Skepticism and Grace: Can They Coexist?

The Three GracesYou may have noticed. Evidence of skepticism, disagreement, and polarization is all around us. These phenomena are notably – sometimes disturbingly – present in dialogue about public health. We suppose that a pandemic puts stresses on people that explain some of this behavior. Healthy skepticism indeed is a good thing. Its roots lie in objectivity and rigorous inquiry.

But lately we also see it as an excuse for bitter disagreement and polarization. Perhaps we need grace to come along with skepticism in order for it to be healthy.

Graceless Skepticism

Words can be potent weapons. We see it in sharp dialogues about public health. In Europe, an unvaccinated minority is “falling out of society.” Getting work or education is becoming difficult for them. So the polarization is becoming sharper. Were we not already polarized enough?

Here in the U.S., Anthony Fauci has found himself at the sharp end of many word spears lately. Dan Zak and Roxanne Roberts describe it with jarring words:

“Year 3 of COVID times. Nearly 900,000 Americans are dead. An average of 2,000 (mostly unvaccinated) Americans are dying every day now, even though there is a simple measure to limit such suffering — made possible in large part by the Vaccine Research Center founded under Fauci. And yet many Americans would rather take their chances with a virus than a vaccine, because there’s more than just a virus going around.

“There’s something else in the air. Symptoms include rage, delusion, opportunism and extreme behavior – like comparing Fauci to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele (as Lara Logan did on Fox News in November), or setting out for Washington with an AR-15 and a kill list of ‘evil’ targets that included Fauci (as a California man did last month).”

Graceful Skepticism

In the midst of all this, we see a sharp contrast in scholars pursuing scientific rigor. Facts matter. Objectivity can lead us away from polarization. Instead, it leads us toward understanding what is true, what is false, and what remains to be learned.

Writing in Retraction Watch, a group of researchers from the Indiana University School of Public Health describe how this can work. It is a slow process and sometimes frustrating when a scientific paper has important errors. But “errors need to be fixed,” they write. Journal editors have tools for doing this. Some editors drag the process out. Others handle it promptly.

In the end, objectivity should carry the day. People make mistakes. We can recognize them, correct them, and move on. This is graceful skepticism.

The Three Graces, painting by Robert Delaunay / WikiArt

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January 30, 2022