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Is there a difference between the kind of skepticism that drives science and the kind that fuels anti-vaccine campaigns?

In an editorial for Nautilus, SFI President David Krakauer looks at the double-edged sword of doubt. Drawing insights from the history of science, he explores how to tell the difference between the scientific and conspiratorial skepticism that define our present experience.

Read the editorial, “We Have to Talk About Doubt,” in Nautilus (September 1, 2021)


Over the last year we have seen the scientific method of doubt put to work in the development of entirely new kinds of vaccine and yet another kind of doubt limiting people’s willingness to get vaccinated. Scientific doubt working to reveal the frightening extent of anthropogenic climate change and conspiratorial doubt, like a demonic twin, undermining it.

RNA vaccines were developed as an alternative to the standard method of vaccination using attenuated or inactivated microorganisms. RNA researchers doubted that existing techniques could achieve as accurate and safe an immunization as RNA-sequence vaccines. The obvious non-infectious nature of RNA, combined with its short half-life, made the idea appealing, but early failures resulting from RNA instability challenged their viability. Recent advances in non-toxic carrier molecules have transformed RNA vaccines into highly effective therapies. At the same time, the very recency of RNA vaccines and the rapidity of their production generated a countervailing doubt manifesting as high levels of anti-vaccination. Vaccine doubters quickly reached for justification in terms of both existing science around rare allergenic responses to polyethylene glycol in the vaccine, as well as conspiracy theories relating to government control and a pandemic hoax. In several nations, conspiratorial doubt has resulted in consistently low levels of vaccination, fueling the recent emergence of the delta variant.

Doubt seems to be a double-edged sword: One blade cuts through orthodoxy allowing for new potential truths, while the other blade seeks to sever the head of reason from the body of society. The resolution to this anomaly is that these two kinds of doubt are in fact very different mental attitudes, where some would like us to believe that they are one and the same.

Scientific doubt seeks to reveal the hidden assumptions and limitations of measurement and reason in our existing beliefs. Conspiratorial doubt seeks to replace a small, partially supported belief with a larger, unsupported one. And in so doing avoid the responsibility of appropriate action...