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Scapegoat or Savior? Controversies within science and politics

Date:08 July 2020
Author:Campus Fryslân
Pauline Fehrmann
Pauline Fehrmann

Within the pandemic, scientists move increasingly into the limelight. Their findings are more and more mixed and represented by their persona, which causes a wide polarization of attitudes towards certain scientists, some celebrate them like the saviors, some blame them for the entire pandemic. Christian Drosten, a German virologist who has studied the family of the coronavirus ever since 2003, is experiencing this exposure to public opinion now stronger than ever.

By Pauline Fehrmann (UCF student)

As Hannah Ahrendt already stated in her work Between Past and Future: ‘Throughout history, the truth-seekers and truthtellers have been aware of the risks of their business; as long as they did not interfere with the course of the world, they were covered with ridicule, but he who forced his fellow-citizens to take him seriously by trying to set them free from falsehood and illusion was in danger of his life’. Unfortunately, this understanding might be more relevant right now than in most other times. During the Covid-19 crisis, we all notice the dissonance of the situation. Christian Drosten, one of Germany’s most renowned virologists (Charité hospital Berlin), advices the German government on how to tackle the corona corona crisis. He started an appeal to the public in February to act cautiously and take social distancing and hygiene recommendations seriously. 

However, this new position of power and public influence also pointed out the dark sites of being a representative for science, as the demand for an easement of social restrictions in Germany rises, Drosten becomes more and more the scapegoat for all negative news concerning the pandemic, although he only acts as a messenger between science and the public. His warnings become increasingly disregarded and his facts are turned into fake news, and that not only by conspiracy theorists and right-extremists but also by the media and politicians. 

In late April, Drosten and his colleagues published a study on how children also are vulnerable to the coronavirus. Their findings stated that the virus may be as contagious for children as it is for adults, which resulted in an appeal to the government to keep kindergartens and schools closed and only gradually reopen them. Approximately a week after the publication of this study, the boulevard newspaper Bild published a news article with the heading: Drosten’s children study roughly wrong, in which they heavily criticized the used research methods and listed numerous scientist that supposedly opposed Drosten’s findings, naming even internal scientists from Drosten’s team. The day after the publication of this article, the first death threats started to arrive Drosten, not only via social media, but he also received an anonymous box, which contained a positive Covid-19 antibody test and a note Drink this

Of course, scientific findings concerning the pandemic have often resulted in controversy, however it seems that this study has stirred things up even more. Not only the media, but also other scientists and even politicians, such as Armin Laschet, the prime minister of north Rhine-Westphalia, strongly criticized the study’s findings. Laschet, who is a strong opponent of the social restriction methods, as his main concern focuses on the economic consequences for Germany, reacted to the Drosten-study on public television, criticizing that science would bring up new facts and figures every day and thus, no person would know what to do in this situation, which led him to the statement that politics should oppose this confusion.

Of course, everyone craves a return to normality. But as Chancellor Merkel powerfully concluded: you cannot make a deal with a force of nature. This virus will not care about any internal political debates, it will not respect boundaries set up by politicians nor does it know grace if restrictions are eased. The debate we are currently experiencing is not a fight against the virus. This extraordinary situation points out once again the different nature of politics and science. Politics is a field of definite answers, of clarity and conviction. But science is a realm of doubt, of reconsideration, and of constantly questioning findings and results, it’s a process that brings up new questions where the answers were thought to be. Especially now, in an emerging situation like this where another crucial factor is added, which is time, or more that time is limited, it becomes obvious that science does not work best when definite answers are expected and politics do not work best when results are constantly updating. 

In all this discussion, I just want to emphasize again, Drosten is only the messenger of bad news. He has as much ability as the rest of the world to stop this virus. Some people personalize him as the savior from the virus, some claim that he is the one to blame for this pandemic and attack him on a personal basis to destroy his reputation. If we already face such a big obstacle, namely that even in times like these science and politics are not meeting on very negotiable terms at the very beginning of our solution finding for this pandemic, how are we continuing? We need to bring these two realms on friendly terms with each other again, this situation challenges us to prove that it is possible to unite politics and science, even if they seem so far away from each other.