On April 12, 1633, the chief inquisitor appointed by Pope Urban VIII began the inquisition of physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. Galileo was ordered to turn himself in to the Holy Office to begin trial for holding the belief that the Earth revolves around the sun, which was deemed heretical by the Catholic Church. The Church had decided that the idea that the sun moved around the earth was an absolute fact of scripture that could not be disputed, even though scientists had known for centuries that the Earth was not the center of the universe. On June 22, 1633, the Church handed down the following order: “We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo… have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world.” Galileo agreed not to teach the heresy anymore and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. It took more than 300 years for the Church to admit that Galileo was right and to clear his name of heresy.
Almost 400 years later, are we any better? Any smarter? Or is science still subservient to faith?
Science should be a powerful and positive force in society; it shapes the present, and it can guide our future. Politicians and policy makers should rely on validated research at critical moments of crises and emergencies to help guide their actions. Instead, what we have seen since the start of the Covid-19 crisis is shockingly close to Galileo’s treatment by the Catholic Church of the 17th Century.
By late February, many scientists were predicting hundreds of thousands of American deaths if strong measures were not taken but they were drowned out by Trump’s insistence that the virus would “disappear” mysteriously. The mainstream media deserves condemnation by reporting the fantasies of politicians as having equal weight to the opinions of epidemiologists. Highly opinionated politicians had their rhetoric amplified by social media. Wearing a mask to slow the spread of the virus has become a political stance instead of a scientifically proven way to protect others (and ourselves).
More recently, we have had the spectacle of CDC guidance about testing people exposed to the virus but without symptoms removed (and later restored) because Trump did not want numbers to look bad. This was done despite overwhelming evidence that asymptomatic carriers were a major source of spread. Guidance on how to safely open schools was redacted and edited to push for more school openings regardless of health consequences. The FDA gave “emergency use” approval of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 based largely on rantings by Trump and Peter Navarro, an economist by training, who insisted he knew more about the science than medical scientists. This was, again, removed when studies showed the drug did no good and might do harm.
The latest blurring of science and faith came when the CDC posted information about respiratory spread of the coronavirus, only to remove the post a day later – clearly because the information in the post did not gibe with large indoor rallies or rapid reopening of all businesses.
Case reporting was taken away from the CDC so that the numbers could be massaged to look better. Most recently we have had Alex Azar, the Secretary of HEW, insisting that he alone could sign off on any new rules, regardless of the opinions of the career scientists who were much more qualified to do this.
Anthony Fauci, America’s most esteemed virologist, who refused to kowtow to every Trump pronouncement, has been subjected to harassment and character assassination by Trump and by his right-wing media enablers.
Science does not have all the answers. Some decisions are inherently political. A 55 MPH national speed limit would probably cut deaths and would cut some greenhouse gases, but it would be widely flouted and may not be politically acceptable. Similarly, a total economic shutdown might be estimated to potentially save X deaths over the rest of the year but might be economically intolerable. What should happen is that politicians take advice from scientists, weigh the competing factors, and decide what is best for the country.
What, alas, is happening is that politicians ignore scientists and make decisions based on what they think will help them be re-elected. Vote for science. The life you save may be your own.
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