Of Masks and Mistrust

by Robert Pennock | Jun 14, 2021

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Registrants of the 2020 Sigma Xi Annual Meeting received a face mask sporting the Society’s gold key emblem and the phrase “Science Saves Lives.” I have seen a lot of masks with messages this pandemic year; one read simply: “Trust the science.”

Unfortunately, many Americans don’t trust the science. As we all know, mask wearing became politicized. One mask for sale online declares, “This mask is as useless as Joe Biden.” But science’s astounding success in confronting COVID-19 is evidence that it doesn’t deserve such mistrust.

Within a month of the appearance in Wuhan, China, in late December 2019 of an unknown acute respiratory disease, scientists had identified a novel coronavirus—SARS-CoV-2—as the cause. By the first week of February, the CDC was distributing the isolated virus strain to academic and industry researchers. Diagnostics tests that virologists developed appeared by spring and were broadly available by summer. It took a bit longer to determine that the risk of transmission by surface contamination is low; the virus spreads mostly by airborne droplets from the breath of infected people. (Yes, mask wearing is a useful preventive measure.) Vaccines were developed in record time. New masks express appreciation for this heroic achievement: “Thanks, Science. Vaccinated.”

But science cannot save lives if people don’t trust its findings, and too many also mistrust vaccines. In a March 2020 poll, a quarter of Americans said they were unwilling to be vaccinated. That’s too high for herd immunity, the level where enough individuals have been immunized to retard contagion. We now face a situation that favors the evolution of resistant strains. So, what can we do?

For science to be trusted, it must resist politicization and neutrally present the facts. Anti-vaxxers come from both political extremes—but the virus doesn’t discriminate, nor does the vaccine. Mask wearing is useful no matter which presidential candidate you supported or opposed. One mask message expressed that sentiment bluntly: “Science doesn’t care what you believe.”

Nonpartisan messaging may help allay one source of mistrust, but we must dig deeper to the roots of what makes science trustworthy: its values. Curiosity and the search for truth provide a moral structure to science. With its focus on honor in science, Sigma Xi has long been a standard-bearer for scientific values. This year we highlight them, beginning with this themed issue of American Scientist on science and trust. In the coming months, I’ll write about Sigma Xi’s other ethics initiatives. Please join us in helping make science both trusted and trustworthy; it does save lives.

Sincerely,

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Robert T. Pennock, Ph.D.
Sigma Xi President-Elect

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