VSOVID-19 has reignited America’s “science wars”. Many Americans are skeptical of the effectiveness of lockdowns and masks and resist mandatory vaccines. In response, Vice President Biden pledged to “Follow the Science”. For many, the pandemic is another sign of a general “crisis of truth”.
Historian Steven Shapin is doubtful. Writing in late 2019, Shapin observed that the evidence for the crisis is still the same: “climate change denial, anti-vaccine sentiment, and various forms of anti-evolutionary thinking.” Shapin finds these views “deplorable”, but says they are too limited to be taken as evidence of a universal distrust of science. After all, most people accept most scientific claims without a second thought.
What makes these three numbers special? On the one hand, everyone counts for non-scientists. Evolution challenges deeply held religious beliefs. A Green New Deal would disrupt daily life and work. Vaccines bite our bodies. Lockdowns shut down businesses and prevent kids from playing with friends. Quantum mechanics and the laws of thermodynamics don’t affect us, so they don’t start wars on Twitter. As Shapin puts it, “contested science is science that seems worth contesting”.
Furthermore, each of these questions is intimately linked to public policy. In his 2019 study, The crisis of expertise, Gil Eyal describes the relationship between science and politics as a three-lane highway. In the left-most fast lane, politicians make swift decisions in reaction to unpredictable and swift events. Slow vehicles on the right represent open “pure” science, laboratories and universities where scientists study and theorize in the hope that the truth will eventually surface through the give and take of experts and experiments. The middle lane is the domain of “regulatory” or “political” science. He doesn’t have the luxury of being open; he cannot wait for the long term. When disaster strikes, political leaders drag their experts into the fast lane and demand answers now. All the stakes of our “scientific wars” occupy the middle lane, where science is put at the service of politics.
It’s a clue. What is happening, Shapin suggests, is not a crisis of truth but a crisis of institutions. Science has fulfilled the Baconian dream of “inserting scientific knowledge into the constitution and exercise of power and ensuring a broad appreciation that science plays this role”. Restless and withdrawn into “governmentality and commerce”, science has succeeded in shaping a “military-industrial-academic complex”. As science moved out of the Ivory Tower into boardrooms and bureaucracies, its raison d’être changed. Science was no longer admired for revealing the Truth; science is good because it is good for making bombs and smartphones. But the success of science comes at a price. Business doesn’t exist for truth, so “why should we expect science rooted in business to have a direct claim on the notion of truth?” Politicians lie, so why should we expect government science to have a wedge on the truth? By mingling with suspicious institutions, science itself has become suspicious. Science is contested because it has successfully established itself in institutions that are still contested. Detached from pure “Sacred” research, science has had to abandon “the traditional claim of the Sacred to the Truth”.
In short, the politicization of science is a by-product of the scientization of politics. As Eyal observes, this is an ironic result. The original purpose of the post-WWII technocracy and the Kennedy-era rule of the best and the brightest who would offer technical answers to social problems was to purge politics of its uncertainty. Otherwise, science could at least do public relations work for politics. If politicians could “naturalize” political decisions and present them as the deliveries of science, if political decrees could share the brilliance of science with indisputable fact, politics could polish its tarnished legitimacy. The opposite has happened. Science has not elevated politics, but has been drawn into political mud. Science has been polluted by marriage with politics, and marriage has produced monstrous children who are in part science, bureaucracy, and politics.
But the problem with technocracy is more fundamental. Political judgments are judgments about values, goals, purposes, and social good. Scientific experts cannot make such decisions or justify them because, as experts, they aim to be worthless. As soon as they make political decisions, they no longer function as experts, even if they can claim to do so. Despite our best efforts, the late Mary Douglas once wrote, we cannot do without the need for a Solomon: “There must be a Solomon to judge; the evidence does not provide the judgment by itself. Unfortunately, our Solomons don’t want to be Solomons. They appeal to the technocrats precisely because they have given up on the hope that we can agree on goals, purposes and goods politically.
We don’t have a crisis of truth, but something more disturbing: A crisis of confidence in political authorities and in political authority in itself. Our scientific wars are a front of our political wars. The middle lane of political science will not regain or maintain its credibility until no one believes that the cars driving in the left lane know where they are heading and why. And if political leaders want to regain moral authority, they must exercise leadership not as a set of techniques but as a form of wisdom and soul-care, aimed at the common good. In any healthy society, “there must be a Solomon to judge.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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