2020-07-29 07:59:30 UTC
by Peter St. Onge, 7/15/20, mises dot org
The dumpster fire of COVID predictions has shown exactly why it’s important to
sustain & nurture skeptics, lest we blunder into scientific monoculture &
groupthink. And yet the explosion of “cancel culture” intolerance of any
opinion that doesn’t fit a shrinking “3 x 5 card” of right-think risks
destroying the very tolerance & science that sustains our civilization.
Since WWII, America has suffered two respiratory pandemics comparable to
COVID-19: the 1958 “Asian flu,” then the 1969 “Hong Kong flu.” In neither case
did we shut down the economy—people were simply more careful. Not all that
careful, of course—Jimi Hendrix was playing at Woodstock in the middle of the
1969 pandemic, & social distancing wasn’t really a thing in the “Summer of
And yet COVID-19 was very different thanks to a single “buggy mess” of a
computer prediction from one Neil Ferguson, a British epidemiologist given to
hysterical overestimates of deaths, from mad cow to bird flu to H1N1.
For COVID-19, Ferguson predicted 3 million deaths in America unless we
basically shut down the economy. Panicked policymakers took his prediction as
gospel, dressed as it was in the cloak of science.
Now, long after govts plunged half the world into a Great Depression, those
panicked revisions are being quietly revised down by an order of magnitude,
now suggesting a final tally comparable to 1958 & 1969.
COVID-19 would have been a deadly pandemic with or without Ferguson’s
fantasies, but had we known the true scale & parameters of the threat we might
have chosen better tailored means to both safeguard the elderly & at-risk,
while sustaining the wider economy. After all, economists have long known that
mass unemployment & widespread bankruptcies carry enormous health consequences
that are very real to the victims suffering drained life savings, ruined
businesses, broken families, widespread mental & physical health
deterioration, even suicide. Decisions involve tradeoffs.
COVID-19 has illustrated the importance of free & robust inquiry. After all,
panicked pols facing media accusations of “killing grandma” aren’t in a very
good position to evaluate these tradeoffs, & they need intellectual ammo. Not
only to show them which path is best, but to bolster them when a left-wing
media establishment attacks.
Moreover, voters need this ammo so they can actually tell the pols what to do.
This means two things: debate that is transparent, & debate that is tolerant
Transparency means data & computer code open to public scrutiny as the minimum
requirement for any study that is used to justify policy, from lockdowns to
carbon taxes to whatever comes next. These studies must be based on verifiable
facts, code that does what it says it does, & the ensuing decision-making
process must be transparent & open to the public.
One former Indian bureaucrat put it well: “Emergency situations like this
pandemic should require a far higher—and not lower—level of scrutiny,” since
policy choices have such tremendous impact. “This suggests a need for
democracies to strengthen their critical thinking capacity by creating an
independent ‘Black Hat’ institution whose purpose would be to question any
technical foundations of govt decisions.”
Even more important than transparency, debate must be tolerant of alternative
opinions. This means ideas that are wrong, offensive, even dangerous, have to
be tolerated, even celebrated. By all means, refute them—most alternative
hypotheses are completely wrong, so it shouldn’t be hard to simply refute them
without censorship. This, after all, is the essence of science—to generate
hypotheses testable by anybody, not just licensed “experts.”
Whether we are faced with a new crisis, a new policy innovation, or simply
designing a better mousetrap, groupthink & censorship are recipes for disaster
& stagnation, while transparency & tolerance of new ideas are the very essence
of progress. Indeed, it is largely this scientific tolerance that allowed us
to rise up from the long, brutal darkness of poverty.
As Francis Bacon observed 300 years ago, innovation & new knowledge do not
come from prestigious “learned” insiders, rather progress comes from the
questioner, the tinkerer, the skeptic.
"The industry of artificers maketh some small improvement of things invented;
and chance sometimes in experimenting maketh us to stumble upon somewhat which
is new; but all the disputation of the learned never brought to light one
effect of nature before unknown." (In Praise of Knowledge, vol. 1, 
Indeed, every major scientific advance challenged the “settled science” of its
day, and was often denounced as pernicious & false, even dangerous. The modern
blood transfusion, for example, was developed in the late 1600s, then banned
for nearly a century by a hostile medical establishment, “canceling” tens of
millions of lives at the altar of groupthink & hostility to skeptics.
It’s comforting to know that our problems are old ones, and also encouraging
that our solution is both time-tested and simple: transparency and tolerance.
After all, the very reason our culture elevates science is because it is built
on a millennia-long evolutionary “battle of ideas” in which theories are
constantly tested and retested in a delightfully endless search for ever
This implies there is no such thing as “settled science”—the phrase itself is
contrary to the scientific method. In reality, science is not some billion-
dollar gleaming palace in Bethesda, rather it’s a gnarled mutant sewer rat
that takes all comers because it’s been burned, cut, run over, crushed, run
through the wood chipper, and survived. That ugly beast is our salvation, not
the gleaming palace where we bow down to whichever random guy has the biggest
degree in the room.
Only with free inquiry for the most unpopular, offensive, dangerous, and, yes,
wrong ideas imaginable does that power sustain. And if we break that, we can
expect a series of rapid catastrophes that, like failed golden ages of the
past, return us to the nasty, brutish, and very short lives that have been
Whether pandemic, climate change, “institutional racism,” or whatever new
crisis they conjure next, we have a fundamental right to tenaciously defend
the transparency and tolerance that constitutes science itself so that it
remains among humanity’s crowning achievements, and so that we preserve this
golden age that would astound our ancestors.