Over the course of human history, pandemics have repeatedly knocked civilization back on its heels. Many thought they were ancient history. Now we find ourselves amid a pandemic in our own time. Life everywhere has changed. After months of restrictions, countries and states have eased their stay-at-home orders, and we head into a more open but still dangerous and uncertain period. Will we see a gradual return to normalcy or phase two of the coronavirus pandemic?
While we deal with that, I find myself contemplating the long-term effects of the pandemic. I wonder: Will our newfound reliance on experts in biomedicine and public health usher in a new era of respect for science, in the way the end of World War II and then Sputnik initiated a new era of respect for physicists and engineers? Will virologists and infectious disease experts join health care workers as our new heroes? Will the welcome refrain, “We will be guided by the science” gain more than a temporary foothold in culture? There are hopeful signs. But there have been equal signs that we may revert back into the same old patterns of self-interest, tribalism, and partisanship that have divided us for far too long. We’ll watch all that with great interest.
One national columnist opined at length on how science isn’t the end-all be-all and how science can’t make policy. That’s true, but science can—and should—guide policy. What he failed to point out is the danger of pseudoscience and misinformation guiding policy. That is a real peril.
At any rate, the pandemic has brought plenty of the same old hucksterism and misleading, if not outright false, claims that scientists and skeptics confront daily. We devote considerable space in this issue to examining all this. In an extensive Special Report, SI Deputy Editor Ben Radford tells us how to get literate about pandemic information. This includes overreactions and underreactions, idiots and maniacs, Cassandras and Chicken Littles, dueling projections and predictions, uncertainties in models and testing, incomplete testing, certainties and unknowns, and social media hygiene. All essential lessons. Three of SI’s regular columnists also tackle pandemic issues. Massimo Polidoro demands, “Stop the Epidemic of Lies!” and addresses several notable conspiracy theories and hoaxes that have spread much like the virus itself. Stuart Vyse examines the question of whether superstitions caused the COVID-19 outbreak. “SkepDoc” Harriet Hall laments all the false immunity-boosting claims alternative medicine has offered and ends with information on how you can really boost your immune system.
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Our interview with Ann Druyan (by Rob Palmer) in this issue took place during the coronavirus shutdown. She laments the “massive contempt for science” that led to our country’s dire results. But, like her 2020 Cosmos: Possible Worlds TV series, re-airing worldwide this fall on Fox, her basic message is optimistic. “I wanted to create something that had a vision of a hopeful, but not an unrealistic impossible, future.” Humanity seems more clever than wise, but it can learn. It can be inspired. For her, “Science and skepticism were the means to have the greatest spiritual experiences of my life.” All involve “the romance of being alive in the cosmos and the beauty of nature. … The dream of Cosmos is that science is a birthright that belongs to every single person. …”