The "Sheldon Effect": How science in popular culture endangers us in the age of COVID
by Jeremy WhitlockFebruary 6, 2022
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Science has been the backbone of human development for the past 400 years. Its advances have doubled our lifespan, fuelled social and cultural growth, and extended our reach to all parts of our planet, solar system, and beyond.
There is no facet of the human condition that has not benefited from science, and yet it remains a widely misunderstood and often maligned concept — largely since, for all its impact, it's basically invisible. Its end products are happily consumed and appreciated, but science is not the end product: it is the process that got us there.
What fundamentally changed 400 years ago, was recognition that humans can learn the objective truth about the world around them, despite starting from a position of enormous subjectivity, bias, and lack of understanding.
Today, in the age of COVID, many people will tell you that science itself is exactly this: subjective, biased, and wrong. Where did the perception of science go off the rails?
To be fair, distrust of science has always been around. It came early and fierce from the Church and other power structures that felt threatened. After all, the Scientific Method — the objective process of testing hypotheses, modifying hypotheses, and deriving conclusions — enabled decisions to be made from knowledge rather than ideology or empirical decree.
The science of today is not represented by the likes of Galileo, Newton, or Kepler, however, but by Sheldon of "The Big Bang Theory", the techno-sleuths of "CSI", and puckish Tony Stark of "Avengers" fame.
The broad public has seldom seen real science in action: it is, by nature, an agonizingly slow process, and often as boring as (in some cases, literally) watching ice melt.
Science in popular culture, on the other hand, celebrates the walking encyclopedia, smugly solving problems in under an hour. Every year the mysterious magic of science is feted in splashy 'reveals' of new computer tech, space probes, medicines and ... vaccines.
Which brings us to the COVID pandemic unleashed in 2020, where the broad public, for the first time, witnessed science in action — and, it wasn't pretty. At first, cowering in fear from an unknown viral assailant, the public was grateful for the advice of science — it was the slightly nerdier SWAT team hunting the merciless terrorist.
Then realization gradually dawned: scientists, it seemed, don't know all the answers. They are sometimes wrong. They change their minds. In big, expensive, global decisions.
Science, for its part, did its best to speed things up in responding to COVID. Global pandemics come only every 100 years (it appears), and this one was moving at the speed of air travel to every corner of the planet.
But the Scientific Method is, well, methodical. Vaccine development needs human trials, and while parallel efforts in many countries shortened the time to full understanding, they could do nothing to speed up the virus' own march through human immune systems.
The urgent need to address the pandemic meant rolling out vaccines as soon as it was safe to do so, but before the full regimen of the vaccine was characterized.
The public, necessarily, became participants in this final step — which was less about ensuring safety, but rather long-term efficacy.
Unfortunately, this crucial bit of information was not adequately communicated to a desperate public, which inferred that, as usual, science was slam dunking the solution to save us all — cue the credits.
But it was never a slam dunk. The science continued to do what it always does to gradually pin down the answers, only now this process played out on the evening news and internet.
This confused many people, and inevitably the evolving public policy on lockdown measures, masking, and vaccinations was widely seen as science losing its way. "Fauci got it wrong!" rang out with the familiar self-satisfaction of Sheldon's fictional colleagues whenever they found him wanting.
And science does want.
It wants to know the truth, despite the universe and our own brains conspiring to hide this from us. Indeed, the fact that today most people live to encounter "old person" diseases, that universal communication is available from devices in our pockets, and that we can photograph the beginnings of time itself, testify to the Scientific Method's prudent navigation through chaos.
But now science faces a new enemy, stronger than any church or autocracy: a virus more toxic and transmissible than any it has battled.
At its root this is the same inherent subjectivity and bias found in human psychology for millennia (programmed, in fact, by evolutionary pressures: people who stop to think tend to get eaten), but now weaponized using the very communication technologies that science gave us.
Where frustration with the pace of science was once localized — say, families of sick relatives desperately waiting for cures for disease — today governments are being elected with anger and scepticism for science in their platforms.
The Scientific Method, for four centuries humanity's beacon of light, is being supplanted by internet search engines, and experts by anyone with an opinion.
COVID will diminish. The real pandemic is just beginning.