When ‘Science’ becomes the New Religion, it is time for heresy.
The political masquerade of Scientism is killing science.
One of the greatest inventions of the Enlightenment was ignorance — i.e., the idea that there were some important things worth knowing that could not be found in the canonical texts of the dominant Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) — at least as might be interpreted by the Priests who were the only people capable of reading them.
Without the concept of ignorance, there is no Scientific Revolution. There is no Scientific Method. There is no Science (Firestein 2012).
Although religion and science are both systems of belief, the fundamental distinction between them is the basis for that belief. Science is evidence-based, and thus subject to constant revision and falsification. In contrast, religion is faith-based. That is, religion demands belief in the absence of evidence.
Because there are questions that science cannot and does not attempt to answer, religion and science are complementary systems of belief, although they are often positioned as competitive. In secular societies, such as the United States, the separation of religious beliefs from the institutions of governance necessitates the elevation of science as an alternative system of belief, because in the absence of a system of belief, governance is impossible.
Thus, in times of crisis, when ignorance and uncertainty are at an apex and the citizenry is clamoring for an alleviation of their anxieties, we often hear “We should listen to the scientists!”
Who could object to such a reasonable suggestion?
Except that in such times, there is typically no shortage of scientists willing to abandon the principles of doubt, skepticism, and ignorance on which their profession is founded, and adopt instead the confidence of an idealogue.
Presidential election years are often such times.
For example, several groups of scientists have published characteristically un-scientific political endorsements of nominees in the upcoming US Presidential Election. One of them is a group of eighty-one Nobel Laureates who, according to their undated open letter, are all American citizens recognized by the prestigious Nobel prize committee for their contributions in Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine, and “wholeheartedly endorse Biden,” because “he has consistently demonstrated his willingness to listen to experts, his understanding of the value of international collaboration in research, and his respect for the contribution that immigrants make to the intellectual life of our country.”
Another is the Editorial Board of the highly-regarded New England Journal of Medicine who took the unprecedented step of issuing their own political endorsement in October 2020, by publishing the accusation that “Instead of relying on expertise, the (Trump) administration has turned to uninformed ‘opinion leaders’ and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.”
While the Editors are not specific about making public policy recommendations that might have improved upon COVID policy response, they estimate the “number of additional American lives lost because of weak and inappropriate government policies, is at least in the tens of thousands… .”
In the spirit of “listen to the scientists,” several other scientific groups have offered up more detailed critiques of existing policy responses. Among them are the signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration, who levy specific and scathing critiques of lockdown policies, and another group of medical practitioners calling themselves America’s Frontline Doctors, who claim “We exist to counter the massive disinformation campaign regarding the pandemic.” In contrast to NEJM, however, neither of these groups of experts are trying to persuade Americans on how they should vote.
In their political endorsement, the NEJM reference China’s COVID policy response as an example to emulate in the United States. Although the success of these policies in China is difficult to measure, given the changing definition of what constitutes a COVID case, several scientific sources corroborate the fact that the Chinese lockdown was effective at limiting COVID transmission. Presumably, a Chinese-style lockdown is one of the measures the NEJM endorse as capable of saving thousands of American lives.
Nonetheless, the NEJM fails to acknowledge that the Chinese-style lockdowns are concomitant with Chinese-style human rights abuses. According to an interview published in the journal Health and Human Rights, “China’s government initially withheld basic information about the coronavirus from the public, underreported cases of infection, downplayed the severity of the infection, and dismissed the likelihood of transmission between humans. Authorities detained people for reporting on the epidemic on social media and internet users for “rumor-mongering,” censored online discussions of the epidemic, and curbed media reporting. In early January, Li Wenliang, a doctor at a hospital in Wuhan where infected patients were being treated, was summoned by police for ‘spreading rumors’ after he warned of the new virus in an online chatroom. He died in early February from the virus.”
Further, TIME magazine quotes Thomas Bollyky, the director of the Global Health Program at the Washington D.C.-based Council on Foreign Relations, as saying “No other nation (western or otherwise) can or should seek to replicate China’s actions. The disregard for civil liberties and human rights that the government has demonstrated in its quarantine and censorship activities are inseparable from the policies and actions of the government that contributed to the outbreak in the first place.” Only by ignoring both the enormous cost of a Chinese-style COVID response and dissenting voices in the scientific community about the long-term efficacy of such an approach, can the NEJM assert that Chinese governance systems might be suitable for the United States.
Neither is Singapore a model of humanitarian mitigation measures, despite expressions of NEJM admiration. According to an article published in OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology, “part of their initial success on the COVID-19 confinement is attributed to the dexterous political climate, which allows their government space to quickly institute drastic measures, which is near impossible in other democracies.”
In Singapore, the immigrant populations that the Nobel signatories presumably deem worthy of “respect” have been especially abused by the COVID response policies. While the Singapore strategy was an exercise in class-based sacrifice, South Korea forced removal of “asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic patients” from their homes, into isolation “at community treatment centers — often dormitories for training institutions of South Korean companies transformed into centers used for monitoring patients without utilizing acute care resources.”
Holding up autocratic, East Asian countries as exemplars of COVID-19 mitigation for the United States is not an indictment of the current US administration, nor a basis for allocating political power to an insular group of selected American scientists. It is a distortion of science for the purpose of electioneering, and the Editors should be ashamed.
In contrast to the distorted views espoused in the NEJM endorsement, scientists in other publications long ago described a more constructive set of criteria for evaluating pandemic response policies. For example, a 2006 article in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism suggests three:
- Do available data or experience suggest the measure will work?
- Is the disease mitigation measure feasible?
- What are the possible unintended adverse societal consequences?
By contrast, when evaluating different COVID policy proposals and endorsing the political leaders who promulgate them, the NEJM attempts to rewrite its own publication history.
For example, a March 2020 article in the NEJM claimed “the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate (CFR) of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968) rather than a disease similar to SARS or MERS” — a prediction that proved prescient, given that early estimates of the COVID CFR have later been discovered to be “unusually exaggerated.”
And, in making their endorsement, the NEJM overlooked the controversy surrounding their own April 2020 article that claimed, “In many cases, the desire for widespread masking is a reflexive reaction to anxiety over the pandemic” — an assertion made all the more interesting by the June 2020 follow-up in which the same authors attempt to rewrite their original article by stating “We understand that some people are citing our Perspective article (published on April 1) as support for discrediting widespread masking. In truth, the intent of our article was to push for more masking, not less.”
How embarrassing for these authors, who diminish their original well-reasoned scientific analysis to the state of a morbid April Fool’s joke, when their own anxiety causes them to later write “Universal masking helps to prevent such people from spreading virus-laden secretions, whether they recognize that they are infected or not.”
While the implication is that subsequent studies caused these scientists to change their minds, the data they cite as definitive is from a 3 April 2020 Nature article that found there was “no significant reduction in detection in aerosols” for influenza and “for rhinovirus, there were no significant differences between detection of virus with or without face masks, both in respiratory droplets and in aerosols.” The only benefit to surgical masks the study discovered was a reduction in the dispersion of ordinary coronavirus droplets, suggesting that universal surgical mask mandates might reduce the risk of being spit on in public.
The Editor’s political exhortations, to the contradiction of evidence, is not the product of science. It is a political ideology masquerading as science, to the advantage of the High Priests of the New Religion — the Editors themselves.
Leveraging the institutions and credentials of science for the political exploitation of doubt is not science.
It is scientism.
“Scientism” (Hayek, 1942) no longer concerns itself with evidence, because it must become pre-occupied with authority. In the journal Religious Studies, Mikhael Stenmark (1997) writes that “at least some forms of scientism seem to offer a substitute for traditional religions and thus present science itself as a religion or world view.”
When science is held to be the only pathway with access to reality, or to contain everything that is worth knowing about reality, then everything “beyond the reach of scientists cannot count as knowledge” (Stenmark 1997).
Under these conditions, epistemic questions such as “How do we know what we believe?” can only be resolved by the new High Priests of Scientism and the internal, political deliberations that adjudicate our beliefs. In the case, the Scientific Method will devolve into opinion contests, personal attacks, and power struggles, rather than evidence.
Under such conditions, the Enlightenment is undone, the “scientists” shed their intellectual humility, and debate becomes preoccupied with who belongs, which opinions “count,” and what penalties of ex-communication will be levied against those who fail to show adequate deference to their Scientism superiors.
In a secular form of government like that imagined by the Constitution of the United States, in which religion is specifically excluded from government institutions, we must guard against the danger that “science” becomes refashioned like a Trojan Horse, usurping the mechanisms of secular governance and inserting Scientism as the New Religion of the techno-bureaucracy.
Currently, those safeguards are entrusted to the institutions and organizations of science itself, so that the same communities entrusted with the apparatus of our evidence-based beliefs are the very people who will profit from its exploitation for political, economic, or ideological gains.