Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados Today.
“Such subjects of thought furnish not sufficient employment in solitude, but require the company and conversation of our fellow-creatures, to render them a proper exercise for the mind.” – David Hume, Of Essay-Writing
by Adrian Sobers
I open with a point made by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, “Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only saying what its job is. And the more scientific a man is, the more (I believe) he would agree with me that this is the job of science — and a very useful and necessary job it is too.” If John and Jane Public had a dollar for every time political leaders sought to reassure them during the pandemic that they were “following the science” or their policy decisions were “backed by science”, that bounty would suffice to fund the most ambitious of stimulus packages.
The pandemic has unmasked some things and magnified others. The politicization of science has been magnified to the point that, if science were personified, the poor soul would want to come down from their pedestal. Part of the problem is how the word itself is used, namely, as a trump card. Deployed in that manner, “science” becomes a front for the self-refuting ideology of scientism. It is used to suggest that what follows (or preceded), “backed by science” should not be questioned, disputed or dissented from. This, of course, is complete nonsense.
In What the Pandemic Has Taught Us About Science, Matt Ridley offers a timely reminder that “Science is a flawed and all too human affair, but it can generate timeless truths, and reliable practical guidance, in a way that other approaches cannot.”
We do not often (like to?) think of using words like flawed or human in the same sentence as science (especially of the “settled” variety); but both words belong. The authors of Calling Bulls–t: The Art of Skepticism in a Data Driven World, make a similar point.
“For all that it does, however, it would be a mistake to conclude that science, as practiced today, provides an unerring conduit to the heart of ultimate reality. Rather, science is a haphazard collection of institutions, norms, customs, and traditions that have developed by trial and error over the past several centuries. These observations do not demean science, but they do suggest that there may be value to lifting it down from its pedestal so that we can inspect it and evaluate its performance.”
That is exactly what we seek to do here (we’ll put it back on the pedestal afterwards; promise). There is plenty of BS in science. Some innocent, some by design, but all tied to a basic motivating factor for homo sapiens: recognition.
The authors note that scientists “act from the same human motivations as everyone else. This doesn’t mean that scientists are irresponsible, untrustworthy, or unethical; it just means that they have other interests beyond the pure quest for understanding.”
We could say of scientists what the Merovingian (The Matrix Reloaded) told his goons after seeing blood drip from Neo’s hand, “He’s just a man.” As Stuart Ritchie notes in Science Fictions, “Because scientists focus so much on trying to persuade their peers, which is the way they get those studies through peer review and onward to publication [securing recognition], it’s all too easy for them to disregard the real object of science: getting us closer to the truth.” Never mind the lily white coats, the scientific process “can become permeated by very human flaws.”
It can also be tainted by political incentives. In Apollo’s Arrow, Nicholas A. Christakis provides a recent example. The coronavirus’s genetic code, 29,903 letters long, was sequenced by Chinese scientists at Fudan University and released to the public on January 11, 2020. Their work paved the way for developing diagnostic tests. “The next day,” writes Christakis, “the Chinese government, in an absurd move reflecting the desire to control scientific information, shut down the lab that had done this important work for ‘rectification.’”
It is for these reasons and realities, that in the midst of an increasingly politicized and polarizing pandemic, we should take science off of its pedestal.