Ioannidis: COVID hysteria is ruining science

Ioannidis is a fascinating guy: years ago he showed that half of all medical research is wrong. You can read more about him in this Atlantic profile; here is his latest:

Nevertheless, despite the cynical realization that the methodological norms of science had been neglected (or perhaps because of this realization), voices struggling for more communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism had been multiplying among scientific circles prior to the pandemic. Reformers were often seen as holding some sort of a moral higher ground, despite being outnumbered in occupancy of powerful positions. Reproducibility crises in many scientific fields, ranging from biomedicine to psychology, caused soul-searching and efforts to enhance transparency, including the sharing of raw data, protocols, and code. Inequalities within the academy were increasingly recognized with calls to remedy them. Many were receptive to pleas for reform.

Opinion-based experts (while still dominant in influential committees, professional societies, major conferences, funding bodies, and other power nodes of the system) were often challenged by evidence-based criticism. There were efforts to make conflicts of interest more transparent and to minimize their impact, even if most science leaders remained conflicted, especially in medicine. A thriving community of scientists focused on rigorous methods, understanding biases, and minimizing their impact. The field of metaresearch, i.e., research on research, had become widely respected. One might therefore have hoped that the pandemic crisis could have fostered change. Indeed, change did happen—but perhaps mostly for the worst.


The pandemic led seemingly overnight to a scary new form of scientific universalism. Everyone did COVID-19 science or commented on it. By August 2021, 330,000 scientific papers were published on COVID-19, involving roughly a million different authors. An analysis showed that scientists from every single one of the 174 disciplines that comprise what we know as science has published on COVID-19. By the end of 2020, only automobile engineering didn’t have scientists publishing on COVID-19. By early 2021, the automobile engineers had their say, too. 

At first sight, this was an unprecedented mobilization of interdisciplinary talent. However, most of this work was of low quality, often wrong, and sometimes highly misleading. Many people without subject-matter technical expertise became experts overnight, emphatically saving the world. As these spurious experts multiplied, evidence-based approaches—like randomized trials and collection of more accurate, unbiased data—were frequently dismissed as inappropriate, too slow, and harmful. The disdain for reliable study designs was even celebrated.


Honest, continuous questioning and exploration of alternative paths are indispensable for good science. In the authoritarian (as opposed to participatory) version of public health, these activities were seen as treason and desertion. The dominant narrative became that “we are at war.” When at war, everyone has to follow orders. If a platoon is ordered to go right and some soldiers explore maneuvering to the left, they are shot as deserters. Scientific skepticism had to be shot, no questions asked. The orders were clear. 

Who gave these orders? Who decided that his or her opinion, expertise, and conflicts should be in charge? It was not a single person, not a crazy general or a despicable politician or a dictator, even if political interference in science did happen—massively so. It was all of us, a conglomerate that has no name and no face: a mesh and mess of half-cooked evidence; frenzied and partisan media promoting parachute journalism and pack coverage; the proliferation of pseudonymous and eponymous social media personas which led even serious scientists to become unrestrained, wild-beast avatars of themselves, spitting massive quantities of inanity and nonsense; poorly regulated industry and technology companies flexing their brain and marketing power; and common people afflicted by the protracted crisis. All swim in a mixture of some good intentions, some excellent thinking, and some splendid scientific successes, but also of conflicts, political polarization, fear, panic, hatred, divisiveness, fake news, censorship, inequalities, racism, and chronic and acute societal dysfunction.

By Stephen

About me

Professor and quant guy. Libertarian turned populist Republican. Trying to learn Japanese and play Spanish Baroque music on the ukulele.

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