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Counsel of the Woke

Public-health experts have subordinated science to progressive politics. Published in The Wealth and Poverty Review

America has reached an epistemological breaking point. For the first two months following the coronavirus outbreak, public-health experts insisted that we “follow the science” and implement their recommendations, even if it meant millions of lost jobs and significant restrictions on constitutionally protected activities, such as church attendance and freedom of assembly. Blue-state governors quickly positioned themselves as executors of this neutral scientific knowledge, condemning anti-lockdown protesters as “anti-scientific;” meantime, social media companies banned anti-lockdown groups and censored content from lockdown skeptics.

But when protests erupted in the U.S. after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many public-health experts reversed course—and subordinated “science” to their activist politics. The same doctors and nurses who once shamed churchgoers released petitions in support of Black Lives Matter and marched with tens of thousands of protesters in the streets. They categorized racism as a public-health threat and rationalized their participation in street demonstrations by deeming Covid-19 transmission the lesser of two evils. In other words, public-health experts rejected science in favor of progressive politics.

Early in the pandemic, University of Washington professor Carl Bergstrom established himself as a coronavirus hawk, defending Britain’s Imperial College model that predicted up to 2.2 million American deaths and arguing that the health-care system would be “overrun.” During the initial lockdowns, Bergstrom warned against “kids hanging out by the lake,” criticized Florida for “leaving beaches open,” and mocked leaders who “want us all back in church on Easter Sunday.”

Bergstrom’s subsequent conversion to “woke science,” however, was swift and absolute. On May 27, before the death of George Floyd dominated the news, the professor insisted he would wear a mask while walking alone in a public park, even if there is “only a 1-in-100,000 chance [to] save a life.” Three days later, after the outbreak of protests in Minneapolis and other cities, he tweeted that he was “heartbroken by the endemic state violence against people of color in America” and was reading Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist. A few days later, Bergstrom conceded that “science is an inherently political activity” and endorsed the protests, making the dubious claim that millions of protesters rallying, chanting, and gathering in close quarters wouldn’t necessarily spread Covid-19—and even if they did, he “wholeheartedly support[ed] the protests nonetheless.”

Here’s the problem: Bergstrom and other public-health experts persuaded Americans that their advice on the pandemic response was driven exclusively by science and underwritten by cold fact. They argued that politics should be subordinated to scientific knowledge—but when the political grounds shifted, they immediately reversed that formulation. Bergson’s case is especially damning. In less than a week, he made the moral leap from recommending behavioral modification for a “1-in-100,000 chance” of death to supporting protests that, according to his colleague Trevor Bedford, could cause up to 4,000 Covid-19 deaths.

Scientists, like everyone else, are entitled to their personal opinions. But the fallout from the lockdowns and protests suggests that progressivism has become the default ideology of the public-health community; science is now a weaponized form of politics. In hindsight, it’s astonishing how quickly Americans ceded political authority to the public-health apparatus. This isn’t only antithetical to self-rule; it also accords constitutional protection to elite causes—and only elite causes. Attending a Black Lives Matter protest is permissible. Attending a church service is not.

Left unchecked, the progressive-scientific alliance will penetrate additional domains of life. Whether it’s “housing is healthcare,” “harm reduction saves lives,” or “antiracism is public health,” slogans abound for subsuming science into politics.

Maligned as it is, politics must reassert itself as the proper arena for making public decisions. As George Gilder wrote in April, at the height of the pandemic: “The American system of government asserts these truths: that the people have an ineradicable right to govern themselves, that politics is how we exercise our free will, and that rather than reflexively deferring to experts, we should defer as much as possible to the principles of freedom and common sense.”

Don’t be fooled by the lab coat. We remain in charge of our destinies.

Christopher Rufo

Former Director, Center on Wealth & Poverty
Christopher Rufo is former director of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth & Poverty. He has directed four documentaries for PBS, Netflix, and international television, including his latest film, America Lost, that tells the story of three "forgotten American cities.” Christopher is currently a contributing editor of City Journal, where he covers poverty, homelessness, addiction, crime, and other afflictions. Christopher is a magna cum laude graduate of Georgetown University, Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow, and has appeared on NPR, CNN, ABC, CBS, HLN, and FOX News.