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Journalists and politicians love science, but traffic in fear

Journalists and politicians love science, but traffic in fear
© UPI Photo

COVID-19 news coverage has put science in the middle of the news agenda. That makes sense on one level, given the nature of the biological threat and the expectation that science is called on to eliminate the crisis. The obsession with and worship of science, however, has its limitations. Science alone can’t address the broader sociopolitical, economic and ethical aspects of the COVID-19 emergency. The news industry hasn’t figured that out.

Noted rhetorician Robert Weiss often explained to his students and professor colleagues, “Facts don’t speak for themselves. People do.” This whimsical aphorism has particular relevance in assessing how politicians and journalists have pushed science to the forefront of all things COVID-19. Science is supposed to be good at providing facts, but is less capable of effectively applying those facts into the messy realities of a culture. That’s where people enter, to speak for the facts. Indeed, the same scientific facts can lead people to quite different decisions, depending on context and their personal motivations. Further, when there is disagreement on the scientific “facts,” as has been seen during the COVID-19 crisis, chaos ensues.

But the media’s blind and un-nuanced dedication to “science” has rhetorically signaled to the citizenry that the preeminence of science in national dialogue is to be unchallenged. To be sure, most of the adoring news coverage of science is just parroting public officials who idolize science.

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A big proponent of science is New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoFor Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court upholds religious liberty Cardinal Dolan hails Supreme Court decision on churches, COVID-19 Cuomo blames new conservative majority for high court's COVID-19 decision MORE. In late March, Cuomo said his state needed 140,000 hospital beds and 40,000 ventilators to combat the virus, saying “We’re following the data and the science and that’s what the data and the science says.” Turns out those figures weren’t even close. It is also not clear what science guided Cuomo’s ill-fated decision to have infected elderly patients returned to nursing homes.

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiObama chief economist says Democrats should accept smaller coronavirus relief package if necessary The five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? MORE (D-Calif.) is also a devotee of science, writing to her Democratic colleagues, “Americans must ignore lies and start to listen to scientists.” In almost every interview, Pelosi talks about “following the science,” making decisions that are “science-based,” and chastising Trump for his “failure to listen to the scientists.” This weaponization of science has less to do with white lab coats than it does with rhetorical leverage. Policy and spending priorities rooted in science, Pelosi posits, can’t be challenged.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker criticized detractors of his lockdown orders by saying they were enemies of “science and reason,” devoted only to “ideology” and “pursuit of personal celebrity.” Pritzker claimed his orders had prevented “thousands of deaths,” but without scientific proof of his boast.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE and Vice President Pence also like to wear the shield science can provide. Trump proudly pointed to a “science-based reopening” at his mid-April press conference. Pence said the guidelines were “a product of science.”

Brilliant scientists have worked diligently to help the nation during this crisis. No one should doubt their intelligence or importance. Yet, for all science can do, there is much that is still unclear. Societal lockdowns were driven by science, but new research by J.P. Morgan asserts the lockdowns didn’t alter the course of the pandemic. The CDC warned early in the pandemic about people getting the virus from touching infected surfaces, but has now backed off that guidance. It is hard to find the science that decided churches should be closed to protect the public, but pot shops and big box stores are safe. And what science in New Jersey proves ten people can gather, but eleven is unhealthy?

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Protesters aren’t against science so much as they are against arbitrary decisions under the cover of “science.”

The great irony is that science is supposed to be a rational, deliberate process, but emotion-infused science has created a national hysteria driven by fear.

Sociopolitical observer Richard Weaver once warned, “Science in the area of human affairs speaks with a false rhetoric,” adding that science is by “its mode of operation irrelevant to the world of value and feeling.” The COVID-19 crisis, and its presentation in the media, has shown the nation both the importance and limitations of science.

Science, like facts, doesn’t speak for itself. People still have to referee its role.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.