Science and Soft Totalitarianism

Scientific American‘s endorsement of Joe Biden isn’t terribly scientific or American.

One would be hard-pressed to find a scientist who has shed more light on the limitations of scientific and medical research than Dr. John Ioannidis, C.F. Rehnborg Chair in Disease Prevention and Professor of Medicine, of Epidemiology and Population Health at Stanford University.

While Ioannidis’ work has acutely demonstrated the increasing unreliability of large swaths of peer-reviewed scientific research, the SARS-COV2 pandemic has helped to manifest an even darker framework surrounding the present conditions of contemporary scientific inquiry. Dr. Andrea Saltelli speaks precisely to this problem, which is the conflation of scientific knowledge with political power, observing that:

The modern model of influence of science and technology on public policies has resulted in a situation where the crisis of the political system and that of science conflate one another–as witnessed by the post-truth, post-facts debates, challenging the arrangements whereby knowledge–in the form of science–and power legitimize one another.

The editorial published in the well-known journal Scientific American is perhaps the most recent incarnation of the admixture of science and politics. The editors begin the essay by offering a rather ground-breaking announcement: “Scientific American has never endorsed a presidential candidate in its 175-year history. This year we are compelled to do so. We do not do this lightly.” The political support of a Joe Biden presidency is equated with “good science” and “following the data.”

What is perhaps most striking about the editorial is its list of overwhelming political objectives in the name of science. Whether or not the authors understand the implications, the logic of the piece delivers a rather significant and damaging blow. However, the damage is not inflicted upon their intended target in the way they assume. Rather, it is the very possibility of scientific inquiry itself that is the true victim. The editors have fundamentally missed the reality before them, which is that the politicization of reason and science does not lead to freedom of thought and discovery. What results, instead, is the absolutization of politics itself.

The protection and flourishing of scientific inquiry that is needed has slipped through the intellectual fingers of Scientific American‘s editors. Generally speaking, scientific or medical conclusions are not as certain as the expert class would like people to believe. The authors presume, and explicitly defend, conclusions which require greater nuance than is either provided or even alluded to. One pertinent example of this can be seen in the editorial’s defense of mask effectiveness. Perhaps it is the case that masks can, and do, protect people from transmitting SARS-COV-2. At the same time, there is a rather strong case to be made that we do have a medical and scientific body of data and knowledge that disputes the current narrative regarding mask effectiveness. Even the World Health Organization has admitted to a lack of substantive evidence for the effectiveness for masks. Additionally, a 2006 study on the effectiveness of mitigation measures for controlling an influenza pandemic concluded that there is rather scant data that would even support the effectiveness of N95 masks outside of a hospital setting. There is good reason to support the counterpoint to the editorial, which is that the effective capacity of a mask appears to range from rather insignificant to moderate in preventing the transmission of a respiratory virus such as SARS-COV2.

While this specific reference to masks is worth unpacking in greater detail, we should not lose sight of the larger issue at hand. Returning to Ioannidis’ own meta-research, it has been repeatedly shown why scientific certainties are so hard to come by. Breakthrough discoveries that move the needle of progress are extremely difficult and rare. Yet, the real potential of scientific knowledge can only exist in a regime that neither seeks to politicize reality, nor the proper objects of the various scientific disciplines. Oddly enough, the editors of Scientific American have not shown that science and data are going to be protected under a Biden presidency. What they have revealed is that science will be allowed to affirm only those conclusions that the progressive political doctrine pre-approves.

Speaking precisely to this ceremony of political correctness, the philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford wonders, “At what point do the ceremonies of political correctness become a mere façade, a set of dogmas that nobody actually believes, but which make a useful instrument of social control?”

We need to push back against the prevailing narrative surrounding science, which has too readily become a “useful instrument of social control.” What is ultimately needed is the recovery of a practice of scientific inquiry grounded in humility and the affirmation that truth is something we come to discover. Science is not merely a tool for foisting our own will upon reality. To echo Ioannidis and Saltelli, science will recover its true aim if, and only if, it becomes capable of transcending politics.

Brian Jones is a Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

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