On not being a contrarian
Staying skeptical among people of faith
Consider cynicism, skepticism, and faith1.
Cynicism is an uninvestigated rejection of that which is handed down by an authority.
Faith is an uninvestigated acceptance of that which is handed down by an authority.
Skepticism is an openness to the possibility that the authority might be right, and they might be wrong.
During Covid, many people simply trusted the authorities from the beginning—the NIH and the CDC, for instance. Even as the track record of said authorities got worse and worse, the Covid faithful stuck to their guns. If Fauci said that this was a naturally occurring virus, or if Wolensky said the vaccines would protect against infection and transmission, or if a trusted doctor said that early treatment of the disease was impossible with preexisting drugs, the Covid faithful believed it. That’s what it is to take something on faith: you find your authority, and you let them do your thinking for you. Countervailing evidence does not dissuade the faithful.
Also during Covid, some people simply distrusted the authorities from the beginning. While the NIH and the CDC had variable success in the beginning, the Covid cynical never wavered: nothing the authorities said could be true. That’s what it is to be cynical: you identify the authorities, and you believe nothing that they say, regardless of whether their track record improves. Countervailing evidence does not dissuade the cynical.
Finally, during Covid, some people had the expectation that the authorities were trying to do right by us, but that errors occur, and that all conclusions brought forth by them warranted investigation. Other people had the expectation that the authorities were not trying to do right by us, but that we still might get good health policy from them, or reliable data. Over time, many of the Covid skeptics came to have less trust in and respect for the authorities who were making policy; the track record of the authorities was remarkably consistent, in the wrong direction. But the Covid skeptical remain open to new hypotheses, new interpretations, and new conclusions. Countervailing evidence persuades the skeptical.
I have, during Covid, sometimes been called a contrarian, even by friends. It has been invoked by way of defending me, even, as if to be a contrarian were a cute personality quirk, or even a positive one. But when I map “contrarian” on to the framework above—cynic, skeptic, or faithful—to be a contrarian is clearly to be in the domain of the cynic. A contrarian simply disagrees. A contrarian may well avoid making eye contact with any evidence that doesn’t suit them, so as to be assured that their “everything the authorities say is wrong” worldview can persist.
I am not a contrarian (and yes, I framed the statement that way on purpose). I am a scientist. Scientists should be neither faithful nor cynical. Scientists are skeptics. Scientists do not accept what authorities say simply because the authorities have said it. Scientists do not accept what anyone says simply because a particular person or institution has said it. Some scientists question absolutely everything that comes their way, but most choose their issues somewhat carefully. Their battles, if you will.
During Covid, many people who would normally approach the world with skepticism, with a scientific eye, chose the path of faith instead. At one level, that is acceptable. If you feel that you do not know enough to assess what is being said by the authorities—especially if you have a long-standing, personal relationship with, for instance, a doctor whom you trust—perhaps you have long-since decided that, on medical issues, you trust your doctor. You do not do your own research.
But if you have done this, you should recognize that actively choosing not to do your own research puts you in the territory of the faithful (or the cynical). Add to this that it has largely been the Covid faithful who have attacked the Covid skeptics—the ones who have been trying to do their own research. Among the Covid faithful who have themselves been skeptics in other areas of their lives, the attack has been particularly ironic. The Covid faithful often attack the Covid skeptics for not following the science.
Science is not a result to be followed. Science is a process to be undertaken, by which—over time, in fits and starts, with no promise of a linear progression—a better fit with reality is arrived at. When advised to #FollowTheScience during Covid, we have often been handed a consensus position that was arrived at out of view of the public, generally with no sharing of process or data, and therefore with no ability to vet the results.
Rapid consensus on complex issues like vaccine safety and efficacy is inherently suspect. Consensus is not arrived at so quickly, or so completely. Coercion is. Coercion is anti-scientific. So is faith. If you have arrived at your conclusions by trusting an authority, acknowledge the role that faith has played in your understanding of where we are, and stop attacking the skeptical.
Those of us who kept our scientific heads about us during this time have been vilified. Some of those vilifying us never made any claims to being scientists. Others vilifying us are themselves credentialed and recognized as scientists, and yet they stand strong among the ranks of the Covid faithful. I would encourage the scientists and doctors among the Covid faithful to consider that, having adopted this new faith, you may well be running counter to everything that you believe that you stand for.
Putting these three concepts in direct relationship to one another is something that Bret (Weinstein) used to do in his academic programs with undergraduates.