Scientists opposing Corona measures – The Line between Healthy Scientific Scepticism and providing support to the absurd QAnon movement

The core of the scientific method is methodological doubt, which repeatedly puts scientific models and theories to the test. Thanks to their uncompromising curiosity and skepticism, scientist have long dared to critically question views some of which had existed for centuries and thus to finally correct false knowledge, as what authorities declare to be true all too often turns out to be untrue. In fact, almost all scientific theories in history have at some point been recognized as false or at least in need of correction and expansion.

But not every contradiction to an existing scientific consensus must be considered credible for that sake. This is especially true for topics that are subject to a broader discussion in society. Here, a statement disguised as scientific is often mixed with specific social demands, individual need of the author or even political or economic conflicts of interest. This can be observed especially well in the current Corona crisis. Many of those who think they must address the public with Corona-sceptical articles or videos, claiming to build on the successful scientific scepticism of historical role models, could not be more wrong.

Since the new virus spread about 15 months ago, researchers have overall done an admirable job of identifying many of the virus’s properties in record time, including its genetic structure, its infectivity, its effects in the human body, and thus its dangerousness. There was comparably little politics, little claim to irrefutable knowledge, and little self-promotion and narcissism courting public recognition involved. As is usual in the scientific realm, more and more has been learned about the virus over time, and it turned out that one was surprisingly well off with the early assessments. Also, looking at the works of historical idols like Galilei, Darwin or Einstein, whose scepticism and wealth of ideas led to the scientific revolutions of the past, we recognize how detail-obsessed and meticulously these researchers worked and how little they expressed themselves with sharp words and polemics. In most cases, scientists address their ideas and thoughts to so-called „peers“, i.e. to other scientists and experts in their field, and not to a broad public whose opinion needed to be influenced by other means than rational arguments.

In contrast, the few of today’s researchers that use open letters and YouTube videos to make their opinions about the Corona measures known aiming to gain personal and political attention hardly operate in the spirit of serious scientific work. For the most part, these constitute personal and political attention seeking actions rather than serious scientific communication. One example is Sucharit Bhakdi, before his retirement in 2012 a recognized German specialist in microbiology and infectious disease epidemiology, who in March 2020 spread massive medical misinformation about COVID-19 via Youtube as well as an open letter to Angela Merkel. Shortly thereafter, he gave an interview on the Youtube channel of conspiracy theorist Ken Jebsen. Together with his wife, herself a biochemist, he then published the book „Corona False Alarm?“ which met with widespread rejection in the scientific community due to „tendentious statements.“ Bhakdi said that it was essential to distinguish between symptom-free infected persons and actual sick patients and to not take the first into account in the statistics (initially, there was even a widespread assumption that children hardly contribute to the spread of coronavirus, which has since been recognized as completely false), he fundamentally questioned the dangerousness and contagiousness of the Corona virus and finally claimed that scenarios such as Spain and Italy were not even possible in Germany. In all points, he was very quickly caught up by reality. Serious science and conspiracy theory simply do not go together.

Another example is the statement by veterinary virologist Geert Vanden Bossche, who has not published a scientific research paper since 1995, that we should stop vaccinating people in the middle of a pandemic that has already killed over three million people. Among vaccination skeptics, such a demand naturally falls on fertile ground. Vanden Bossche bases this claim on the completely speculative proposition that vaccines will select viral variants that can escape the vaccine protection, thus obtaining higher virulence. This statement relies substantially on the assumption that COVID-19 vaccines have no significant effect on transmission of the virus, which has been shown to be false in numerous studies and, meanwhile, in empirical experience in countries with advanced vaccination status across the broader population.

There are some correct statements in both Bhakdis‘ and Vanden Bossche’s appeals, which lends their conclusions some persuasiveness among non-experts. For example, the statistics of corona cases as Bhakdi complained in March 2020 are not always clearly defined, and vaccination, as Bossche claims, does indeed create selection pressure on viruses (and bacteria, which we know from strains resistant to antibiotics), but other assumptions on which their respective dramatic conclusions and claims are then based quickly turn out to be hair-raisingly wrong. We must therefore classify them, according to the formulation of physicist Wolfgang Paul, as „not only not correct, but not even wrong,“ as they mix facts with speculation and disinformation in a suggestive and often shameless way.

The difference between public pamphlets like those of Bhakdi and Vanden Bossche and serious scientific statements is similar to that between politics and science. Politicians base their statements on ideologies and persuasion strategies. Here, self-confidence and presentation, often polemics and feigned knowledge, count. In science, on the other hand, ideology and polemics have no place (though they do not entirely disappear here, either). Credibility depends on consistency and facts.

Scientific sceptics sometimes feel like wrong-way drivers on the highway: there are so many cars coming towards them. Now it is theoretically possible that they are the only ones driving on the right side and all the others on the wrong one. The history of science knows such examples: Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo and their heliocentric theory of the heavens, Darwin and his theory of evolution, Boltzmann and his statistical interpretation of the theory of heat, Einstein and his photon hypothesis and theory of relativity. But these are rather exceptions, and it seems difficult to accept how someone who presents the Corona virus as comparatively harmless and vaccinations as dangerous can claim such a status for himself. Here, one may well assume that they are errant drivers on the wrong side of the freeway. But unlike on our roads, we must not prohibit the driving on the wrong side in science. It is wrong to muzzle scientists, as has been done in part in England and attempted in Switzerland. Rather, scientists should have a stronger voice in the public sphere. And here it is the essence of science to also admit such contrarian positions. Sooner or later their rightness or wrongness will come out. In the two mentioned and similar other cases this happens rather sooner.

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