Why Following Joe Rogan Seems Easier than Following the ScienceHistorians in the News
tags: history of science, misinformation, COVID-19, Joe Rogan
For decades, Steven Shapin has taught the history of science at Harvard University, where I was fortunate to be his student. Among other publications, he is the author of the fantastically titled book Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People With Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority. In other words, he’s been studying the exact problems we are facing today for his entire career.
We sat down to discuss why some people trust podcasters over professors, how Joe Rogan and other iconoclasts tap into the myth of Galileo, and why “following the science” is a lot harder than it sounds. What follows is an edited excerpt of our conversation.
Yair Rosenberg: I want to start with a really easy question: Should we trust the science? Yes or no.
Steven Shapin: So one of the reasons that journalists don’t listen to people like me is we don’t trade in sound bites. But here’s the issue. We both know that saying that you’re “following the science” seems like a very intelligent, reasonable thing to do. You want people to follow the science. You want to criticize people by saying that they’re not following the science. That’s the point at which I want to say it’s really complicated. But it’s complicated in what I hope is an interesting way.
Let’s stick with COVID. When people say they’re “following the science,” I think they generally mean: Here are certain facts consensually attested about the virus, about the R0 of the virus, about the immune system, about the spike protein, about mutations and variants, etc. Now, here’s where I think it becomes complicated. COVID is a virus that infects people, and that infection flows along the same channels as people’s interaction with each other. Hence the mask, the six feet of distance, or whatever you have. So there is a science about the virus, there’s a science about the immune system, and there’s a science about the spike protein. But in order for this science to be followed, it has to include the science of how people interact with each other. In other words, there has got to be a science of the virus, and there’s also got to be a science of society. We don’t hear much about that second bit.
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