A minority is not always a person or community. Sometimes, the minority is a concept or a certain way of seeing. And we have a new minority in the 21st century. The name of this minority is “truth”.
Both scientists and journalists seek the truth. But the truth is caught between a rock and a hard place with COVID-19. We are facing, on the one hand, an anti-science movement and, on the other hand, scientific essentialism that omits the role of power politics and human values in the making of truth.
Anti-science and scientific essentialism are both detrimental to truth and the public good. And both are on the rise with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seeking the truth has never been so hard
With the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, scientists and journalists are in the same boat. In a sea of virus and precarious existence, they have to chase and report the truth to the public when the stakes are high, and the decisions are urgent.
Seeking the truth is further complicated with the rise of authoritarian governance and populist leaders deploying anti-science rhetoric as a tool for social control and concentration of power. Perhaps like no other time in history, the public space is crowded with misinformation, making the much needed material truths a minority, in the midst of a devastating pandemic.
Our challenges in COVID-19 journalism and science are not limited to anti-science, however. Sometimes, our response to a calamity creates other adverse outcomes. For example, scientific essentialism is on the rise, in part as a reaction to anti-science, post-truth and populist movements. Essentialism in science is tightly linked to the practice of technocracy that incorrectly frames scientists and technology as the ultimate authority on truth.
Several decades ago, some experts claimed that passive smoking is not harmful to health. Later on, it turned out that affiliation of the scientific author with the tobacco industry predicted a conclusion of ‘not harmful’ for passive smoking, after controlling for article quality, peer review status, and year of publication.
Scientific essentialism glosses over such power politics and financial conflicts of interest, by placing the ultimate authority on technology and scientists.
It is not just the financial conflicts of interest that require us to adopt a critical political science lens to examine the power relationships in science and scientists’ practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. After four decades of free-floating neoliberalism and marketization that placed wealth over health since the 1980s, many, if not all, universities and academia have endorsed cultures of hyper-competition, self-serving instrumentalism and unchecked power plays for relentless commodification of science, while societal and ecological interests were kept out of the equation.
At the end of the day, we should bear in mind “science is what scientists do”. It is impossible to separate the knowledge from the knower. To say “science and knowledge are not political”, is perhaps the most political statement one can make.
We have to remain vigilant against both anti-science movements and the perils of scientific essentialism as the pandemic evolves.
6W + 1H
As an antidote to anti-science and essentialism, we need a new narrative on evidence frameworks in journalism that expands on the classic 5W + 1H by adding another crucial question on the power plays impacting the answers to the 5Ws + 1H:
- 6W (who, what, when, where, why, and whose power?) + 1H (how?)
Here, the final and the new “6th W” question would scrutinize the former 5Ws + 1H from a critical political science perspective because the answers to questions on what, why, where, when, who, and how all have power related and political underpinnings.
Health is co-produced by biological, social and political determinants. While 5W + 1H have always been in the toolbox of the astute journalists, adding the 6th W as a journalism question and layer of evidence, would buttress the journalism reflexes to systematically check for construction of facts by power, social and human values in times of COVID-19. This would also strengthen the search for truth despite misinformation, anti-science and essentialism.
Vural Özdemir is Diplomat of the American Board of Clinical Pharmacology and editor-in-chief of the New York-based OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology. He writes on planetary health and critical governance of science, technology and innovation.