The Blindness of “Following the Science”
“Many Public figures have been using the phrase “follow the science” in the recent crisis. Such phrases ignore how science is a tool and does not offer any way of discerning a goal towards which we should follow science.”
One of the mantras we have heard ad nauseum since the beginning of the Covid situation, has been that we need to “follow the science”. This phrase is repeated over and over by politicians, “experts” and celebrities. The phrase must be expressed with a certain level of condescension, implying strongly that your ideological or political enemy is not ‘following the science” and that if he did “follow the “science” then he would naturally agree with your political position. We have even heard certain political parties smugly call themselves the “party of science”. Now we could argue all day long over who is “following the science”, and people do, pointing fingers at each other and going down the dreadful line of clickbait headlines citing a new “study” which suggests how their position is the one “following the science”, but to do that is already to miss the forest for the trees, because it is actually, simply, and dare I say technically impossible to only ‘follow the science”.
This question this raises is far more important than just surrounding the current Covid situation, but it is rather the sign of the general blind materialism which rules the common discourse. We are wowed by the scientific priestly caste. One need only see the type of reverence the media placed around Dr. Fauci in the US. But like I said, despite our officials constant repetition of this mantra, it is impossible to “follow science”, at least not at the outset. When Science is doing what it is supposed to do, it is an accurate and quantifiable description of phenomena at a certain level of reality. Because phenomena happen in predictable patterns, then once you have described a phenomena accurately enough, it can be possible to reproduce the same phenomena within similar conditions.
Think of the scientific process as producing something like recipe book. Once you have identified something relevant, lets say making a pound cake, then the recipe book will tell you what stuff the cake is made of, and so if you follow a set process using similar quantities of certain raw materials, eggs, flour, etc. and certain amounts of time, they you should be able to reliably produce a phenomena which will recognized, will have the qualities of a “pound” cake. So notice I said, if you follow a set process… which of course seems to suggest that you can in fact ‘follow science”, but there lies the problem and the blind spot which has become so common. You can only “follow the science” once you have identified what it is you care about, what it is you want to do, and what is your hierarchy of priorities within a certain context. Science cannot tell you what is important.
So if you want to kill as many people as efficiently as possible, you can “follow the science” and find the best procedure and tools to do so. If you want to reproduce a nuclear explosion, make people addicted to your product, create an army of robots, then science can possibly help provide a map to accomplishing these measurable goals. But science has no tools whatsoever for telling you what you ‘should do”, what goal you should be aiming for.
Science also cannot tell you what is the reasonable amount of resources you should spend on a certain goal, or what else you should sacrifice to accomplish your goal. If you want to make a pound cake, but you can only get eggs by driving two hours from you house, science has no way of telling you if that is a reasonable thing to do, or if you want that pound cake enough to sacrifice that time and energy to still make it. This blindness has been the source of one of the biggest political clashes since the end of World War 2. “Following science” has provided the means of material excess, comfort and a throw away culture, and now another branch of science, environmental science, is telling us to “follow the science” so to save the environment from the results of the first industrial thrust to :”follow the science”. Science is a tool, and neither of these opposing narratives , neither the reason for the development of industrial civilization and the reason for “green” reductions in energy consumption are scientific in themselves. Both sides simply ‘follow the science” to their desired goals.
This whole question has reached almost absurd levels with the Covid situation. We are constantly told to follow the science, that this or that political decision or mandate is not in fact political, but is mandated by science. At best, this is the naïve proposition of people who are unaware of the frame which motivates their actions, at worst this is a new form of moralizing which wants to pretend its moral stances are as self-evident and provable as 2+2=4. So to be honest, the the goal has sometimes stated, at first we were told we needed to “prevent the medical system from being overwhelmed”, but then the goalpost moved invisibly to “stop people from dying at all costs” to finally “stop this disease from being spread to anyone at all”. Despite moving the goalpost, authorities continued to use the same message, “follow the science” while pretending that the goal is continually obvious, even though it is obviously changing, and this goal is just plainly there in the science itself.
Of course if you have followed my channel, you have bumped into this problem over and over. It is the problem in that one discussion I had with Bret Weinstein, where science was posited as the top of the hierarchy of meaning, the blindspot in my discussion with Rationality Rules, where moral arguments were made as if their ultimate purpose were evident, while simultaneously being incapable of framing, naming or even seeing that purpose before invoking this or that example or this or that consequence. They are in a different way than we usually mean it, blinded by science, honestly thinking they are objective though blind to their presuppositions. Thinking they are objective and scientific, they take their unseen presuppositions as self evident truths which people all with good will should be able to see. And so those of us who question this or that moral position can find ourselves in dangerous situations, because if one takes their point of view as self evident, this inevitably means that those who do not share this perspective are doing so out of ill-will or with purposeful and utilitarian denial of “Science”. That is why one always hears a note of contempt every time a political or public figure says “Follow the science” or when they suggest that their political opponents refuse to “follow the science”. Accusing someone of not following science is akin to accusing them of breaking a divine command. Science of course is objective, non-ideological and so to not follow it is to go against reality itself, it is a sin, properly speaking for those who think like this. Of course all the while, the inquisitor is hiding or unaware of the true purpose of his actions. That is why I say there is imminent danger right now.
As for the reality of safety versus danger, saving lives versus providing opportunity, normal societies have always had to find ways to balance these extremes. It is not easy, that is true, but this is an inevitable discussion that we should be able to have without those who want to have this discussion being accused as “science deniers” or as insensitive and evil. If the goal of human society was only to save lives, we would not go rafting or mountain climbing or even get on the highway. We know that intuitively, but despite that we are suddenly paralyzed by the strange illusion that safety and protecting our bodies is the only value that matters. Of course it would be absurd to say that it does not matter, of course it matters, we should care for the physical wellness of those around us, but it cannot be our only guiding value, safety cannot be accomplished at the expense of every other value which constitute the human experience, values like community, exchange, adventure, risk-taking and especially worship.
Every time you get into a car, you risk your life. At every moment you are in a car, you could die in a few seconds, and this is no way in your control because you are also at the mercy of other drivers. In the US, the rate of car deaths is around 12.4 per 100000 per year, but there are also 4 million people seriously injured. Road crashes are in fact the leading cause of death in people between 1 and 54 years old. Now we could reduce the death and injury rate of car crashes very easily. We could halt all private cars from going on the road. Done. Or we could reduce the speed on highways to 20 miles an hour. I bet that would bring the car death toll to nearly zero. It would work, but we are not going to do it. Why not? Am I saying that getting to my hair appointment is more important than people dying?! We intuitively understand that in order to live our lives we incur risks of dying. Of course car crashes and infectious diseases are not the same, and we certainly need to care for the weak an elderly, but my point is rather to feature our willingness to accept the constant risk of dying at any second, every day, and intuitively knowing that safety cannot become the only value which drives our society. And we must be very weary of those who refuse to even have the discussion, insisting that the very discussion is immoral because it does not “follow the science. We have to be more aware of what a human being is and not let that go to the side in a society built on the single value of safety or security.