COVID-19 has reignited America’s “science wars.” Many Americans are skeptical about the efficacy of lockdowns and masks and resistant to mandatory vaccines. In reaction, Vice President Biden has 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 always the same: “climate change denial, anti-vaccine sentiment, and various forms of anti-evolutionary thought.” Shapin finds these views “deplorable,” but says they’re too limited to count as evidence of a universal distrust of science. After all, most people accept most scientific claims without a second thought.
What makes these three issues special? For one thing, each matters to non-scientists. Evolution challenges deeply-held religious beliefs. A Green New Deal would disrupt daily life and work. Vaccines puncture our bodies. Lockdowns shutter businesses and keep children from playing with friends. Quantum mechanics and the laws of thermodynamics don’t affect us, so they don’t spark Twitter wars. As Shapin says, “disputed science is science that seems worth dispute.”
Besides, each of these issues is entwined with public policy. In his 2019 study, The Crisis of Expertise, Gil Eyal portrays the relation of science and politics as a three-lane highway. In the left-most fast lane, politicians make quick decisions in reaction to fast-moving, unpredictable events. The slow vehicles on the right represent open-ended “pure” science, the labs and universities where scientists study and theorize in the expectation that truth will eventually rise to the surface through the give-and-take of experts and experiments. The middle lane is the realm of “regulatory” or “policy” science. It doesn’t have the luxury of open-endedness; it can’t wait out the long run. When disaster strikes, political leaders pull their experts into the fast lane, and demand answers now. All the issues in our “science wars” occupy the middle lane, where science is made to serve politics.
That’s a clue. What’s happening, Shapin suggests, isn’t a Crisis of Truth but a Crisis of Institutions. Science has achieved the Baconian dream of “inserting scientific knowledge into the constitution and exercise of power and securing wide appreciation that science does play that role.” Stirred and folded into “governmentality and commerce,” science has been successful in molding a “military-industrial-academic complex.” As science moved out of the Ivory Tower into board rooms and bureaucracies, its reason for being shifted. Science was no longer admired for revealing Truth; science is good because it’s good at making bombs and smartphones. But the success of science comes at a price. Business doesn’t exist for the sake of Truth, so “why should we expect the science embedded within business to have a straightforward entitlement to the notion of Truth?” Politicians lie, so why should we expect government science to have a corner on Truth? By entangling itself with distrusted institutions, science itself became distrusted. Science is contested because it successfully moved into institutions that are always contested. Detached from “Sacred” pure research, science had to give up “the Sacred’s traditional claim to Truth.”
In short, the politicization of science is a byproduct of the scientization of politics. As Eyal observes, this is an ironic outcome. The original purpose of post-World War II technocracy and the Kennedy-era rule of the best and brightest who would offer technical answers to social problems was to purge politics of its uncertainty. Failing that, science could at least do some PR work for politics. If politicians could “naturalize” policy decisions and present them as the deliverances of Science, if political decrees could share Science’s gleam of Unquestioned Fact, politics could polish up its tarnished legitimacy. The opposite happened. Science didn’t elevate politics, but got pulled into the political muck. Science was polluted by being wed to politics, and the marriage has produced monstrous children that are part science, part bureaucracy, part politics.
But the problem with technocracy is more basic. Political judgments are judgments about values, goals, purposes, and the social good. Scientific experts can’t make such decisions or provide reasons for them because, as experts, they aim to be value-free. As soon as they make political decisions, they aren’t functioning as experts anymore, though they may pretend to. Try as we might, the late Mary Douglas once wrote, we cannot dispense with the need for a Solomon: “There has to 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 technocrats precisely because they’ve abandoned hope that we can agree upon goals and purposes and goods politically.
We don’t have a crisis of truth, but something more worrying: A crisis of confidence in political authorities and in political authority per se. Our science wars are one front of our political wars. The middle lane of policy science will not regain or retain credibility so long as no one believes the careening cars in the left lane know where they are headed and why. And if political leaders are to recover moral authority, they have to exercise leadership not as a set of techniques but as a form of wisdom and soul care, aiming for the common good. In any healthy society, “there has to be a Solomon to judge.”
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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