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Guy ConsolmagnoOctober 22, 2021
Anti-vaccine protestors hold placards during a march against COVID-19 vaccinations in Cape Town, South AfricaAnti-vaccine protestors hold placards during a march against COVID-19 vaccinations in Cape Town, South Africa, Sept. 18, 2021. (CNS photo/Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

In the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, the scientific evidence in favor of vaccination is overwhelming. With this in mind, there are many people who see universal vaccination as the only way to bring the pandemic to an end, often invoking the mantra of “follow the science.” As a slogan it would seem to have a certain appeal, but the evidence suggests that the catchphrase has not actually been particularly effective at increasing vaccination rates. After all, a significant portion of the population has still refused to be vaccinated and indeed is skeptical of the science.

I am the director of the Vatican Observatory. That means that I am both a scientist and an official within the Catholic Church. I am well familiar with both scientific and clerical authority. And while I am all in favor of vaccinations, I also find myself troubled by that phrase, “Follow the science.” It implies that the authority of science is infallible.

[Related: Vaccine hesitancy is declining in religious communities]

But, of course, science is not infallible. Yes, the vaccine prevents the disease for the overwhelming majority of people who receive it, and even for breakthrough cases it reduces the severity of the disease. But the vaccines are not perfect. Fully vaccinated people can, and do, come down with Covid—sometimes with serious effects, even if this happens rarely. To the vaccine skeptic, the fact that such failures happen at all suggests not only that the vaccine is not perfect, but it also gives credence to their fear that “following the science” blindly can be dangerous.

As much as we hate to admit it, that fear of blind trust in science does have an element of truth to it. Sometimes “the science” is wrong. I am a scientist, and I can name any number of papers I have written that have turned out to be embarrassingly incorrect. But more so, there are times in our history when “the science”—or at least how it is presented to the general public—has turned out to be not merely imperfect but horrifyingly wrong.

While I am all in favor of vaccinations, I also find myself troubled by that phrase, “Follow the science.” It implies that the authority of science is infallible.

The popularizers of science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—people like H. G. Wells, Alexander Graham Bell and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes—all promoted the idea of eugenics. They insisted that we could perfect the human race by eliminating supposedly “inferior” people. It was an idea so self-evident to these figures that anyone (including the church) who opposed it on moral grounds was seen as dangerously backward.

As a result of the popular acceptance of eugenics, it is estimated that 70,000 women, mostly minorities, were forcibly sterilized in the United States during the 20th century. Such programs continued well into the 1970s. And, of course, this was also the logic of Nazi death camps.

The fight over “following the science” is really a fight over the reliability of authority in general.

Because popular science had been so wrong in this case, does it logically follow that science should never be trusted? Obviously not. For one thing, science eventually got it right; indeed, eugenics had been long discredited in scientific circles decades before the fad of forced sterilizations was finally halted. (Of course, even if the science had been true, forced sterilization still would have been immoral.) One could argue that the villains in this tragic situation were the popularizers, who succumbed to the temptation of promoting oversimplified views of the science in question. But that does not excuse the scientists who got it wrong in the first place.

It goes deeper than that. The fight over “following the science” is really a fight over the reliability of authority in general. At the end of the day, both those who promote science and those who disdain it are looking for certainty in an uncertain universe. It is an almost Calvinistic intolerance of error; the world is black and white, and “failure is not an option.” If only we could be certain, we tell ourselves, if only we could be without doubt.

The irony is that science itself is actually a process based on doubt and error, and of learning how to analyze that error.

The irony is that science itself is actually a process based on doubt and error, and of learning how to analyze that error. In science, it is essential to know that you don’t know all the answers: That is what drives you to work to learn more and to not be satisfied with what you already know.

Sadly, though, that is not how we teach science. In the introductory courses at least—and how many people ever get past the introductory courses?—“success” in your science class means getting the same answer as you find in the back of the textbook. True, doing such rote problems in science is probably the fastest way to immerse a student into a sense of what it feels like to practice science successfully. In the same way, you have to learn to play the scales before you get to play the music. But scales are not music, and getting the “answers” is not science.

You only become a scientist when you are able to look at something you thought you understood and then say, “Hmm, that’s not right.” Until you can do that, you will not even know to start looking for what went wrong.

You only become a scientist when you are able to look at something you thought you understood and then say, “Hmm, that’s not right.”

In science, failure isn’t an option; it is a requirement.

Doubt plays a role parallel to that of faith. The writer Anne Lamott summarized it perfectly when she said that the “opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty.” It is not just that if we did not have doubts we would not need faith. It also means that doubt is the essential driver that keeps us looking for God and will not let us be satisfied with just accepting, or rejecting, the stuff we learned when we were kids—like in science.

Accepting doubt, accepting the inevitability of error, also means accepting a tolerance for other people even when they have been wrong. I still enjoy the stories of H. G. Wells, I still admire much that Oliver Wendell Holmes did as a chief justice, and I still use Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, even as I abhor those people’s views on eugenics. I can accept that heroes sometimes are also sinners, even serious sinners.

Science and religion seem to be in conflict only if you think of both of them as closed books of rules and facts, each demanding infallible credulity. But that’s not religion; that’s fanaticism. And that’s not science; that’s scientism.

Science and religion seem to be in conflict only if you think of both of them as closed books of rules and facts, each demanding infallible credulity.

Science does not give you the perfect truth. But it can tell you the odds. We trust the vaccine because it vastly improves your odds of not getting sick. (The trouble is, of course, that most of us are lousy at understanding how odds work, which is why casinos and lotteries are so successful.)

There is a further irony, of course, seen in some of the vaccine-skeptic crowd. Just after they announce that they are too clever to be fooled by the experts, they then start self-dosing with some utterly inappropriate and dangerous drug that they heard about on the internet. The same folks who urge us not to be sheep are the next minute trying to cure Covid by taking drugs meant for sheep.

Why would anyone trust their lives to some random site they found on the internet? Why would we reject religion in favor of a philosophy we can read on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker? We should recognize the temptation. It is the allure of gnosticism, a desire to embrace “secret knowledge.” This is an urge that has been around since the Church Fathers in the second and third century, and indeed since the ancient Greeks performed esoteric rites.

But rather than heaping scorn on those who fall prey to this urge, perhaps we might want to look at where we have gone wrong in the way we teach our science and our religion. If we promote “follow the science” with the implication that the scientists deserve to be followed because they are smarter than you, aren’t we just feeding a dangerous fallacy?

Rather than heaping scorn on those who deny the efficacy of the vaccine, perhaps we might want to look at where we have gone wrong in the way we teach our science and our religion.

If your sense of self-worth comes from thinking that you are smarter than the average person, that you are the smartest guy in the room, then a great temptation arises to never agree with the consensus of the majority—never to be a “sheep.” If you are smarter than everyone else, then presumably you must know something that no one else knows. And if your beliefs come at a high cost—for example, because of the scorn you endure for holding them—then you become so invested in your peculiar stance that you can’t ever admit you were wrong.

And so I think this comes to the root issue: the identification of intelligence or cleverness as a criterion of superiority. Certainly the history of the church should tell us otherwise, if only we were paying attention. There were many learned theologians in the 19th century, most of them at each other’s throats; nearly every one of them is long forgotten in the history of the church. Instead, the saints of that era were people like Bernadette; Francis de Sales; and Thérèse of Lisieux, the “Little Flower.” The simple people who were not concerned so much with scoring theological points as experiencing God.

Trying to understand the universe, from astronomy to medicine, is only possible when it is a response to love. It depends on loving the unlovable; trusting even when trust is uncertain; willing to forgive and learn even from those who have gone wrong in the past; living with uncertainty, even as we learn to trust.

After all, the only certain thing in life is God’s love and mercy—and our need for both.

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