The great changes, the changes that matter, don’t always announce themselves with the blare of amplified voices or the distant thunder of cannons and bombs. As often as not they take place quietly, moving unnoticed through the crawlspaces of society, and it takes an attentive ear to subtle cues and whispers in the night to catch what’s happening while it’s still in process. I’ve come to believe that such a change is happening around us right now, and it’s one of the quiet kind, though its consequences won’t remain silent for long.
One of the things that clued me into what was happening was the simple fact that David Brin and I agree about something. If you haven’t been following the two of us online, this may not seem particularly improbable, so I’ll explain. Brin, as I think most of my readers know, is a writer of hard science fiction, and a professional curmudgeon. His blog, with a praiseworthy sense of truth in advertising, is titled Contrary Brin, and on it he routinely lambastes the many individuals and ideas with which he disagrees. I’ve come in for a couple of his tirades, for good reason. He’s a scientific rationalist who believes that progress, unless it’s hamstrung by people like me, will lead us onward and upward to the gizmocentric Utopia of his dreams.
Obviously I disagree. As I see it, increasing technological complexity (i.e., “progress”) is as subject to the law of diminishing returns as anything else human, and is already slowing to a halt due to that inescapable factor. As Leslie White pointed out long ago, too, the level of technology any society has is strictly determined by its net energy per capita. (Net energy? That’s how much energy you have left when you subtract what gets used up in extracting, refining, and distributing your energy resources.) The rise of modern technology was a product of the mix of cleverness and luck that let us break into Earth’s cookie jar of fossilized carbon and waste most of it in a few centuries of giddy extravagance. As easily accessible fossil fuels deplete and net energy shrinks, technological complexity decreases in turn—watch what’s happening to our infrastructure if you want a ringside view of that process in its early stages.
Those are my views. David Brin finds them just as absurd and unhelpful as I find his. Take any two people with basic presuppositions so divergent and it’ll be a warm day on the moons of Pluto when they agree about much of anything. Apparently they’re breaking out the suntan lotion on the methane plains of Charon, though, because we’re in hearty agreement about one of the oddest phenomena in recent news: the remarkable 180° pivot that has Pentagon brass earnestly insisting that UFOs really are buzzing around the skies of our planet.
You have to have some sense of the development of the UFO phenomenon over the last three quarters of a century to realize how bizarre this is. From the day in 1947 when Kenneth Arnold landed at an airfield in Washington State to report that he’d seen something in the air that moved “like a saucer skipped over water”—yes, that’s where the label “flying saucer” came from—the US military has had a consistent and curious relationship to reports of strange things in the sky. On the one hand, officials denied that there was anything happening at all. On the other, a steady stream of leaks, reports, off-the-record statements, and tantalizing scraps of data from military sources have fed the controversy, and kept it going when it would otherwise have gone to the same Valhalla of forgotten fads as phrenology and Richard Shaver’s Dero hoax.
That was the Pentagon playbook, and they followed it to the letter for longer than either Brin or I have been alive. Now all of a sudden that playbook has gone out the window. Media flacks from the armed services are giving press briefings in which they brandish photos that are blurry and ambiguous even by the rock-bottom standards of UFO imagery—the sort of thing you’d expect from a VHS video camera circa 1980, as though the US military has no better cameras than that—and insist gravely that there are things buzzing through our planet’s skies that do things no mere Earthling technology can imitate.
David Brin doesn’t buy it. He proposes that what’s actually happening is that the US military is using all this babble about UFOs to provide camouflage for secret military technologies. I admit I grinned when I saw this comment of his, because my 2009 book on the UFO phenomenon (reissued this year in a revised and expanded edition as The UFO Chronicles) identified exactly this as one of the primary sources of UFO reports. That’s why they’re donning sun hats on Nix and popping open cold beers on Kerberos right now: Brin and I, starting from radically different basic stances, have come to the same conclusion, which is that a set of official statements from national authorities are complete hogwash and shouldn’t be trusted.
That same response is becoming tolerably popular right now in many other contexts. Consider the comparable and even more recent 180° pivot of the US government and its tame media over the origins of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Until quite recently, the party line was that the new virus had jumped from bats to humans via a Wuhan “wet market” where shoppers purchase live animals as food. Any suggestion that something else might have been involved— say, any suggestion that Wuhan was also the site of a major Chinese government medical research installation where scientists carried out extremely risky “gain-of-function” research on bat coronaviruses—was instantly slapped down by supposedly impartial fact checkers in the media as a crackpot conspiracy theory.
Now all of a sudden US government flacks and the corporate media have turned on a dime and are admitting that, well, yes, there’s a major Chinese governmnet medical research installation in Wuhan, and scientists there were conducting gain-of-function studies on bat coronaviruses—that is to say, studies in which viruses are genetically modified to make them more dangerous—and yes, there’s some evidence that viruses thus modified got out of the installation by way of inadequate biosecurity procedures and caused the pandemic. What was a crackpot conspiracy theory a few months ago is now being taken seriously all over the front pages, and the sudden pivot on the part of the supposedly impartial fact checkers is getting a lot of raised eyebrows.
Is there more going on here than meets the eye? Of course there is. Those gain-of-function studies in Wuhan were partly funded by US tax dollars, via one of the many slush funds that our federal government uses to prop up the medical industry here and abroad. (The reason seems to be that these extremely risky studies can’t be done in the US due to safety regulations, and so the US medical industry promptly offshored them so they could keep playing with their dangerous toys.) Specific US officials approved that funding and the studies it paid for—and some of those officials ended up also playing a significant role in pushing the narrative that the Covid-19 virus must have come from the meat market and couldn’t possibly have escaped from a lab. It’s pretty clear that covering certain highly placed and highly exposed rumps took precedence over the truth for a good long time.
One question for which I don’t have an answer yet is why the narrative has shifted so suddenly. No new data has surfaced—the information about the facility in Wuhan and the evidence that the virus was manmade have been around for more than a year, and yet suddenly they’ve gone from fringe subjects to front page news. I confess I wonder if this is connected to the equally sudden swerve that’s turned Bill Gates from media darling to media punching bag. Until quite recently, Gates was one of the principal celebrity flacks promoting the medical industry’s response to the Covid-19 virus, and his charitable foundation was heavily involved in funding that response. From at least one angle, it looks rather distinctly as though he’s being set up to take the fall for something. Still, we’ll just have to wait and see.
More generally, public skepticism about official pronouncements concerning the coronavirus outbreak has risen to remarkable levels, and not just on one side of the social landscape. For every person who insists that the virus isn’t a problem and refuses to take the vaccine, there’s another person who claims that the vaccine isn’t good enough and insists on wearing a mask and staying six feet away from everyone else even when official pronouncements insist that these steps are no longer necessary. It’s the same phenomenon on both sides, driven by a spreading distrust in those who claim to be able to speak with authority but have changed their minds too publicly, too often, with too little scientific justification. Meanwhile websites are springing up for people to talk about the health problems they’ve had after getting one of the Covid-19 vaccines—complications the media won’t talk about and, in many cases, doctors won’t treat.
None of this is particularly surprising, since official pronouncements on the virus have been driven by political pressures rather than scientific or medical concerns since the beginning of the outbreak. It somehow never occurred to anyone in power that hearing authority figures talking out of both sides of their mouth does not inspire confidence in their claims. Do you recall, dear reader, how health officials insisted early last year that masks weren’t necessary? Coronavirus advice from official sources during the outbreak has resembled nothing so much as the weather here in southern New England: if you don’t like it, wait a little while and it’ll be different.
All this comes, furthermore, at a time when public confidence in the official pronouncements of the scientific and medical establishments was already at an all-time low, for the same reason. Over and over again, the claims of supposedly authoritative figures have turned out to be just plain wrong. Take a look sometime at the number of pharmaceuticals that were approved by the FDA as safe and effective, and then had to be withdrawn in a hurry when it turned out they were neither. For that matter, look into the way that official attitudes toward, say, cholesterol have veered back and forth over the years, and ask yourself this: why should you believe that this year’s fashionable opinion is any more correct than last year’s, when you know as well as I do that it’s going to be replaced by some different opinion in another year or two?
Behind this is a far more drastic problem that cuts to the heart of the scientific enterprise. The power of science as a way of finding out truths about nature depends on replicability—that is, when one set of researchers publish a paper saying that they’ve done some experiments and gotten certain results, anyone else with access to the necessary hardware ought to be able to repeat the same experiments and get the same results. That was the basis on which science broke free of the pack of competing methods of making sense of nature and became our culture’s core way of understanding the world. Unfortunately, in a great many cases, it’s no longer true.
The replication crisis, as this far from minor problem is called, has been the subject of a great deal of worried conversation in the pages of scientific journals for years now. The difficulty is that a huge number of experiments that have been taken seriously, and used as the basis for influential theories, have turned out to be irreproducible: when other researchers repeated the same experiments they didn’t get the same results. Some of that is due to scientific fraud of various kinds, ranging from outright faking of experimental results to increasingly arcane statistical gamesmanship that extracts the illusion of meaning from random data.
Much more, however, it is due to a culture of sloppy science in which experiments are set up to support fashionable prejudices rather than putting them to the test. It’s indicative of this, as a recent survey of published studies showed, that studies that failed the test of replication were cited literally hundreds of times more often than studies that passed that test. Tell people what they want to hear and they’ll splash your name around in the journals that matter: that’s the logic that makes for a successful career in too many fields of scientific research these days. It also means, unfortunately, that medical care and public policy these days are quite often being guided by studies worth a lot less than the hot air that promotes them.
Of course this sort of thing is hardly limited to science. A great many Americans still recall with painful clarity how many times Barack Obama insisted that if his health insurance legislation got passed, their health insurance costs would go down and they would be able to keep their existing plans and physicians. He was lying, and the repeated double-digit increases in health insurance costs that followed the enactment of Obamacare made that point with impressive clarity. To be fair, there was nothing especially new about that whopping display of dishonesty; many of the same Americans, for example, remember equally well the imaginary weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration used to justify invading Iraq.
Yet it’s science that our culture tasks with the job of sorting out truth from falsehood in some semblance of an objective manner. That makes it worth noting when the response of scientific institutions to the massive crisis of confidence science faces these days is to demand blind faith in scientific pronouncements anyway. That demand has been building for quite some time now, but it took on a new and impressively clueless form at the hands of UNESCO, the United Nations bureaucracy that promotes international science, and a clutch of other scientific bodies. Last month, to be precise, they launched a website and a publicity campaign calling on people to take a pledge to trust science.
I’m intrigued to note that this hasn’t gone over well. When the online edition of Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, posted a fawning article about the pledge, the response from the engineers was so uniformly hostile and so well argued that the editors shut down comments after only 26 had been posted. More broadly, as I write this, the website at www.trust-science.org has gotten only 4438 signatures from pledge signers, despite being splashed all over the scientific end of the internet for well over two weeks. A website for a Partridge Family tribute band or a schismatic offshoot of the Flat Earth Society could probably get better numbers than that.
May I offer a hint to UNESCO and the other promoters of this bizarre project? You don’t get people to trust science by demanding that they take a loyalty pledge, committing them to believe whatever you tell them to believe. You get people to trust science the way the founders and heirs of the scientific revolution did all those years ago, by doing good science, publishing the results in detail, and letting the acid test of replicability determines whether you were right or not. That’s how the makers of modern science earned the respect that the scientific community of today has squandered so freely. As long as institutional science remains beholden to political and economic interests, and prestigious scientists are happy to spout whatever their corporate or government paymasters tell them to say, distrust in scientific pronouncements is going to become more widespread and more intransigent. The reason that so many people don’t trust scientists to tell them the truth, after all, is that so often, scientists haven’t told them the truth.
Yet it’s important to realize that something very serious is taking place here. Engineers are not typically noted for their superstitious mistrust of science. The response to the article in Spectrum cited above is a sign that confidence in scientific institutions is very low even among those who have technical training and could be expected to have a favorable opinion of science. Elsewhere, people have even less reason to accept whatever someone in a lab coat happens to say, especially since they have been lied to, over and over again, by people who claim to speak for science.
More and more often these days, conditions in today’s America make me think of France before the Revolution, when the comfortable classes who believed that the existing order and their place in it were fixed in place forever pursued their own advantage at the expense of most of the population, ran their nation into the ground, and ignored the burgeoning signs of disaster to come. One of the few who understood, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, watched the unfolding of the sordid Affair of the Diamond Necklace—one of the many lurid scandals that burst like fireworks in the darkening skies of the Ancien Régime—and commented to a friend, “Keep an eye on that wretched business of the necklace. I would not be surprised if it overturns the throne of France.” He was right, though nobody seems to have believed him at the time.
I’m not in Talleyrand’s league, and so I’m not sure which wretched business to watch most closely at the moment. One way or another, though, what little legitimacy the institutions of American public life still have left is trickling away. How long we have until a breaking point arrives is an interesting question, but I doubt we’ll have to wait indefinitely to find out.
On an unrelated topic, we’ve got five Wednesdays this month, and I don’t have anything scheduled for the fifth one. What do you want to hear about? Inquiring Druids want to know.