An astonishing reversal has taken place. Time was when matters of faith were accepted or rejected based on faith, and matters for reason were accepted or rejected after scrutiny by a rational intellect. This has all been turned on its head.
Today people accept what they call “the science” with a blind faith amounting to the Kierkegaardian leap into the dark.
If “the science” means anything, it ought to mean the scientific method — observing, hypothesising, and testing. Nothing about a leap of faith.
The oft-repeated exhortation “follow the science” is, at least in the way it’s usually intended, much like saying “follow the roads”. If you’re trying to get somewhere, it matters very much which roads you follow. If by “follow the science”, you mean “study the map”, we’d be much nearer to the truth. Maps are full of roads going in different directions; science is full of scientists whose theories and findings take them in different directions.
If we are treating “the science” as a final, agreed upon, unquestionable dogma that determines government policy, we’re no longer talking about science; we’ve entered the realm of ideology.
“The science is settled” — often said in reference to climate change — has always struck me as a shockingly unscientific statement. People say something is settled when they don’t want their conclusions challenged. The scientific method cannot function if certain areas of investigation are labelled “settled”.
True scientists seek truth, and wish (perhaps reluctantly) to be proved wrong if their theories are inadequate. Even if that happens, their efforts were not in vain: eliminating false theories helps to steer in the right direction science’s continual conquering of the unknown.
Often, though by no means always, the very same people who put their trust in “the science” reject traditional religious claims with a smug scoff. If it can’t be proved, it must be foolish and naive to believe it.
Well, true, you can’t prove revelation as you can prove empirical truth — but neither can you disprove it. Revelation doesn’t come in where science hasn’t yet advanced; it comes in where science cannot go. The belief that there is nowhere that science cannot go is called scientism. It is the elevation of science to a religion.
Here’s the reversal: we tend to accept “the science” without employing our own critical thinking, but we reject religion because we fancy ourselves critical thinkers.
Sometimes, it has to be said, religious people play right into this backwardness. To take the most obvious example, some Christians treat the book of Genesis as a work of science. They’ve been bewitched by scientism, unconsciously appearing to accept that anything outside science is inadmissible as a truth claim. Bible literalists thus embark on a futile attempt to fit the account of creation in the Book of Genesis into the scientistic mindset. They try to mount a scientific defence of something that isn’t scientific.
It’s an insult to the very revelation that they’re trying to defend and it mocks real science at the same time.
These Christians are easy targets for atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, men whose intellects could be put to much better use, but who simply can’t resist. Unfortunately, the upshot is that intelligent atheists seldom contend with real religion.
But those who believe in “settled science” are little different from misguided creationists. Climate change, for instance, is a subject that often admits no dissent. The media, the government, the universities all pay at least lip service, if not full full-throated homage, to the dogmatic belief that climate change is largely caused by man’s use of fossil fuels and that governments must act immediately to end carbon dioxide emissions before our planet is destroyed. Dissenters are called pseudo-scientists or “deniers”.
This is totally unscientific. Climate crusaders will insist that the science has been completed and that there is now a consensus. But there is much that scientists do not understand about the climate and stifling dissent only ensures the continuation of that ignorance.
And now to the lockdown.
Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College London released a paper predicting half a million deaths in the UK from Covid-19. This is usually “the science” that we hear so much about in our current predicament.
But what about the differing research of scientists such as Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University; John Ioannidis, Jay Bhattacharya, and Michel Levitt of Stanford University; Sucharit Bhakdi of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz; Karol Sikora of the University of Buckingham; Knut Wittkowski of The Rockefeller University; Hugh Pennington of the University of Aberdeen, and many others?
On what grounds are they ignored while Ferguson’s predictions are taken into serious consideration?
As Gupta recently admitted, Ferguson’s predictions were plausible, given the information that was available at the time, but they were on the exaggerated end of plausible. They were but one of many possible outcomes and there simply wasn’t enough data to make an accurate prediction.
But the government put total faith in the most apocalyptic model — and called it “the science”. And the public has overwhelmingly put its faith in it too. Dissent has been suppressed (YouTube has been particularly censorious) and lockdown sceptics are treated as if they’re in favour of old people dying.
This is another example of foolish faith in an intolerant religion. Maybe we’re so occupied with diversionary activity — Netflix, Instagram, Porn, Tinder, alcohol, coffee, drugs, sourdough starters — that we’re leaving critical thinking to others. Thinking is hard. Indeed, the only real opposition to the government is that it didn’t follow ‘the science’ well enough or fast enough. Almost no one is questioning ‘the science’ itself.
But as former UK Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption said in a recent BBC interview, critical thinking is a responsibility for every single one of us:
‘I am not a scientist but it is the right and duty of every citizen to look and see what the scientists have said and to analyse it for themselves and to draw common sense conclusions.
We are all perfectly capable of doing that and there’s no particular reason why the scientific nature of the problem should mean we have to resign our liberty into the hands of scientists. We all have critical faculties and it’s rather important, in a moment of national panic, that we should maintain them.’
It’s good advice. The last thing we need in this crisis is to genuflect before the false god of “settled science”.