The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting is underway in Davos, Switzerland. Last year, disinformation stole the spotlight and was featured as a key problem for global elites to address. This year, the WEF has upped the ante, releasing a report that lists “misinformation and disinformation” as the No. 1 short-term risk facing the world—beating out interstate armed conflict, climate change, and lack of economic opportunity. (Societal polarization, which is closely linked to misinfo/disinfo, came in third.)
One of the first events at this year’s meeting was a panel discussion, “Liberating Science,” which largely focused on disinformation as it relates to the climate change agenda. A few short clips from the session went viral on social media; X users took particular note of comments made by two panelists—Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University, and Luciana Vaccaro, a Swiss scientist—who objected to the increased toxicity of the site since Elon Musk took over. Vaccaro said that a fundamental issue with X was “the policy of the owner, which is problematic.” One can certainly find fault with the various ways in which Musk is running the site, though Vaccaro seemed to be criticizing his stated commitment to allowing more freedom of expression on the platform.
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Short video clips can be misleading, of course; thankfully, the WEF records nearly all of its events and panel discussions, and so I watched the entire discussion here. A few impressions:
First, the participants frequently described science as something approaching a catechism. They were broadly concerned about declining trust in scientific institutions and expressed hope that scientists would train themselves to become better communicators of what is, and is not, scientific truth. One of the panelists, Carlos Afonso Nobre, a researcher at the University of São Paulo, was positively apoplectic about the phenomenon of populist backlash against expertise and elitism around the world.
“Why is populism increasing?” he asked. “I don’t understand. They are all anti-science. Why in democracies are we electing anti-science politicians?”
Second, the panelists were, for the most part, unable to answer the above question, offering unconvincing explanations such as misinformation is easier to obtain than true information, technology makes everything more complicated, the news spreads too fast in today’s world, etc.
Oreskes, who chimed in more frequently than the other panelists, correctly noted that distrust of expertise is hardly a new development, but said that the pandemic had exacerbated it.
“In the last 10 to 20 years there has been a deliberate attempt to inflame the public against experts,” she said. “We definitely saw this during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
At no point during the hourlong discussion did any of the panel experts ever explore the idea that perhaps some of the backlash against The Science stemmed from pandemic-era policy mistakes made by governments at the behest of health advisers. They correctly noted that scientists are only human, and must be allowed to propose ideas, and then later correct their theories based on new information. But they utterly failed to grapple with the lived experience of skeptics during the COVID-19 pandemic. People who disagreed with the underlying science (whether masks, lockdowns, school closures, and vaccination worked to substantially reduce the spread of the virus, for instance)—or even merely disputed the policy implications of said science (whether mandating masks, lockdowns, school closures, and vaccines was justified and/or worth the tradeoffs)—were accused of spreading misinformation and, in some cases, barred from speaking on social media.
At every turn, the loudest voices calling for more suppression of dissent relating to COVID-19 were government health advisers and their allies in the media and at nonprofit organizations purporting to specialize in fighting misinfo/disinfo. In the U.S., this included numerous government agencies that worked in tandem to force censorship on social media companies, as well as purported experts who demonized legitimate lines of inquiry—including whether COVID-19 could have emerged from a laboratory—as racist conspiracy theories.
The “anti-science” backlash is not a backlash against the obvious truth that the consensus on specific questions evolved over the course of the pandemic. For instance, we should not fault scientists for recommending cloth masks based on available evidence and then later admitting that they were “little more than facial decorations.” But we should be allowed to express consternation that the choice to wear a mask or not was frequently overridden by government actors at the behest of public health officials—and we should be outraged that the anti-misinformation crowd actively tried to prohibit scrutiny of these policies.
During her remarks, Vaccaro was correct in pointing out that “science is not democratic.”
“At the end, there is one truth,” she said. “The scientists don’t vote.”
That’s undoubtedly true—but in a democracy, the people do vote on what the government is supposed to do with the information provided by the scientists. Too many members of Team Science overreached by trying to control the policy and the messaging—even when they were wrong.