The outbreak of the 2019 coronavirus pandemic put science in the spotlight in a way that we had not seen for generations. Scientists were being wheeled out in front of cameras on a regular basis, to explain the rationale for decisions that would be of seismic importance for the future of people’s lives: will schools stay open, or be shut for months and months on end? Will businesses be forced to shut their doors and let their employees go? Will people be forced to cover their nose and mouth in order to access a supermarket? Will people be confined to their homes indefinitely? Will unvaccinated citizens be refused access to planes, trains, or public services?
Men and women in white coats were offering their opinion and advice on the efficacy of these life-changing “measures” and governments were happy to quote them in order to legitimate their decisions. Governments who went about putting people under house arrest, imposing vaccine apartheid schemes, banning cheap experimental treatments with very low risks associated with them, and preventing people from seeing their loved ones on their death beds, assured us they were simply “following the science.” Thus, we were led to believe that these highly unorthodox policy interventions were not the result of independent judgment calls made under difficult circumstances, but simply the result of “following the science,” wherever it happened to lead us.
This had two major political advantages: first, it lent governmental decisions some of the prestige and authority of science, by equating them with the inexorable findings of “science”; and second, it distracted the public’s attention from the personal responsibility of public officials, who actually departed from decades of conventional public health guidance and chose to take a radically new approach to disease control, one that relied heavily, for the first time ever, on indiscriminate and compulsory quarantine of asymptomatic populations.
People often believe what will make them feel better, or what will soothe their anxieties. That is why those who grieve a loved one can be manipulated by charlatans into thinking their loved ones can speak back to them from the grave – with the mediation of a professional, of course, who is quite happy to accept a modest fee.
The “follow the science” rhetoric worked very well for a terrified population, since citizens uncertain about their future and terrified of death were longing for clear and unambiguous solutions. The myth that people accepted to soothe their fears, and that governments propagated to rationalise their own reckless judgments, could be summed up in one word: scientism.
Scientism is traditionally understood as the view that well-grounded knowledge can only be acquired by applying the methods of the natural sciences, rather than, say, poetry, literature, music, fine art, theology, or moral reasoning. But there is also a simplistic caricature of science and the scientific method – let’s call it “pop scientism” – that has, unfortunately, become increasingly dominant in Western societies.
Popular forms of scientism, like popular science, are easily digestible by the general public. But unlike thoughtful versions of popular science, whose simplifications invite readers to deepen their understanding of the scientific enterprise and method, popular scientism grossly misrepresents the scientific enterprise as the production of a uniform body of settled truths validated by men and women in white coats, supposedly pointing straightforwardly to a specific set of actions and public policies, saving us the trouble of making difficult judgment calls involving complex trade-offs of competing goods.
Popular scientism eschews the ambiguity, uncertainty, and tensions of the scientific method, which tests out hypotheses and opens itself to critique, revision, and falsification. Popular scientism clings to a false idea of science as a body of indisputable dogmas, unanimously endorsed by an army of highly credentialed professional scientists, and only questioned by the village idiot or by a handful of scientists who have wandered from the fold of “true science.”
Covid policies have clearly been driven by this sort of crude, popular misconception of science and the scientific method. But this is only the most recent instance. Another prominent and highly influential example of this simplified approach to science is the view that the causes and consequences of climate change are unproblematic from a scientific perspective and constitute a body of unquestionable dogmas affirmed by every respectable scientist. The immense complexity of issues surrounding causality in climate change science is reduced to cheap soundbites and dogmatic statements, while those who problematise any aspect of conventional wisdom surrounding climate change are branded “enemies of science” – as though questioning a scientific hypothesis was a betrayal of the scientific method!
Fake science as hypnosis
Real science is both exciting and unsettling: an ever-evolving quest for truth in a sea of uncertainty and ambiguity. Fake science, on the other hand – essentially, a set of dogmas propagated by men and women in white coats, to be questioned at one’s peril – works like a soothing narcotic that lulls you to sleep and numbs your critical faculties. The citizen who buys into the alluring myths of fake science will confuse the institutional authority of official, government-appointed scientists with the authority of “Science” as a discipline or way of life.
Anyone who accepts the tenets of scientism as it typically manifests in popular culture, is easy prey for “scientistic” government propaganda, that is, government propaganda that seeks to derive legitimacy for controversial policies from a superficial veneer of scientific authority, or from the endorsement of some official body of scientists.
Leading tenets of popular scientism
Here are five leading tenets of popular scientism.
• If the majority of scientists say it, then that is pure “science” and it must be true.
I can think of few more anti-scientific propositions. If majoritarianism were an appropriate test for scientific validity or veracity, you could just have a vote to decide which hypothesis was most probably true, and you could skip all the hard work of putting theories and hypotheses to the test or checking whether the data stacks up against them.
• Scientific experts have the authority to tell us how to live our lives, when to wear masks, when to wash our hands, how often and under which circumstances we may socialise during a pandemic, and so on.
Why would anyone invest this sort of political and moral authority in somebody just because they have a PhD or managed to prove their skills at mastering a certain field of knowledge? Scientists are as morally fallible as anyone else. They are also fallible in their scientific judgments. Even if a scientist devotes his life’s work to the study of masks, that does not give him the authority to coerce anyone into wearing a mask, or to order such a coercive measure. To offer an evidence-based argument about the efficacy of masks is one thing; to force an entire population to don a mask in their everyday life, often against their will, is quite another.
• The content of “science” and its findings is whatever the WHO, or some other scientific body, declare them to be.
This is the very antithesis of the scientific spirit. It replaces the hard work of convincing the scientific community of one’s opinion with the diktats of those lucky and skilled enough to get into high positions of power in the scientific community. It is absurd to suggest that someone, however knowledgeable, who happens to get nominated to the WHO or to a national scientific commission, will always understand a scientific matter better than someone else who happens to work at a research centre that does not function as an official scientific authority.
• Anything that contradicts majority scientific opinion, or the opinion enunciated by official scientific authorities, is “misinformation.”
This is certainly a soothing belief, because it makes the world a much simpler place if you can treat a handful of scientific commissions as having the last word on every important scientific question. But it is quite obvious, upon reflection, that scientists are fallible human beings, subject to bias, conflicts of interest, and error. Getting onto a commission or into a position of power and prestige does not remove this human propensity to error. Scientific truth is messy. It cannot be reduced to the infallible pronouncements of a scientific priest class. It is discovered gradually, through the tug-and-war and back-and-forth of scientific debate and the testing and re-testing of hypotheses.
• If you give scientists enough power or influence, they should be able to fix complex social problems for us.
This seems to be the philosophy of people like Bill Gates, and I can think of at least one acquaintance who has an almost religious faith in the power of science to fix humanity’s problems. This naive faith rests on a completely unrealistic view of what the methods of science can achieve.
Being good at tracing the causes of disease transmission, or being an excellent military strategist, or having a stellar career in social science, does not automatically equip one with sound judgment about which actions would best promote the common good of one’s community or nation. This requires a virtue that is learnt with practice, namely practical wisdom or the steady disposition to make sound judgments about the best course of action. Science does not automatically confer this virtue. Statecraft and political leadership may fine-tune it, if the person in question has a genuine commitment to public service and is humble enough to learn from their mistakes.
A simplistic view of science, as a factory of unquestionable dogmas and infallible recipes for making good public policy, makes the world a lot tidier than it really is. It suggests that there are pre-packaged answers to immensely complex problems, to be delivered to us by men and women in white coats, and that a committee of experts should have no trouble drawing a firm line between the scientists who are right and those who are wrong, between information and misinformation, between scientific truth and falsehood.
Honest practitioners of science, on the other hand, understand that truth is very often the product of a messy and extended conversation, rather than a set of pristine dogmas settled for all eternity.