With the arrival of COVID-19 on the scene, many people have been seduced into believing that they must “listen to the science” and do whatever the self-proclaimed experts tell them to do. That this is charlatanry pure and simple follows from the fact that science says absolutely nothing about what we should or should not do. Those are questions of value, answers to which are provided by intelligent, conscious, and sentient human beings who thereby advance a perspective and promote their own values. Waving a “Follow The Science” flag distinguishes one not as a person of superior intellect and moral constitution but as someone who is easily duped and slings slogans as a way of covering up a lack of understanding—specifically, of how empirical science actually works. To refuse to wave a “Science” flag in support of political policies put forth by persons with specific value-laden agendas does not mean that one is a Luddite or an ignoramus but that one in fact grasps the fundamentally skeptical nature of the scientific enterprise.
All of the ongoing clamor about “the science” reminds me of what I observed while a graduate student in philosophy at Princeton University, where many of my peers seemed to believe that by specializing in areas such as philosophy of science or logic, they distinguished themselves as intellectually superior to those who wallowed in ethics or other forms of value theory. Having earned my undergraduate degree in biochemistry, conducted a good bit of research in organic chemistry, and taught chemistry at two different universities before pursuing graduate studies in philosophy, I was never vulnerable to the prevailing climate of scientism—the elevation of science as a form of religion—for I already knew what science could and could not do.
Science can tell you about the facts. Not all of them at once, and not immediately, but over time, as data is amassed and theories are proposed and rejected or confirmed. Those facts are always tentative, mere hypotheses covering very specific and limited ranges of reality. A theory of physical chemistry, for example, tells one nothing about botany, for the two types of theory cover completely different strata and phenomena. What are believed to be scientific facts are always subject to disconfirmation as more data is accumulated over time and better theories emerge. Apparently recalcitrant data must be somehow explained away by the best confirmed current theory, and when that proves impossible to do, then the theory must, rationally speaking, be abandoned.
Scientists throughout history have clung religiously to their favorite theories (especially those devised by themselves), but eventually, as new generations of scientists emerge, older theories become amenable to revision and even wholesale rejection by researchers not religiously devoted to them. It is not easy to do such a thing because one risks offending the true believers, some of whom may wield extraordinary institutional power and will vehemently resist suggestions to the effect that they are wrong. No one wants to believe that they have devoted their entire professional career to the elaboration of a theory which was false all along.
Philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote a gripping book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), about the social and psychological dynamics involved in theory construction and testing, the nuts and bolts of the scientific enterprise, which, like it or not, is conducted by human beings, with all of their foibles. It seems safe to say that the COVID-19 cheerleaders for The ScienceTM have never read the work of Thomas Kuhn. To refuse to subject data to scrutiny, to decline to reevaluate initial hypotheses, naïvely accepting instead the prescriptions of select gurus on faith, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they were wrong, is to succumb to the charlatanry of scientism, not to champion science.
Not everyone accepts Thomas Kuhn’s rather derogatory depiction of how scientists operate; some prefer to uphold the image of scientists as supremely rational and objective analysts. But even if Kuhn’s picture was an exaggeration—some would say a caricature—even supposing that scientific hypothesis testing were some sort of supremely rational and objective endeavor, what could even the best confirmed and most widely accepted theories of science tell us about what we ought to do? The answer is: absolutely nothing. For a scientific theory’s having survived in tact over a reasonable period of time does not alone dictate anything whatsoever about human action. To suggest otherwise is to commit what is known in philosophy as “the is-ought fallacy,” usually credited to David Hume, an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher with a skeptical bent. Facts are one thing; normative prescriptions for action are quite another. People blinded by science (who I have noticed tend to be those with no higher education in science), those who, like Milgram’s unwitting experimental subjects, accept the decrees of men in white lab coats and decline to examine the values and interests being promoted by them, have simply been duped. A most stunning aspect of this intellectual submission (which has analogues in foreign policy as well) is when subjects are persuaded to believe that conflict of interest is somehow impossible among scientists—despite being possible in every other realm. Why are scientists supposed to be untainted by worldly temptation? Because they are scientists! As though human beings did not choose to become scientists.
To see the distinction between the deliverances of science and the promotion of values, consider one example of a fact widely considered to be true, based on many decades of data collection. Science tells us that smoking will greatly increase the chances of one’s dying prematurely. One’s decision whether to smoke or not, however, depends on one’s values. If you find the pleasure of smoking great enough, then you may simply not care today that at the terminus of your life some number of years will likely have been shaved off as a result of your insistence on smoking. (No guarantee, of course. There are examples of chain smokers who somehow beat the odds to become nonagenarians or even centurions.) All things considered, you are much more likely to die of a lung-related illness if you smoke than if you do not. In fact, all activities in which human beings engage involve risks along with benefits. Each individual must make his own choices for his own life about which benefits do and do not outweigh the risks incurred in doing those things—driving, drinking, rock climbing, flying, scuba diving, traveling to countries where violent crime is prevalent—the list goes on and on.
What has happened in 2020 is that a few COVID-19 policymakers have decided for all of humanity that the risk of dying from COVID-19 outweighs all other considerations about what we ought to do. This is a value judgment, pure and simple, yet it has been fobbed off as some sort of “expert” wisdom. Those who crafted the initial responses to the virus, beginning with the very labeling of COVID-19 as a pandemic, have rallied the “listen to the science” troops for many months, with the result that their stance has become very difficult to challenge. Few of them seem capable of assessing the new data and revising their theory as the scientific method would require. Despite adamantly claiming that they “listen to The science,” they fail altogether to recognize that science is not a static, eternal totem, but a method used to marshal a dynamic, metamorphosing body of hypotheses. The irony, of course, is that the most vociferous denouncers of anyone who questions the gospel are conducting themselves in the manner of religious fanatics incapable of admitting that mistakes may have been made.
Thus we find that without any evidence whatsoever for the efficacy of lockdowns, and in fact a recent pronouncement by the World Health Organization (WHO) that lockdowns have side effects which vastly outweigh any alleged benefits, the lockdowns of western states, along with border restrictions and quarantine requirements, continue on, with local authorities tweaking their policies only slightly whenever they decide that the latest “case” tally is too high. No matter that different kinds of tests are administered differently and to different groups in different places. No matter that the very accuracy of the tests has been impugned. No matter that there is no other example of a respiratory disease (to my knowledge) for which one may repeatedly test positive as “infected” while manifesting no symptoms. No matter that cases in younger persons are rarely fatal, yet serial, obligatory testing of college students continues on. The COVID-19 gurus have decided that a case is a case. None of the death data matters because these people, who never understood the scientific method in the first place, much less the fact-value dichotomy, continue to claim that The ScienceTM is on their side and that those who disagree are selfish and illiterate ignoramuses. In the United States, the people of California, Michigan, Massachusetts, and other states have had to endure severe restrictions of their liberty and much economic hardship for eight months, with no end in sight. Across the pond, both Wales and Ireland, along with various counties in England, recently re-imposed strict lockdowns as a form of “circuit breaker” after surges of cases in some places where no or nearly no new COVID-19 deaths had been reported.
Proclaiming that we must “listen to the science” has become the worst type of virtue signaling on the part of people many of whom have nothing to lose from the lockdowns (their own financial security being immune to whatever policies are imposed). Shutting down the hospitality and tourism sectors of entire cities, counties and countries causes untold harm to anyone working in the gig economy, and yet the victims are themselves portrayed as immoral for refusing to sing along with the cheery refrain, “We’re all in this together!” Few among the populace have been able effectively to press these points, because the media and tech industries have overwhelmingly joined forces with the COVID-19 policymakers, promoting The ScienceTM company line while silencing those who demur. Needless to say, there is nothing more unscientific than censorship, for the scientific enterprise requires a continual reassessment of the facts. When new hypotheses are forbidden because they conflict with what one believed to be true, then science has come to a screeching halt.
Even more devastating than the effects in Europe, Britain, and the United States are the same policies enacted in third world countries by leaders who emulate western politicians religiously committed to their initial responses. The same lockdown and quarantine “strategies” have been implemented in places where they could never, even in principle, diminish the incidence of COVID-19 death, even if it were true—which is not supported by data—that lockdowns worked in the West. In countries where large populations live in extremely close proximity to one another in open-air shanty towns—places such as Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, India, and many other countries as well—there is no chance that staying in one’s hut is going to prevent transmission of the dreaded disease. Meanwhile, police have ended the lives of persons in violation of emergency laws which in no way serve the people’s interests. But to understand how absurd it is to impose curfews and quarantine requirements on the residents of shared outdoor space, one would have to be familiar with basic concepts of molecular entropy, which we know from the many closed beaches and outdoor mask requirements in the West are altogether beyond the capacity of the COVID-19 gurus to comprehend.
Perhaps the grandest irony of all is that, by focusing exclusively on the hope of minimizing the deaths of the small percentage of the population vulnerable to the dreaded disease, the medical professionals who have been advising the COVID-19 policymakers have violated the most sacred oath of physicians: Do No Harm. Lockdown policies have harmed every person whose risk of death by other causes has been increased by preventing them from doing whatever they would have done, left to their own devices: working, visiting the doctor, and engaging in normal social activities which make life worthwhile, including interacting with family and friends.
With regard to scarce resources and policies which affect entire populations, science is silent about who should and should not be saved. Should limited health resources be dedicated to the mass testing of young people not at serious risk from COVID-19? Should healthy children at nearly no risk of death be used in experimental vaccine trials? These are value judgments about which science has nothing to say. Anyone who suggests otherwise is a shyster or confused, and anyone who believes that men in white lab coats should be the ones to answer such questions has been fooled.