On scientism

Tank Green/ November 10, 2021/ COVID-19, Thoughts

Recently I was disturbed to hear the following from a friend: ‘but they are scientists, they wouldn’t lie to us!’ Something about that statement rolled about my brain for days. I finally settled on the naivete of it: how someone could think that a scientist was somehow different from other human beings. As if scientists were above normal human impulses, free from the taint of greed, ambition, and power. Anyone who’s spent more than 5 minutes in academia knows how laughable such an idea is.

Science is a method performed by human beings. What is investigated and researched is decided upon by human beings. The direction any one field of science goes in is decided by human beings. What is excluded from scientific investigation is decided by human beings, as is what is included. All of that is to say, scientific fields are constructed and produced by human beings doing scientific research. As such, despite what politicians would have you believe, there is no The Science to follow. Science is not some sui generis category which exists freeform, pure, and above us. Science is constructed and produced by scientists doing research informed by their competing interests and beliefs.

To give an example of this belief in the purity and nobility of The Science: earlier this year, myself, my mentee, and the science teacher went on a field trip to the Science Museum. Just in case it is not clear to you, the Science Museum is a museum dedicated to the history of science. (Seems obvious, right? Apparently not to the science teacher.) At one point, my mentee and I were looking at an exhibit about phrenology when the science teacher came up behind us and described phrenology as being from a time ‘when people thought the brain could tell us something about humans’. Uh, no. I explained to my mentee that a) the brain can actually tell us something about ourselves, and b) that phrenology was actually a racist scientific doctrine which said the shape of people’s skulls could tell us something about people. To this, the science teacher, who was black, uttered one of the most moronic and factually inaccurate statements I have ever heard: ‘science can’t be racist, if it was, I wouldn’t have a first in science from Oxford.’ I’m still embarrassed for him; I wish I was making this story up. Although, of course, with science teachers like that, no wonder the general public’s grasp of The Science is so bad.

I, however, am not a scientist. I am an historian of ‘race’ and racism, and a scholar of religion and I know each of those things when I see them. When you study religions from a cultural perspective as opposed to a theological one, you are taught that religions are baskets in which many things dwell: community, history, dress, language, architecture, ethnicity/’race’, food, beliefs, rituals, texts, philosophies, authority, and so on. In this way, you are taught to think about how religions, cultures, and societies are constructed around these different elements and how these change across time and place. Not all religions use all elements of the basket, but all elements of the basket are used by some religions. Importantly too, we were trained to see how these elements of religion can also apply to other aspects of society not necessarily considered religious or religion.

And here I get to my point.

I am sure I am not the only person to notice this, but the way ‘The Science’ is being discussed in the media, and by politicians and the scientists working with them, is deeply religious. For instance, my friend’s belief that scientists would not lie to us is obviously akin to the profound faith that religious people have in their leaders. Indeed, it is precisely this faith in the authority and purity of religious leaders that allowed, for instance, so much child sex abuse to occur in plain sight.

Then we have our new language offered up like prayers: ‘hands, face, space’, ‘build back better’, ‘sack the carers’ – oh, sorry, I mean ‘clap for carers’. The social rituals around hand washing and where we may place our bodies in relation to others. The purity taboos about how and who we may or may not touch and when. Our new dress code in the form of mask mandates, one I find particularly hilarious given the historic criminalisation and demonisation of Muslim women who wear the niqab, and drill artists and their balaclavas.

The notion that The Science says one thing about the pandemic is profoundly naïve, and the notion that all scientists are singing from the same hymn sheet (pun intended) is simply wrong. The truth is that, much as The Church struggled to suppress the competing voices of the Reformation, so too does state sponsored The Science seek to suppress the voices of scientists who do not support their deeply oppressive and repressive regulatory narrative. So the question is not are you following The Science, but which scientists are you choosing to listen to?

When I make that statement, I am not thinking of crackpots posting in comments sections of the internet. I am thinking of scientists who, prior to the pandemic, were uncontested elites within their respective scientific fields. Professors of medicine, epidemiology, and biostatistics at some of the best universities in the world: Stanford, Oxford, Harvard, etc. How is it possible for these people to rise to such prominence in their fields if they don’t know what they are talking about? It isn’t. Or rather, it isn’t possible if you choose to believe that science, as a method and source of authority, has any validity at all.

The problem we have now is not a problem between those who believe in The Science versus crackpot conspiracy theorists. The problem is actually much more serious and insidious than that. The problem we have now is about state sponsored, big tech and mass media engineered, censorship of intellectual and scientific debate. It is an undoing of the Reformation of sorts. A rolling back of the public sphere, a closure of vigorous and rigorous debate, and a construction of a new totalising and uniform source of authority in the form of our new God, The Science, led by our new priests, State sponsored Scientists. Whereas formerly science feasted on the remains of religion to declare itself the sole arbiter of truth about the material world, now The Science has turned on itself. Hollowed out and ugly, it consumes and silences internal dissent.

Welcome to our new religion: scientism. Thou shalt Follow The Science and do unto others precisely as it says. Thou shalt not question nor disobey its proclamations. Failure to comply shall result in social and intellectual ostracism and derision.

I’m glad I remain a heretic.