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: “F—— PIECE OF S— F— YOU, YOU F—— SHEEP NEW WORLD ORDER PIECE OF S—.”

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.

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