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Science as Politics — An Evolutionist’s Admission

David Klinghoffer | @d_klinghoffer

That swaths of science are animated in large part by ideology has been a theme of writers for Evolution News forever (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here). Most evolutionists would dispute the contention as far as their own thinking goes. They would insist that their science bears no taint of an ideological agenda. Scientists like themselves are above that!

Yet if the one-two punch of the coronavirus and nationwide urban unrest teaches anything, it’s that a scientist is like anyone else — “by nature a political animal,” as Aristotle put it. Our Discovery Institute colleague Chris Rufo, with the Center on Wealth & Poverty, reports on a monumental demonstration of that fact: how public-health and other scientists flipped their stance on social distancing, almost overnight, when a favored political cause beckoned. 

Danger by the Lake

As a clear illustration he gives evolutionary biologist Carl Bergstrom. Rufo writes at Discovery’s Wealth and Poverty Review (cross-posted from City Journal):

Early in the pandemic, University of Washington professor Carl Bergstrom established himself as a coronavirus hawk, defending Britain’s Imperial College model that predicted up to 2.2 million American deaths and arguing that the health-care system would be “overrun.” During the initial lockdowns, Bergstrom warned against “kids hanging out by the lake,” criticized Florida for “leaving beaches open,” and mocked leaders who “want us all back in church on Easter Sunday.”

Bergstrom’s subsequent conversion to “woke science,” however, was swift and absolute. On May 27, before the death of George Floyd dominated the news, the professor insisted he would wear a mask while walking alone in a public park, even if there is “only a 1-in-100,000 chance [to] save a life.” Three days later, after the outbreak of protests in Minneapolis and other cities, he tweeted that he was “heartbroken by the endemic state violence against people of color in America” and was reading Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist. A few days later, Bergstrom conceded that “science is an inherently political activity” and endorsed the protests, making the dubious claim that millions of protesters rallying, chanting, and gathering in close quarters wouldn’t necessarily spread Covid-19 — and even if they did, he “wholeheartedly support[ed] the protests nonetheless.”

Here’s the problem: Bergstrom and other public-health experts persuaded Americans that their advice on the pandemic response was driven exclusively by science and underwritten by cold fact. They argued that politics should be subordinated to scientific knowledge — but when the political grounds shifted, they immediately reversed that formulation. Bergson’s case is especially damning. In less than a week, he made the moral leap from recommending behavioral modification for a “1-in-100,000 chance” of death to supporting protests that, according to his colleague Trevor Bedford, could cause up to 4,000 Covid-19 deaths.

Nature may not make jumps, but Carl Bergstrom sure does. I’m not judging either the science of social distancing or the politics of recent protests. The content of the protests is not at issue here. Professor Bergstrom’s point would be Illuminating, whatever they were about. His abrupt saltation can be explained only one way, as he himself puts it, by recognizing how “science is an inherently political activity.” What an honest and helpful thing to say!

A Critic of ID

I’m sorry I hadn’t heard of Dr. Bergstrom before, but I see politics and pandemics are not his only interests. An article for NBC News praises him for his stance on COVID and notes too that he’s been a critic of intelligent design:

“I was involved to some degree in the so-called evolution wars and arguments about intelligent design and creationism,” [Bergstrom] said. “But I just really like talking to people about science.”

His new book, out in August, is Calling Bull****: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven Word. According to his Wikipedia page, that’s also the title of a class he teaches at the University of Washington. The book explains, “We have always needed people who call bull**** when necessary, whether within a circle of friends, a community of scholars, or the citizenry of a nation.” Agreed, and this has been the role of the ID community and other Darwin skeptics in the “evolution wars.” In that effort, Bergstrom’s admission, and his example, are going to come in handy. File this one away for future reference.

Photo: A June 3 protest in Seattle with minimal opportunity for social distancing, by SounderBruce, via Wikimedia Commons.