by George Brahm
“We need a president who believes in science.”
— Vice-President Joe Biden on Twitter
“In every age, the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now, it will certainly be science.”
— C. S. Lewis, ‘Is Progress Possible?: Willing Slaves of the Welfare State’
The philosopher Susan Haack speaks of two extreme attitudes towards scientific inquiry. The first is what she calls ‘cynicism’, or an inordinate suspicion of scientific claims and the enterprise as a whole. This attitude drives many ‘coronavirus skeptics’, like those who dismiss the novel coronavirus as no more serious than the seasonal flu virus and disparage health experts for suggesting otherwise. Yet, such cynics are frequently (and rightly) recipients of censure, both from the mainstream media and the broader public.
On the other extreme is what Haack calls ‘scientism’, or an “uncritically deferential attitude towards science” that refuses to recognize its limitations and dismisses any criticism of the enterprise and those who engage in it as “anti-scientific prejudice.” While the term ‘scientism’ is most often used as a pejorative, the attitude itself is rarely treated with the same sort of disapprobation that its Haackian counterpart garners. In fact, it seems to be the attitude deemed most appropriate amid our current crisis, exemplified by those who urge governments to just ‘follow the science’ or ‘listen to the medical experts’ in the face of complex policy dilemmas. Needless to say, there is much that is wrong with this approach.
Consider, for instance, those lawmakers who suggest that any plans to reopen the economy must only be “guided by SCIENCE” or “driven by data and experts”. This sounds rather intelligent and reassuring; we are being asked to put our trust in hard numbers, percentages, graphs, and the austere scientists who expound on them, rather than pay attention to a serial babbler and his corporate cronies. Yet, such talk is also extremely misleading for a number of reasons.
First, we must recognize that ‘science’ is not a vending machine where you punch a button and the right candy pops out. It is a process of formulating hypotheses and testing them in light of collected data; the more data we collect, the closer we get to the ‘right’ answer. But data collection takes time, and the data that is handed to us might not definitively answer our questions; several ‘unknowns’ may remain, and we will have to wait for more data to come in. (See this article by Bill Gates that lists a few.) But even as science takes its time in giving us these answers, many policy decisions, even those connected to the aforementioned unknowns in some way, need to be made right now to mitigate risk, both to lives and livelihoods. Science alone is insufficient to guide these decisions. Other areas of expertise — including economics, ethics, history, and most importantly, common sense — will need to guide policies as well.
Second, it is important to recognize that our experts are fallible. The now-deified Anthony Fauci, for instance, dismissed the coronavirus as “very, very low risk” to the United States in late January, public health officials have had to make a blatant u-turn over the past couple of months on the public’s need to wear masks, and the Imperial College London model, which initiated a severe lockdown and almost single-handedly demolished millions of jobs, is now being dismissed by experts as “buggy mess” that looks like “a bowl of angel hair pasta”. (Yes, that is a description of Neil Ferguson’s computer model, not his private life.) This shows that not even our best experts know enough to make definitive claims about this pandemic — something that many of them will readily admit — and they are bound to make mistakes at some point or another. (And I have said nothing about the political biases of our experts; research shows that the so-called ‘scientific community’ is heavily biased in one political direction, and I would be shocked to learn that these biases do not colour their choice of methodologies and policy recommendations. Could this not be a factor that adds to their fallibility?)
Third, ‘following the science’ in policy-making is actually far more politically-charged than its advocates would like you to think. We have evidence to show that folks on both sides of the political aisle are heavily influenced by their prior political beliefs in how they interpret and act on a piece of scientific data, and this is no different when it comes to politicians making policy decisions. The scientific results that the expert hands over to the politician does not contain answers to how it ought to reflect in policy, and so its application in policy is always at the politician’s discretion and is bound to be influenced by his or her political priors. ‘Just follow the science’, then, often tends to be a euphemism for policy-based evidence-making by those ideologues who are unwilling to let a crisis go to waste.
All of the above gives us good reason to be skeptical of the ‘scientistic’ approach to policy-making, and none of it constitutes anti-scientific prejudice. But even if the data that science gives us is sufficiently conclusive, our experts infallible, and our politicians honest and bias-free, a ‘just follow the science’ approach would still be unjustified, for this pandemic raises several important questions that are outside the bounds of what science is capable of addressing.
Yes, there are questions that science cannot answer.
Consider, for instance, questions around the economic impact of our current lockdown. The sola scientia crowd will tell you that they come second to minimizing deaths from the coronavirus, and this warrants an indefinite lockdown until we have found a cure. In fact, they will tell you that those who wish to reopen the economy do so because they care more for money than for the lives of the vulnerable. But claims like these only show how far they have driven themselves from reality. As my friend Esther O’Reilly points out over at Arc Digital, there are significant human costs that come with an economic collapse; as the Washington Post reports, mental health issues including depression, substance abuse, PTSD, and suicidal tendencies are predicted to sky-rocket, exacerbated by the economic collapse resulting from the lockdown. Even Dr. Fauci admits that extended lockdowns will cause various and sundry ‘health issues’. Meanwhile, the United Nations, which isn’t exactly the most free-market-friendly of world organizations, has warned that over 369 million children around the world will be left hungry as a result of coronavirus-related school shutdowns, leading to hundreds of thousands of child deaths.
So, it turns out that both shutting down the economy until we have a cure and reopening the economy will save lives, albeit different ones. What do we do? It seems that we have one of three options (each with their respective sets of effects):
1. Keep the economy shut down for the next several months/years until we find a cure. (Effects: Many dead over the next several years, many more in predicaments possibly worse than death, and the world economy in shambles, but many among the most vulnerable saved, a vaccine developed, and a second-wave prevented.)
2. Fully reopen the economy without waiting for a cure. (Effects: Many — particularly among the elderly and most vulnerable — dead over the next few months, and a potentially worse second-wave encountered, but the economy salvaged and other second- and third-order damage prevented).
3. Find a middle ground between options 1 and 2 that involves protecting the most vulnerable while gradually reopening the economy. (Effects: Many dead over the next few months, potential second-wave, and the economy takes a bad hit, but also manages to survive in a salvageable form.)
Trade-offs are inevitable and plentiful in all three options, and we are forced to choose one. To do so, we will have to answer questions like, “How do economic and health risks caused by a continued economic shutdown weigh against the health risks posed by an imminent or gradual economic reopening?” And if you are one among those who decide to rely on ‘just follow the science’ as your mantra of choice, good luck. A good economist, a good ethicist, and a decent dose of common sense might help you work out what is bound to be a painful answer to that question, but science, on its own, is utterly impotent when faced with it. The best it can do is tell us when a cure will be available, but all that might do is change the magnitude of the trade-offs involved and render your decision easier (or harder) to make; you will not get to a solution if you ‘just follow the science’.
Or consider the bioethical questions that must be answered if we are to successfully overcome this pandemic on both public health and economic fronts. Suppose, in the foregoing dilemma, someone picks option 2, arguing that it is worth losing a small segment of our population for the sake of salvaging as much of the economy as we can. Andrew Cuomo, chief among the ‘just follow the science/data/experts’ crew, finds this suggestion outrageous. “No one should be talking about social darwinism for the sake of the stock market,” he says.
Is that an opinion ‘driven by the data and experts’? In fact, what Cuomo dismisses as ‘social darwinism’ was ‘the settled science’ of a bygone era — propounded by the illustrious scientist and statistician Sir Francis Galton and heartily endorsed by fellow ‘experts’ like Alexander Graham Bell, David Starr Jordan, Luther Burbank, Robert Foster Kennedy, and Linus Pauling. By what standard would Cuomo condemn the eugenics movement of the last century, given that those involved were just following ‘the best science available’ and being ‘driven by data and experts’? What he must appeal to is an absolute moral standard, one that does not change with the advent of new data or methodologies; a standard that ‘science’ is incapable of providing.
In general, then, science is utterly impotent when it comes to delivering bioethical (or any ethical) verdicts; science can only go as far as tell us what is, not what ought to be the case. Yes, science will give us the vaccine in the near future, but it cannot tell us whether we ought to deliver it first to the young or to the elderly in the case of a limited supply, just as it couldn’t tell us which of the two was more deserving of a ventilator in the case of a potential shortage.
Of course, none of this is to deny all the good that science has done (and will do) throughout the course of this pandemic, just as a rejection of scientism does not entail a denial of everything that science has accomplished in service of the human race throughout history. But that is exactly where it must remain — in service of the human race — and anyone who recognizes its limitations will not question why we keep it in this position.
Now, if you as an individual wish to continue believing that the scientific method can get us the right answers to all policy-making questions, so be it. After all, we do live in a country that respects the free exercise of religion. What I do fear and object to, however, is when politicians and their scientists try to install scientism as our state religion; when they strive to establish what C.S. Lewis called a ‘scientocracy‘, or a “new oligarchy” that, seeking to keep us under their thumbs via a claim to absolute knowledge, would establish a government “in the name of science”. Tyranny would undoubtedly ensue, as an appeal to ‘science’ would serve either as a rubber stamp for preferred policies or as a means to censor dissidents. The only way to avoid such tyranny, Lewis says, is to ensure that our ‘experts’ stay within their respective domains.
“Let scientists tell us about science,” he writes, “But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value. Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so; but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than for any other man.”
What I ask from the ‘just follow the science’ crowd, then, is the very thing they demand of other religions — to approach their own worldview with a healthy dose of skepticism. They will discover that science too has limitations and fails at every attempt to answer questions outside its domain. More importantly, they will notice that, every time the state has elevated ‘the science’ to something more than a tool in service of the human race — the eugenics movement and Nazi Germany being two examples — it has always done so with an ulterior motive: an attempt to garner the unquestioning subservience of the masses by appealing to an unquestionable standard. Failing to recognize and reject every such attempt, even those made in the name of the public good, involves willful submission to the tyranny of a scientocratic state. And such states are just as bad, if not worse, than theocratic ones.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.