On "Trusting Science"
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
The increasingly ubiquitous call for the people to merely “trust science” as a sovereign, objective informant to political and social policies has reached a fever pitch during the covid-19 Pandemic. What sense can anyone truly make of this ambiguous claim? There seems to me two possible ways of understanding what it means to “trust science,” each of which appear unfounded upon further examination.
The first understanding of trusting science is the call to heed and follow the consensus of the scientific community, at-large, especially in regard to policy recommendations. This understanding must appeal solely to two blatant logical fallacies. The first is an appeal to the authority of the scientists as a trustworthy basis for their recommendations. The second is an appeal to the consensus of this group, suggesting that, since a majority agrees about political and social measures, their recommendations are necessarily valid. The problem is that neither of these appeals actually engages with the “scientific community’s” research, evidence, and claims—the area of their expertise. That is not to say that the recommendations of scientists are not informed by their research findings and empirical evidence, but that the public is not invited to read, analyze, and critique their studies. It is evident that much of today’s science is made inaccessible to the public through paywalls, excessive jargon, highly specialized equipment, and barriers to academic institutions. To trust that their research does in fact support certain conclusions or recommendations merely an alleged “consensus” propagated via media and by word of mouth alone, is intellectually irresponsible.
The second way of understanding this call to “trust science” goes a bit further than the appeal to authority; it attempts an appeal to the work of the scientists themselves, though not directly. The thought is that, assuming that scientists are correct and trustworthy on empirical, scientific matters, we should extend their authority to other realms of thought. This is born of the modern notion of the superiority of material causal explanations of the world—though empirical methodologies and their practitioners have no special tools for devising this metaphysical assumption from reality. As Aldous Huxley explained in his essay Science, Liberty, and Peace, “Unfortunately some scientists, many technicians and most consumers of gadgets have lacked the time and the inclination to examine the philosophical foundations and background of the sciences. Consequently, they tend to accept the world picture implicit in the theories of science as a complete and exhaustive account of reality.” On this premise, we have elevated practitioners of science to an almost God-like station, by extending their conclusions and methodologies to other social and political matters which inductive empirical inquiry holds little water, which has resulted in restrictions like “stay-at-home” orders, which have been instituted in the name of combatting the spread of coronavirus.
It is certainly the purview of scientists to study a virus itself, describe how it spreads, and even predict the social consequences of allowing the disease to spread. However, none of this empirical work concerns itself with value judgments about whether these consequences are inherently good or bad. On the contrary, the realm of political and social organization must concern itself with ultimately non-empirical questions of metaphysics and ethics, questions about where value lies and how we ought to act accordingly. In the case of coronavirus, empirical findings have nothing to say about how we ought to weigh the likelihood of the virus spreading and killing a percentage of the population against political imperatives for freedom and order. Science cannot establish what the ends and purpose of the political community ought to be, whether that be the protection of the people, the maximization of their liberties, or the realization of a certain ethical code.
Certainly, scientists are entitled to fuse their research findings with their own philosophical and metaphysical conceptions of the world—indeed, it can be hoped that all people use what resources and experience they have to devise meaning and truth from the world—but when doing so, we must acknowledge that they step outside of the realm of their expertise and cannot be considered authorities on the matter. It is not my purpose here to show that any recommendations of scientists are morally or factually wrong, but to show that the call to blindly “trust scientists,” without demanding engagement with their empirical expertise, is both insufficient and politically dangerous, since they have no special claim to the answers of these complex moral and social questions.
Moreover, both conceptions of the call to “trust science” rest on the faulty assumption that scientific work stands exalted and alone as an objective and benevolent good that is impenetrable to political and social forces of greed, power, deception, and error. History alone tells us that this has never been the case. However, in an age when science has become more specialized and resource-intensive—in the technologies used and in achieving access its institutions—we cannot pretend its products are immune to the political and social conditions in which it is developed. The research institutes and universities which today produce the majority of scientific scholarship, through the training and employment of its experts, require extensive financial and social capital to subsist and grow, indicating the difficulty of regarding scientific entities as objective participants in our complex modern society.
Again, none of this itself denies the validity or claims of particular scientific works or doctrines, but it demands that we develop a higher standard of examination and evaluation for scientific institutions and its practitioners, pushing back against the notion of blind faith in its merits and directives. As C.S. Lewis stated in his essay entitled "Is Progress Possible?", “That (blind faith) is how tyrannies come in. 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.” In our age, our willingness to endlessly extend scientific authority to political and social matters, ignorant of their inherent dependence upon and intertwinement with these relations, cannot be rationally or morally defended.