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The Year Ahead 2021

The Post-Truth Pandemic

Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific research that was previously conducted and published under the public's radar has now become chum for politically partisan feeding frenzies. To succeed in this new era of ideological distortion and bad faith, scientists will have to go on the offensive.

OXFORD – On July 31, 2020, my college at the University of Oxford hosted a Zoom seminar featuring talks by several internationally renowned scientists. The session was intended primarily for internal faculty, but, owing to the pandemic-inspired practice of disseminating scientific findings as widely as possible, other researchers and interested members of the public had also been invited. When my turn came to speak, I opened my PowerPoint and was immediately assailed with abusive messages in the chat window. To quote one verbatim: “FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING SHEEP NEW WORLD ORDER PIECE OF SHIT.”

The title of my presentation was, “Explaining international differences in masking policies in the COVID-19 pandemic,” but I could have just as well been speaking about lockdowns, testing and tracing, shielding, or dozens of other related topics. In each case, policymakers had assured us from the outset of the pandemic that they were “following the science,” and yet “the science” on those topics had yet to be firmly established. Almost every new publication was contested, sometimes by fellow scientists, and sometimes – aggressively and even violently – by members of the public.

How had I, a medical doctor and Oxford professor, attracted such a retinue of abusers with the time and energy to pursue me through the (virtual) gates of an academic seminar? Who organized these trolls, and why did they feel the need to fill my inbox with obscenities and threats?

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