This will not be another COVID think piece. I spent time writing a piece about COVID last year and I don't feel like revisiting the topic even if my views have evolved since then. The pandemic has become...boring. What an odd state of affairs.
Anyways, I want to discuss Science TM. It isn't an "institution" per se, but it is clear that it has become invoked as an almost divine figure: "Trust the SCIENCE!!!" So what is this "SCIENCE", truly, and how does it interact with us?
Science as Granter of Legitimacy
Perhaps the single most important aspect of the cult of scientism is that the stamp of Science confers legitimacy. It says "this belief has been verified by a method that is held by society to be as close to 'objective' as possible." It goes beyond our subjective opinions and establishes objective fact. Or so it claims. The ability to claim that one's beliefs go beyond one's own subjective feelings and instead reflect objective reality is a powerful weapon. And so you see a variety of political debates devolve into a pair of utter dorks trying to see who can post the most shiny graphs supposedly supporting their preferred policy.
Science therefore is presented as being either non-political or somehow "extra-political": external to debates over what is "good"/"bad" or "right"/wrong. Of course, it cannot grant legitimacy if it is embedded in politics: that is the realm of subjective values of course! The fatal flaw is that Science IS political.
Science IS Political
"Why is the 'S' in 'Science' capitalized?" Well...
It is critical to understand the difference between various scientific methodologies and Science. The scientific method presents a way for us to engage systematically with the world around us, testing hypotheses and attempting to better understand the world we exist in. The method may be flawed or incomplete/insufficient to understand the world, but that isn't the same way as being political.
Science, on the other hand, is invoked. "What does the Science say" is not a meaningful commentary on the scientific method but rather an attempt to invoke a supposedly objective thing to justify one's political beliefs. Science is an institution in the sense that we can understand the journals, universities, research institutions, etc as having various interests beyond "discovering objective facts about the World." In that sense, its interests are political. The scientific method may exist as a pure idea, but every single practitioner of the arcane arts of science is embedded in the Political. They are part of society, incapable of escaping it. They have their own values, etc.
Of course what this means is that every single scientist has a Map of the World, shaped not only by purely "rational" attempts to empirically understand the world, but also by their values and identity:
I already have my Truth before I encounter a new event. I may not be consciously aware of this, but there is information that can be assimilated and information that must be rejected. If I fail to properly curate my experience to fit my preexisting map, I will fall into existential crisis.
And let us not pretend that aggregating a bunch of scientists into an institution like a journal or university will somehow make them "non-political." Publication bias alone is sufficient to demonstrate that journals are just as political as any individual scientist. And this applies, of course, to both "mainstream" or "prestigious" journals as well as "heterodox" journals where supposedly "off-limits" ideas are discussed. Sometimes those ideas are off-limits because they are not compatible with the Maps of the dominant institutions; but sometimes those ideas are off-limits because they're stupid. You must be careful to distinguish between them.
Oversocialization and the Dominant Maps
Oversocialization acts in two ways when it comes to this topic:
Individuals throughout society are taught to see Science as the objective fact-revealer as described earlier.
The problem of science being constrained by our Maps is amplified when large segments of the population (including scientists) have very similar Maps (more on this below)
The Problem of "Consensus" (or the False God of Democracy redux)
One of the funniest and most piercing take on why consensus should not be considered sacrosanct comes from, of all places, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia:
There is a litany of historical examples of when consensus not only ignored correct findings, but actively fought against them (for a variety of reasons, some political and some legitimately non-political):
The problem with consensus reflects the problems with democracy broadly, and in particular the same problems that underlie "nosy preferences" in economics: we don't make our decisions in a vacuum. Our decisions are impacted by our observations of the decisions of others. Is it any surprise that reproducibility crises proliferate throughout the sciences? What happens when an entire field of "hard science" follows one expert...only to find out the expert was wrong? What, you thought reproducibility crises only hit the "soft sciences"/the fields pretending to be "scientific" (like economics)?
Why do People F*cking Love Science?
The appeal of Science sits, at its core, in its promise to be the chief means to make the world a better place. In other words, Science provides a toolkit that allows us to reduce suffering in the world and increase the freedom of millions, perhaps billions, of people to authentically express themselves and enjoy autonomy.
You may not agree with this vision. I am not saying it is correct. But this is how I would characterize the "I F*cking Love Science" crowd. Yes, part of it is that it's "cool": shiny rockets and colorful animals catch our eye. But there is a deeper sentiment there. Science is invoked so fervently because it is a promise. Science presents a covenant to the people: "practice my methods and I will give you a better world." If that sounds like a statement of religious faith to you, that's because it is. Science did not eliminate dogma, it replaced a previous dogma with its own.
This isn't a call to abandon the scientific method; rather, it is a call to be skeptical of the "goods" of innovation, and to be humble when we claim "knowledge" about the world. To no longer invoke Science as an idol, but rather to understand it properly as a single important, albeit insufficient, set of methods to understand the world and provide information and means to establish a society that is Good, however we define it.
I hope you all enjoyed. As always, if you did, like the post and join the email list as it helps me a lot and you’ll stay caught up with all of my posts.
If you want to support me, please consider a paid subscription. Thanks!