On the first live Stephen Colbert show, he hosted his predecessor Jon Stewart, who went on a rant that partly dissed science (Stewart said, for instance, that the pandemic was more than likely caused by science”.) More important, though was Stewart’s unwavering contention that the coronavirus, WITHOUT ANY DOUBT, came from the Wuhan Virology lab rather than transmission from an unknown host to humans. (Let me add that Stewart has worked for good causes: his testimony before Congress about getting more help from those exposed to toxins in the 9/11 incident was eloquent and moving.)
People have interpreted this rant, as I do, as Stewart’s being very serious about both science and the origins of the coronavirus. I remain agnostic about the latter, but do disagree with Stewart’s take that science itself has some inherently bad aspects to it. (I would argue that the scientific toolkit is amoral, but that the tools of science, since they’re used by humans, can be used to do bad things.)
Watch the piece below where it self starts (2:47) until it ends at 8:38 and listen for yourself.
The exchange is funny, as it would have to be given the participants (Stewart’s “chocolate” analogy is a chuckle), but several people, including two editorial writers from the Washington Post as well as journalist Dan Rather, have taken out after Stewart for a.) dissing science and arguing that science is inherently unreliable, and b.) making no bones about where the coronavirus came from. Now the second question isn’t so important except for historical interest, but having Stewart, a role model from whom many young folk get their real news, make such unsubstantiated assertions about science and the virus has angered the writers (see below).
Here are three articles (the first two from WaPo, the other from Dan Rather’s Substack site) going after Stewart for his monologue above. I’ll give one quote from each (click on screenshots to read):
The segment was practically tailor-made to blow up in the current debate over the lab leak. It’s funny and good viewing and features a guy who often lampooned conservatives promoting a theory they have warmed to more than the other side. Even Jon Stewart is saying the theory Donald Trump once (briefly) espoused but was dismissed by scientists and the media was right about the lab leak!
The conventional wisdom on the validity of the lab leak has changed in recent weeks, but Stewart goes even beyond that new conventional wisdom that holds the theory is suddenly more valid. Scientists still generally regard the theory that the virus emerged naturally as more plausible than a lab leak, although that thinking is definitely evolving.
But if there’s one thing Stewart was often criticized for — especially by conservatives — it’s in oversimplifying complex issues to land a joke. (He often shrugged off that criticism by saying he was a comedian, not a newsman. But his show was the news to many young people, and it clearly had a political bent to it.)
And his summation of the argument for the lab leak theory suffers from some of that. Stewart pitches it as an irreconcilably massive coincidence that that virus emerged from a place with a high-level virology lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that worked on novel coronaviruses.
Well, that’s not such a biting critique, but the next one is a bit more critical, concentrating on why we shouldn’t trust celebrities’ opinions on Covid-19 (or, for that matter, the opinions of politicians. Remember Trump and his “bleach our insides” theory of cures?). This piece, and the article by Dan Rather below it, emphasize that science is not a one-way street to the truth, and opinions about what’s true or best to do can change as the data change, as they did during the pandemic. The alterations about how we should behave changed over time, leading some people to reject the science altogether.
This theory has become associated with conservatives trying to prove that former president Donald Trump was right about everything. Yet Stewart apparently thinks it’s the only plausible explanation for the source of the virus.
This provides an important lesson about celebrities: You shouldn’t get your political opinions from them, or your scientific opinions either
. . .Even though Trump briefly claimed in 2020 (a claim he quickly dropped) that he had lots of evidence that the lab leak theory was true, what did it change? Had we had definitive proof from the get-go that it came from a lab, would Trump’s response to the pandemic, and the resulting death toll, have been less disastrous? Once the pandemic was here, it was here.But set that aside for the moment, and consider Stewart.
Yes, he has every right to go on as many talk shows as he wants and explain his coronavirus theories. But his attack on expertise reminds us why expertise is so important.
The world is full of amateurs who think they’ve stumbled across some piece of information or logical connection that the people who know a lot more about the subject at hand have missed. There are a thousand unpublished manuscripts titled “Einstein Was Wrong About Relativity” stored on the home computers of people with no formal training in physics.
That’s not to say that experts don’t often have biases or blind spots, because they do. Sometimes, they can be catastrophic. But it’s not because experts can’t be trusted, it’s because something kept them from seeing what they should have, or — perhaps more often — they just didn’t have enough information to arrive at the best judgment.
. . .As long as they’re “raising awareness,” no one gets upset; it’s when they take stances on controversial issues that people decide that if that athlete or singer doesn’t agree with them, then he should shut up and stick to the thing that got him famous in the first place.
. . . But they’re not experts, and the reason we listen to experts is that they know more than we do. And if they know more about some things than others, then we have to understand where we shouldn’t listen to them and where the limits of their knowledge are.
That’s why it’s problematic when liberals say “I believe in science” as though science always shows you exactly which political decisions to make. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it has gaps that can lead you in the wrong direction. That’s why we need elected leaders who’ll listen to scientists, then make judgments built on a broad range of considerations.
The nature of human existence is that we have to outsource much of what we learn about the world to people we trust. But if a celebrity agrees with you today about one thing, it doesn’t make them any more trustworthy than they will be tomorrow when they disagree with you about something else.
In many important ways Rather’s commentary is the most trenchant, as it defends the enterprise of science against those who think that it is either inherently unreliable or contains some elements that motivate people to do bad things. No, bad people do bad things. As I’ve said before, blaming science for the spread of the coronavirus is like blaming architecture for the Nazis’ gas chambers.
Here are a few excerpts from Rather’s piece:
All this underscores a simple truth: science, nature, the universe, is complicated. What we have seen in this pandemic is the public witnessing scientific research in real time. Scientists will be the first to tell you that a lot of what they initially think, their hypotheses, turn out to be wrong. That is what experimentation is for. That is what data is for. We learn from our failures as well as our successes. At first we got guidance that COVID was spread largely on surfaces, even as some scientists were warning early on about it being aerosolized. We eventually got mask mandates. Many researchers felt that that came too late. This is not a sign of good faith or bad faith. Science isn’t faith. It’s about teasing out what we know, and pivoting our thinking when we learn something new. Scientists, especially in the early stages of examining a phenomenon (like a deadly virus they haven’t seen before), often disagree.
. . .On The Late Show, Stewart didn’t leave his criticism of science and scientists at COVID and lab leaks. He extrapolated. “Can I say this about scientists?” he added. “I love them and they do such good work but they are going to kill us all.” Let that sink in. Scientists are going to “kill us all?” And he finished up by predicting how the world would end. “The last words man utters are somewhere in a lab a guy goes, ‘Huhuh! It worked.’”
I cannot overemphasize how dangerous this line of thinking is. It is true that some scientists have done some bad things in the name of research — such as the Tuskegee experiments. Scientists have been wrong. Science and technology have been tools that supported colonialism and oppression. Science does not release us from our moral responsibilities. All of this is the case because science is a human endeavor and scientists are human, subject to the same frailties and base instincts as any member of our species. But science is also a way of thinking, where we challenge our own dogmas and beliefs, whe
. . .I am old enough to remember when childhood was plagued by horrible diseases that have now been almost completely eliminated by vaccines. I remember when cancer was an automatic death sentence. I remember when we couldn’t imagine going to distant planets. I remember when we didn’t understand how our climate worked. I remember times when we were less knowledgeable and prepared, until science helped open our eyes. At the same time, I know that science itself is not a substitute for morality or public policy. It is a method for us to understand the choices we might have to make.
What we need is to teach people what science is, and what it is not. We need to show how the process of discovery works, how ideas are tested and sometimes found to be wrong. We need to investigate such stories like the origins of the virus. But we need to put that into the context of life on the planet, our interconnectedness, and all the other factors that shaped this pandemic. We need to embrace science as a quintessentially human endeavor, our instinct as a species to cross horizons of knowledge and experience. Like all of our actions there is a fine line between benefit and harm. So we must strive to create structures and systems of government and society that promote the former and minimize the latter. That does not include fanning the flames of ignorance or demonizing scientists who are dedicating themselves to opening our collective minds to information and data and have done so much to lessen the suffering of the human condition.
I know people think Rather is superannuated, a has-been with little to say. But his piece, as in the words above, is a far better take on science than that of any non-scientist journalist I’ve seen. The man understand how science works, and how it’s intertwined with human wants and desires. Jon Stewart, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have a clue.
And you could argue that Stewart is just making an extended joke. Indeed, his line about the “last words man utters” is funny. But also misguided. And I don’t think for a second that Stewart is just joking here.
But I’ll grant you this: Stewart has a good sense of humor.