Richard Feynman once said, “I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.” He observed that people often believe so many wonderful things that the real message behind the scientific method has failed to percolate through society—a method of systematic doubt in which nothing is ever certain and concepts only ever reside on a graduated scale somewhere between, but never at the ends of, absolute falsity or absolute truth. He saved his worst scorn for the many scientists who, by their training, are supposed to know better. In my experience, little has changed in the nearly half century since his remarks.
I have the opportunity to share my work on COVID-19 and interact with epidemiologists from around the country and around the world, yet the most shocking part of my experience is running into Ezekiel Bulver. C.S. Lewis met him first:
...Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third— “Oh you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment”, E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
Of course Bulver never existed, he is a rhetorical device created by C.S. Lewis himself, but this behaviour, bulverism—the logical fallacy of assuming someone’s argument is invalid or false at the outset, and then attempting to explain how the person became so mistaken by hypothesizing about her beliefs, psychology or motives, with no regards to the actual argument itself—has no place in scientific discourse. Bulversim gets us nowhere. The other side could just as easily use the argument against you. Not only is bulverism disrespectful but it’s pure foolishness. C.S. Lewis again,
If you try to find out which [ideas] are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must first find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error...You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.
Bulverism is antithetical to the scientific method and scientists who use it have stopped being scientists. You would’ve embarrassed yourself in front of Feynman practicing it. Arguing that papers or ideas on COVID-19 from highly respectable epidemiologists and other researchers, who argue in good faith, should be ignored at face value because of perceived ideology or inferred political beliefs is not science. There is plenty of uncertainty around COVID-19 and plenty of room for legitimate scientific disagreement. If we want to serve the public good, let’s stop inviting Mr. Bulver to the conversation.