Reflections on life, meaning and purpose

Vatican astronomer: ‘Trust the science’ does not convince those who most need to be convinced

Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., pictured on March 3, 2012. / Peter Zelasko/CNA.

Rome, Italy, Jan 14, 2022 / 11:30 am (CNA).

A Vatican astronomer has said that the mantra “trust the science” is failing to “convince those who most need to be convinced” about the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines.

Writing in the Jan. 15 edition of La Civiltà Cattolica, Brother Guy Consolmagno said that the phrase was not only off-putting for “large sectors” of the population but also expressed a misleading idea about the nature of science.

“In the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the scientific evidence in favor of vaccination is overwhelming. Those who are aware of this and see this universal prophylaxis as the only way to end the pandemic often use the mantra ‘trust the science,” he wrote in a 5,000-word essay, entitled “COVID, faith, and the fallibility of science” and published in Italian.

“At first glance, the expression does not lack a certain charm, also because it refers to that trust in science as a path to truth that our society has learned to accept since the Enlightenment.”

“But the evidence of the facts around us suggests that instead this slogan is not so motivating. Large sectors of the population … have continued to reject vaccination.”

La Civiltà Cattolica, founded in 1850 and published twice a month, is produced by the Jesuits in Rome and approved before publication by the Vatican Secretariat of State.

A summary of the article in English on La Civiltà Cattolica’s website said: “The no vax and conspiracy theory proponents uphold a misconception of what science is all about, as well as what it can deliver. When science fails to live up to its supposed infallibility, it only fuels further skepticism.”

“In addition to reconsidering how we argue in favor of science, as in the case of promoting vaccines, it is worth taking a closer look at how we try to use science or faith as bulwarks against our fundamental human fear of uncertainty.”

The article does not explicitly address the recent failure of widespread vaccination programs in halting the rapid transmission of the current omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Nor does Consolmagno speak directly to concerns about the censorship of dissenting scientific views about the safety of the vaccines and treatment protocols for COVID-19, or to the skepticism some unvaccinated Catholics harbor about the scientific rigor underlying the pro-vaccination statements of Pope Francis and other ecclesiastical authorities.

Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory since 2015, said that as a scientist and member of the Catholic Church, he was aware of the distrust of both scientific and ecclesiastical authority.

“Treating scientists as members of a sort of priesthood of truth is a questionable tactic, especially in a society where true priests are viewed with suspicion,” he wrote.

“And while I am entirely pro-vaccination, a motto like ‘trust the science’ leaves me very puzzled. It embodies a popular conception of science that is not only misleading, but makes it vulnerable.”

The 69-year-old Jesuit brother, who was born in Detroit, Michigan, said that the phrase suggested that science was the only reliable guide to truth.

“The expression itself sounds like an answer to an unexpressed question: what or whom should we trust? In some ways, it echoes the phrase addressed by Peter to Jesus in John 6:68: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?’” he observed.

“And perhaps those scriptural echoes are noticeable to those who, like an evangelical Christian, are familiar with that passage of scripture, but probably not as familiar with science, and therefore perceive those words as implying that ‘trusting the science’ is being proposed as a substitute for trusting the Lord. To such a person, that slogan may unknowingly do more harm than good.”

Consolmagno said that the conviction that science is the sole reliable guide to truth implies that it has infallible authority.

“But anyone with real familiarity with science knows that this is not the case at all,” he wrote.

“Yes, the vaccine prevents disease in the vast majority of the vaccinated and reduces the severity of disease even in cases of so-called ‘breakthrough infections.’ But vaccines are not perfect. Fully vaccinated people can become ill with COVID-19, and indeed this does happen, although rarely with serious effects.”

“To those who oppose vaccines, the fact that such failures happen not only suggests that the vaccine is not perfect, but confirms the fear that blindly trusting science can be dangerous. And as much as we don’t want to admit it, that fear of placing unconditional trust in science contains an element of truth.”

The research astronomer and physicist noted that the history of science was littered with errors. He also highlighted pharmaceutical failures, such as the distribution of the drug thalidomide to pregnant mothers, which resulted in disabilities for their babies.

“The history of vaccines is also not without flaws. As we mentioned, COVID-19 vaccines occasionally allow for ‘breakthrough infection.’ The vaccination process has common side effects, the severity of which can vary from case to case,” he observed.

“Both safety and efficacy are aspects that require a long period of study before a vaccine is approved for general use; and yet errors can and do happen even after that prolonged process. It is not inconceivable that a circumstance will arise in which the worst fears of the antivaccine community may actually come true.”

Consolmagno said that the scientific method depended on doubt and error, analyzing mistakes and learning from them.

“However, science can provide insights into how to see and recognize the truth. And it can tell us what the probability of success is for a given formulation of that truth,” he explained.

“We trust the vaccine not because it is perfect, but because it greatly increases the odds of not getting sick. The real and obvious problem lies in the fact that most of us cannot understand how probabilities work: that is why casinos and lotteries are so successful.”

In conclusion, he wrote: “The phrase ‘trust the science’ does not convince those who most need to be convinced, especially if it reinforces the fear that science is challenging the authority of religious faith.”

“On the other hand, if science is expected to be a sure path to truth, scientific failures can arouse skepticism about it, forgetting how in fact failure itself represents an essential element in the progress of science.”

“And when a desire for certainty, which goes beyond what science can offer, is placed in tension with a culture that promotes suspicion of authority, a Gnostic desire for secret knowledge can be substituted for the just appreciation of those who are authoritative.”