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May 5, 2020

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Science Shaming, Debunking, and Sound Judgment 

A note to our readers

Dear Reader —

I would like to share with you some thoughts about how The New Atlantis fits into the current intellectual climate — and tell you about some remarkable successes we’ve had in responding to the pandemic.

We have long warned about a problem I’ve called “science shaming.” It dominated the early conversation about Covid-19, when, as I wrote to you in my last message, we heard that the virus wouldn’t be a pandemic, that quarantines don’t work, that masks don’t work — and that anyone who thinks otherwise is anti-science.

We can see now the folly of the shaming style. It often turns out to be perilously wrong. And that’s because it was never a good-faith effort to arrive at the truth or the most prudent course of action.

But there is an opposite problem we haven’t focused on as much: the debunking style. The debunking style is a reaction to the shaming style’s attempt at social control. During the pandemic, the debunkers have used elaborate readings of the data to claim that Covid statistics are corrupt, that the response is hysterical, that the entire world is deluded about the threat.

As Yuval Levin put it, the debunkers are surely right about a few things, but it seems awfully likely that they are wrong on the whole. Their error is the mirror opposite of the shamers: Instead of invoking science to marginalize people who dissent from polite opinion, the debunkers view any invocation of science as an exercise of social control. Where the shamers would have us submit to a monopoly on knowledge, the debunkers would have us surrender to epistemic nihilism.

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This is why I do not see any irony in a journal that has long warned about the limits of “this one chart shows” journalism — and warned throughout the pandemic about the problems with Covid-19 data — gaining new prominence for a chart that shows why the virus is not like flu or car crashes.

We are in a moment where scientific data is urgently needed but highly fragmentary, and so is subject to choose-your-own-adventure analyses. What we need is not more credulous “science says” or reactionary “everything you’ve heard is wrong” takes. Rather, we need technical savvy and moral sobriety in service of good judgment about our situation.

That is what The New Atlantis has always distinctly offered. And I believe that is why we are gaining so much new attention during the pandemic. Take the Dismal Chart, as we have come to call it. It has appeared on multiple TV news shows, been cited in National Review and the New York Times, been imitated by Business Insider, and gone viral on Facebook and Twitter. And our Covid coverage has been cited by Fox News’s Brit Hume and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes alike.

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The New Atlantis is a nonprofit operation, funded almost entirely by charitable giving. We would never have been around to serve this distinctive role during the pandemic if not for years of generosity from readers.

I am heartened at the newfound attention and support we have recently received. In April, we saw the largest amount of website traffic in our history. Since launching our fundraising campaign a few weeks ago, we have received over a hundred individual donations and are near the halfway mark toward our $20,000 goal. One reader contributed his entire $1,200 federal relief check. Many others contributed $50, $20, or $10.

We are now extending the campaign for another two weeks, until our upcoming anniversary on May 20. Nonprofit magazines are among the most vulnerable institutions amid the present economic chaos — and the most vital. Your support will help The New Atlantis emerge from this moment stronger than ever before. If you believe our voice is needed, I ask for your support in helping us to fully meet our goal:

Thank you and be well,

Ari Schulman

P.S. If you’d like a break from coronavirus reading, we have just published on our website two articles from our latest issue: L. M. Sacasas on how online life breaks the old political order, and David Kordahl on whether quantum physicists make things up as they go along.