How science lost the public’s trust

“Science” has become a political slogan. “I believe in science”, Joe Bidentweeted six days before his election as President. “Donald Trump does not. It’s that easy, guys.

But what does it mean to believe in science? British science writer Matt Ridley draws a sharp distinction between “science as a philosophy” and “science as an institution”. The first stems from the Enlightenment, which Mr. Ridley defines as “the primacy of rational and objective reasoning”. The latter, like all human institutions, is erratic, subject to far below its stated principles. Mr Ridley says the Covid pandemic has “highlighted the disconnect between science as a philosophy and science as an institution”.

Mr Ridley, 63, describes himself as a “science critic, a profession that doesn’t really exist”. He compares his vocation to that of an art critic and calls most other science writers “cheerleaders”. This somewhat elevated attitude seems appropriate for a hereditary English peer. As the fifth Viscount Ridley he is a member of the UK House of Lords and zooms in with me from his ancestral home in Northumberland just south of Scotland between sessions of Parliament (which he also attends via Zoom) .

At Oxford almost 40 years ago, Mr. Ridley studied the mating patterns of pheasants. His fieldwork involved crouching in the long grass of the countryside to understand why these “happy interesting” birds are polygamous, unlike most other birds. With Canadian molecular biologist Alina Chan, he is completing a book called “Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19”, to be published in November.

This will likely make its authors unwanted in China. As Mr Ridley worked on the book, he says, it became “horribly clear” that Chinese scientists “are not free to explain and reveal everything they have done with viruses. bats ”. This information must be “unearthed” by strangers like him and Ms. Chan. Chinese authorities, he said, have ordered all scientists to send their findings on the virus for government approval before other scientists or international agencies can check them: “It’s shocking in the aftermath of a deadly pandemic that has killed millions of people and devastated the world. ”

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