'Follow the science': As Year 3 of the pandemic begins, a simple slogan becomes a political weapon

Man at anti-vaccine mandate protest
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Two years ago, when science writer Faye Flam launched a podcast to explore why so many Americans were drawn to misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, she settled on a name she figured would steer clear of politics: "Follow the Science."

The podcast flourished, but its title has posed a constant dilemma for Flam as the phrase "follow the science," far from uniting Americans, became a weapon, wielded in derision by both sides of the national divide over how to confront the coronavirus.

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Like so many Americans, when Flam hears "follow the science" these days, she braces for a statement likely to be anything but scientific: "The phrase became associated with safety-ism and overcaution, like people would use it sarcastically when they saw someone running through a field wearing an N95 mask," she said. At the same time, "follow the science" also became a taunt deployed by vaccine and mask advocates against those who spurned such mandatory public health measures.

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Now, as the torrent of covid-19 cases unleashed by the omicron variant recedes in most of the country, advocates for each side in the masking debate are once again claiming the mantle of science to justify political positions that have as much to do with widespread bipartisan frustration over two years of life in a pandemic as with any evolution of scientific findings.

A slew of Democratic governors in states that have been among the most mask-friendly are moving to scrap indoor mask mandates, even as some counties and school districts in those states promise to maintain those measures - with both factions contending they are following the science.

It's not just politicians and school leaders making those opposing decisions. An informal network of parents, backed by like-minded scientists arguing for the "urgency of normal," is pushing for "evidence-based decisions" to rescind in-school mask mandates. At the same time, teachers unions and other advocates for continued masking of students quote from their own roster of medical experts, urging elected officials to "follow the science" and maintain mandates.

At every pivot in the virus's behavior, with every new set of findings about how the virus spreads and how it can be fought, "one side says, 'Aha! Now, we're the ones following the science,' " said Michael D. Gordin, a historian of science at Princeton University.

During the pandemic's most dangerous phases, advocates of shutdowns and masks have used the phrase to belittle resisters. But during lulls in the virus's spread, it's those resisters who have snapped the slogan back at the cautious crowd, asking why dramatic drops in case numbers don't justify a return to a more normal life.

Flam said she has cringed as she watched "people load up the phrase with political baggage. I agonize every day over whether to change the name of the podcast."

From the early political struggles over confronting the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s to contemporary debates over policy toward transgender people or the NFL's handling of concussions among football players, pleas to "follow the science" have consistently yielded to use of the phrase as a rhetorical land mine.

Those who urge others to just "follow the science" generally claim to be politically unbiased: They're just pledging allegiance to the higher power of fact and neutral inquiry.

But as Flam has discovered, "so much is mixed up with science - risk and values and politics. The phrase can come off as sanctimonious," she said, "and the danger is that it says, 'These are the facts,' when it should say, 'This is the situation as we understand it now and that understanding will keep changing.' "

The pandemic's descent from medical emergency to political flash point can be mapped as a series of surges of bickering over that one simple phrase. "Follow the science!" people on both sides insisted, as the guidance from politicians and public health officials shifted over the past two years from anti-mask to pro-mask to "keep on masking" to more refined recommendations about which masks to wear and now to a spotty lifting of mandates.

Early in the pandemic, in 2020, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., pushed for schools to reopen, tweeting, "I wonder where the 'listen to the science' people will go when the science doesn't support their fearmongering?" In 2021, Republicans used "follow the science" to slap the Biden administration for not pushing harder to confront China on the origins of the coronavirus.

The president of Connecticut's teachers union, Jan Hochadel, this month pressed for continued masking in schools, saying, "We have remained among the safest states throughout this pandemic because elected leaders have heeded the call to 'follow the science.' . . . There is no sound reason to veer off course now."

Arguments over following the science extend beyond disagreements over how to analyze the results of studies, said Samantha Harris, a Philadelphia lawyer who formerly worked at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a conservative advocacy group. Rather, demands that the other side "follow the science" are often a complete rejection of another person's cultural and political identity: "It's not just people believing the scientific research that they agree with. It's that in this extreme polarization we live with, we totally discredit ideas because of who holds them."

Harris readily concedes that she often doesn't know what to make of scientific findings she reads about. She got vaccinated and wears masks because doctors she trusts advised her to, but she's constantly frustrated by her own inability to figure out the right moves.

"I'm struggling as much as anyone else," she said. "Our job as informed citizens in the pandemic is to be like judges and synthesize information from both sides, but with the extreme polarization, nobody really trusts each other enough to know how to judge their information."

Many people end up putting their trust in some subset of the celebrity scientists they see online or on TV. "Follow the science" often means "follow the scientists" - a distinction that offers insight into why there's so much division over how to cope with the virus, according to a study by sociologists at the University of New Hampshire.

They found that although a slim majority of Americans they surveyed don't believe that "scientists adjust their findings to get the answers they want," 31% do believe scientists cook the books and another 16% were unsure.

Those who mistrust scientists were vastly less likely to be worried about getting covid-19 - and more likely to be supporters of former president Donald Trump, the study found.

A person's beliefs about scientists' integrity "is the strongest and most consistent predictor of views about . . . the threats from covid-19," said the study conducted by Thomas G. Safford, Emily H. Whitmore and Lawrence C. Hamilton.

When a large minority of Americans believe scientists' conclusions are determined by their own opinions, that demonstrates a widespread "misunderstanding of scientific methods, uncertainty, and the incremental nature of scientific inquiry," the sociologists concluded.

Americans' confidence in science has declined in recent decades, especially among Republicans, according to Gallup polls tracking such attitudes. The survey found last year that 64% of Americans said they had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in science, down from 70% who said that back in 1975. Confidence in science jumped among Democrats, from 67% in the earlier poll to 79% last year, while Republicans' confidence cratered during the same period from 72% to 45%.

Yet the popularity of the "follow the science" slogan on both sides of the political and cultural divide does provide some good news, said Gordin, the Princeton historian, who studies the roots and meaning of pseudoscience.

The fact that both sides want to be on the side of "science" "bespeaks tremendous confidence or admiration for a thing called 'science,' " he said. Even in this time of rising mistrust, everybody wants to have the experts on their side.

That's been true in American debates regarding science for many years. Four decades ago, when arguments about climate change were fairly new, people who rejected the idea looked at studies showing a connection between burning coal and acid rain and dubbed them "junk science." The "real" science, those critics said, showed otherwise.

"Even though the motive was to reject a scientific consensus, there was still a valorization of expertise," Gordin said.

That has continued during the pandemic. "Even people who took a horse tranquilizer when they got covid-19 were quick to note that the drug was created by a Nobel laureate," he said. "Almost no one says they're anti-science."

The problem is that the phrase has become more a political slogan than a commitment to neutral inquiry, "which bespeaks tremendous ignorance about what science is," Gordin said. "There isn't a thing called 'the science.' There are multiple sciences with active disagreements with each other. Science isn't static."

But scientists and laypeople alike are often guilty of presenting science as a monolithic statement of fact, rather than an ever-evolving search for evidence to support theories, Gordin said.

While scientists are trained to be comfortable with uncertainty, a pandemic that has killed and sickened millions has made many people eager for definitive solutions.

"I just wish when people say 'follow the science,' it's not the end of what they say, but the beginning, followed by 'and here's the evidence,' " Gordin said.

As much as political leaders may pledge to "follow the science," they answer to constituents who want answers and progress, so the temptation is to overpromise.

Last summer, President Joe Biden said that "we all know what we need to do to beat this virus - tell the truth, follow the science, work together." Still, his administration couldn't resist promising "a summer of freedom. A summer of joy. A summer of reunions and celebrations."

During the first year of the pandemic, Trump promised dozens of times that the virus would vanish. "It's going to disappear," he said in February 2020. "One day - it's like a miracle - it will disappear." Four months later, he said that "it's dying out." Another four months after that, he said science would prove useful against the virus: "It's ending anyway . . . but we're going to make it a lot faster with the vaccine and with the therapeutics and frankly with the cures."

It's never easy to follow the science, many scientists warn, because people's behaviors are shaped as much by fear, folklore and fake science as by well-vetted studies or evidence-based government guidance.

"Science cannot always overcome fear," said Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of California at San Francisco. Some of the states with the lowest covid case rates and highest vaccination rates nonetheless kept many students in remote learning for the longest time, a phenomenon she attributed to "letting fear dominate our narrative."

"That's been true of the history of science for a long time," Gandhi said. "As much as we try to be rigorous about fact, science is always subject to the political biases of the time."

As a rhetorical weapon, "follow the science" has been wielded by NFL executives explaining why the league continued to list marijuana as a banned substance for players, by Congress as it instructed the Environmental Protection Agency on how to settle battles over laying oil pipelines, and by people on both sides of debates over the amount of salt in packaged foods, the link between cellphone use and brain cancer, and the causes of crime spikes.

A few years ago, when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league was maintaining its ban on marijuana use because he was "following the science," retired player and cannabis entrepreneur Marvin Washington pushed back: "Roger, we don't want to follow the science," he said. "We want you to lead the science." The league stopped suspending players who tested positive for marijuana use in 2020.

For at least three decades, directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been pledging to get back to following the science. In 1993, when David Satcher took over the CDC during the Bill Clinton administration, he said he would return the agency to its original mission, eschewing politics: "We are going to follow the science,'' he said, by building an AIDS education campaign that promoted condom use - an approach that had been avoided during the Reagan administration.

A study published in September indicates that people who trust in science are actually more likely to believe fake scientific findings and to want to spread those falsehoods. The study, reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that trusting in science did not give people the tools they need to understand that the scientific method leads not to definitive answers, but to ever-evolving theories about how the world works.

Trust in science alone doesn't arm people against misinformation, according to the study, whose lead author was social psychologist Thomas C. O'Brien. Rather, people need to understand how the scientific method works, so they can ask good questions about studies.

Overloaded with news about studies and predictions about the virus's future, many people just tune out the information flow, said Julie Swann, a former adviser to the CDC on earlier pandemics and a systems engineer at North Carolina State University.

With no consensus about how and when the pandemic might end, or about which public health measures to impose and how long to keep them in force, following the science seems like an invitation to a very winding, even circular path.

That winding route is what science generally looks like, Swann said, so people who are frustrated and eager for solid answers are often drawn into dangerous "wells of misinformation, and they don't even realize it," she said. "If you were told something every day by people you trusted, you might believe it, too."

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