would hand down decisions to a populace whom they don’t imagine are smart enough to think for ourselves.
Discussion of all the possibilities is a fundamental requirement of science. It is, in fact, and not coincidentally, also a requirement of a free society. In the United States, our First Amendment serves to ensure that conventional wisdom is constantly under scrutiny. The guarantee of a voice for the masses is meant to stand as a bulkhead against the tyranny of the powerful, but in the era of Big Tech our protections are being eroded. We find ourselves cornered, with the scientific method and the United States Bill of Rights up against fact checkers on platforms that have come to dominate public discourse. It is easier to go with the pre-digested and pre-vetted answers. It is easier to keep to the socially acceptable script. But as in so many things, the easy way is not the best way.
Science needs to be a public process. This does not look like scientific conclusions being arrived at behind closed doors and announced to the public with much fanfare. Rather, the scientific process itself belongs in the public domain. A privatized and elitist model of science is both profoundly weaker, and more vulnerable to manipulation, than a fully transparent and public approach.
Another true thing is that there is no crystal ball that tells us which topics are critical now, and which ones aren’t. Covid obviously looms large right now, as it should. But I will argue that the societal implications of how men and women differ in our historical manifestations of competition and hierarchy are immense, and few people are discussing them. Furthermore, no fact-checker is bothering to censor such claims, at least for now.
By comparison, the utterly unremarkable claim that sexual reproduction in our lineage involves two and only two sexes—which is backed up by at least 500 million uninterrupted years of evolution—is one that, amazingly, might draw the attention of fact-checkers in our current moment. The particular issues that fact-checkers censor, therefore, is another view in to how narrow our understanding of our place in time and space is. We live in but one moment in a very long human trajectory. Most of us would prefer that humans continue on, in an actually sustainable way, on this beautiful planet of ours for a very long time indeed. The short time horizon of “here and now” limits so many things.
#FollowTheScience is an anti-scientific rhetorical move, and fact-checkers are doing the work of an ideology, which is also anti-scientific. If you’re going to “fact-check” things out of existence, at least be transparent about what you are doing. This is not virtue or goodness, or indeed science or inquiry that you are standing up for. In all cases, it is quite the opposite. In science, uncertainty is a virtue, but fact-checkers would cleanse the world of uncertainty—or rather, tuck it safely out of view.
So from a scientist, to the fact-checkers out there, allow me to extend my hand in introduction. I see you; presumably you see me. Science does not progress by fiat, so know that when you shut down discussion because the ideas are considered transgressive, what you are doing is following orders. The world is now well aware that “I was just following orders” is a poor defense. And even if those orders are well-intentioned, you are definitely getting in the way of science.
Fact-checkers are not scientists. What they are, far too often, is censors. Science and scientists are being censored, and science cannot flourish when it is censored. Censorship can be understood through the lens of evolution—it is a kind of resource guarding, a not so subtle form of competition. The powerful—and the actual censors who do their bidding—compete in part by compelling disagreement among the rest of us. When we allow censorship, therefore, we are making the job of those who would control us easier. We are doing their work for them.
My intention with this newsletter is to speak as truly and freely as I am able, and to carry no water for the censors.
Let us learn some of the lessons that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief. Let us make our supply chains anti-fragile, and reduce inequalities in access and opportunity to key services. Let us interact in real time, with real people, as much as possible, rather than hiding behind screens—which will also help heal some of our political divisions. Let us remember that we are all more similar than we are different, and have much to learn from one another. Let us spend as much time outside as possible. And let us follow our curiosity, and our analytical and logical brains, towards a broader understanding of the world we live in, rather than a narrowly defined arena which has been brought to us by sponsors we did not choose, and should not want.
Come with me on this journey, as we actually follow some science.