Every big idea that works is marked by simplicity, by clarity. You can understand it when you hear it, and you can explain it to people. Social Security: Retired workers receive a public pension to help them through old age. Medicare: People over 65 can receive taxpayer-funded health care. Welfare: If you have no money and cannot support yourself, we will help as you get back on your feet.
These things are clear. I understand them. You understand them. The president’s health-care plan is not clear, and I mean that not only in the sense of “he hasn’t told us his plan.” I mean it in terms of the voodoo phrases, this gobbledygook, this secret language of government that no one understands”single payer,” “public option,” “insurance marketplace exchange.” No one understands what this stuff means, nobody normal.
And when normal people don’t know what the words mean, they don’t say to themselves, “I may not understand, but my trusty government surely does, and will treat me and mine with respect.” They think, “I can’t get what these people are talking about. They must be trying to get one past me. So I’ll vote no.” — Peggy Noonan, WSJ
Well, doesn’t that just hand a heap of ammunition to the left, for whom the problem with the right is that it’s anti-intellectual, anti-scientific? “I don’t understand it, so I hate it, I’ll kill it.” That’s the rap on the rubes of the Republic. Nobody normal understands what the public option means? Caveman think. Right?
Here’s what I think. Noonan wants to underscore that science will never be our public language, because science never can be any people’s public language. Even when public — and private — life is apparently inundated with science. We see this powerfully in the way therapy has been progressively medicalized; everyone knows their doses, kids and their parents fluently rattle off their prescriptions, etc. The health-safety-and-convenience approach to sex is all science, epitomized in those c-y-a Yaz ads with the hired normal girl talking frankly to her peers about the real risks attendant upon birth control that eliminates your period while you’re at it. And yet, even our deep degree of medicalization leads us, as Noonan alludes, toward a discourse of incantation, of magic words. Messy talk therapy has its revenge on antiseptic medicalism. Even on scientific ground, the public learns to utter the right code words of a never more than artificial language. Naming our drugs is not to know them. Nobody wants the fine print on the back of those prescription drug ads to be large enough to read. Hand-waving comes along with the health, safety, and convenience: a board of experts has deemed the risk reasonable; now gimme the cure. Noonan’s voodoo buzzwords can be known, even understood, but not possessed. They name things we have no hand in. They are for, but not of, the people. The possession of nature that the scientific knowledge of nature is intended to afford can only be democratized so far. Second- and third-hand knowledge confers little ownership.
None of which is to say that science isn’t useful or good, or that the possession of political practice which generates a knowledge of political life (note the arrow flowing in the opposite direction) can’t itself be transformed into a dysfunctional system of incantation and alienation. It is to say that the vision of the future in which science sweeps away the public stupidity of politics will disappoint those who do not expect it to be replaced by a public stupidity of science. Matthew B. Crawford has shown how the rise of technology has accompanied a serious fall in manual competence. The complement to this point would be a showing that the rise of techno-politics not only erodes public political knowledge but fails to replace it with anything near the full measure of empowering ownership that justified, if you look closely, the ‘modern scientific project’. The key to the virtue of the scientific method was its supposed democratization of the power and independence conferred by knowledge: method is great because it is standard and repeatable, with reliably replicable results, by anyone anywhere. The analogy with custom is direct: the basic rules of living are good because wherever we are, we can rely on their presence and operability too. And this was the power of scientific method over the endurance of custom, which could only be clung to, finally, for sentimental reasons.
But the democratic promise of the Enlightenment scientific method has been lost. Scientists create knowledge most often sold to private parties who manufacture products, like drugs, of which we can only partake as passive, ignorant recipients of that knowledge. They are empowered and enriched; we enjoy, at best, a mitigation of symptoms. Even if scientists posted the method behind their discoveries online, acceding to the full transparency which power and profit reject, that method would remain impenetrable to the public. Even if permitted by law, nobody can learn how to make Paxil in their kitchen, the better to face the day and master their fate and destiny. The expiration of patents and the inevitability of generic drugs is cold comfort here. Medical science is fundamentally different from Enlightenment science, in this important respect: medicine is administered, scientific knowledge is not. The scientific method promised democratic empowerment, and on that basis posed a legitimate challenge to democratic politics. The medicalization of science, in its turn away from the mastery of the natural world to the mastery of the human world, promises centralized administration, posing a challenge to politics of all kinds, and a far less legitimate one at that.