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Follow the Science?
All during the Covid-19 panic, people kept trying to tell us to "follow the science." But no matter how hard they try to make it such, the scientific method cannot be used as a guide for your actions
Ever since Covid-19 arrived on the scene, one of the constant messaging drum beats we hear is the need to “follow the science.” By evoking this phrase, it is supposed to both lend an air of authority and also point to the obviousness about what needs to be done. No need for discussion. The science tells us what to do. Just “follow the science.”
The problem: science cannot tell you what to do or how to act. In practice, the mantra “follow the science” masks your true reasons for the actions you take and tries to absolves you of having to face the real motivations behind what you are doing. In social media parlance, “follow the science” is a “cope.”
The first step to acknowledging what is happening is to understand what “science” is and is not. Science is first of all not so much a “thing” as it is a method. What we now call “science” is the largely the artifact, the cumulative product, the results of what is known by means of the “inductive method.” The inductive method is really quite simple, actually. One develops a hypothesis, some statement, some theory about the world. You desire to test whether this statement is true or not, so you devise an experiment to test the theory you have. The tests will then either confirm or reject the theory. Sometimes the results are inconclusive and you have to go back to the drawing board, likely trying to improve the testing process so as to yield better results.
The first thing to note, though, is that scientific learning limits itself to those things that are “testable” or at least testable in theory. Some theoretical physics remain theoretical because no way has been found to test them, yet. So they remain thought experiments. By limiting themselves to trying to understand those things which are testable, those engaged in scientific learning were trying to stay away from “metaphysics,” that is looking into the deeper mysteries of the universe, questions of “why” and “for what purpose” and “what does it mean.” Following the work of the philosopher Immanuel Kant and others, people were looking for a surer foundation upon which to build knowledge. The idea was that we could endlessly fight about the “why” question and make no headway; or we could learn a lot of things about “how” the world works.
Scientific learning through the inductive method gained great steam once it was freed from metaphysics. Scientists simply focused on learning how the world worked and how we as human beings could come to harness, manipulate and control our world. And the results have been staggering. This was achieved by making science “a-moral,” that is, without a moral framework. It would limit itself to asking the question of “how” and leave all the other questions about morality, about the “why” of the universe to others. Scientific learning, while powerful, is limited in its scope.
By limiting its inquires to the question of how things work, scientific inquiry has taken itself out of any ethical, moral, political, social, spiritual, metaphysical or ideological frameworks that might limit or corrupt its quest for correctly understanding how the world works. The result of this, though, is that there are no limits placed on science either. If an experiment can be conceived, or a technology made as a result of the process of scientific research, sooner or later someone will attempt it. There is nothing inherent in the inductive method — which focuses just on the question of “how” — that can tell the scientist or technologist whether he “should” do it or not.
As a result, technologies proliferate and few ever ask, “should we make widespread use of this?” It is science, and it is technology, and if it can be done it will be done. This can lead to dangerous experiments such as the “gain of function” research suspected of starting the Covid-19 epidemic.
What this means, though, and here is the crucial point to understand for this piece, is that whatever motives, whatever logic, whatever moral framework, whatever ideology, whatever metaphysics one has that guides and limits one’s scientific inquires, those come from “outside” of science. They are not a part of the inductive method itself. So too how one reads the conclusions of one’s research. Because science is a-moral, that is, without a moral framework, whatever moral imperatives one derives from the science, whatever conclusions one makes about the research in terms of how one should act, those conclusions come from “outside” the research itself. For science to be what it is, there needs to be a “wall” of sorts between the question of “how” and the questions of “why” or “should.”
If the question of what we should do about the research conclusions do not reside in the conclusions themselves, where do they come from? The answers we give to the question of what we should do, how we should act, they come from our own personal moral framework. They come from our culture. The come from our faith commitments. They come from within us and our society. Science itself is incapable of giving us those answers. It focuses on what it does, and that is answer the question of “how does this thing work?” Nothing more, nothing less. Given our pre-existing moral framework, the data may suggest certain actions to us, but we have to be very clear, that whatever action we decide to take based on the research does not come from the research itself, but from within us and our worldview.
To say that the imperative to act in a certain way is in the scientific research itself would corrupt the very notion of science. The result would be all kinds of moral or political sciences. You would have Christian science, capitalist science, Marxist science, progressive science, socialist science, feminist science, etc. You get the idea. Science, to be science, has to restrict itself to simply asking the question of “how.” We cannot ask scientific inquiry to provide our lives with meaning, to tell us how to act, or how to live the good life, or to be good persons.
What that means, though, is that when someone tells you that all of the Covid-19 restrictions are merely “following the science,” they are lying to themselves and you. More than that, they do so because they don’t want to face the truth of their own motives for acting.
One conclusion we might come to is that they are anxious. One of the side effects of our information society is that it has generated a lot of diffuse anxiety. Too much information. Too many choices that have to be made by the individual without any framework to tell them which path to choose. So, facing all these choices which we have to sort out ourselves, we are generally anxious. This free floating anxiety makes us more vulnerable to propaganda.
Add to this the general loss of religious belief as a significant part of people’s lives and the growth in materialism - the idea that the material world is all that there is - tends to create a bias towards this life that we are living now, wanting to live it to the fullest. We want a full and vital life and we don’t want to have illness slow us down. That, and many are worried about, or down right afraid of, dying. If there is all this unacknowledged free floating anxiety out there, when someone comes along and tells you that “the science” will provide a clear path to alleviate your fears, you are much more likely cling to this like a drowning man to a floatation device.
Instead of acknowledging our fears as a society and asking ourselves, “Why are we so anxious?”, we instead demand that all of society submit itself to a regime of masks, isolation, shutting down the economy, forced vaccinations, as well as the shaming and marginalizing those who resist. With the advent of social media, we are able to quickly self-propagandize ourselves to believe the lie that we want to hear. We are loath to say, “I am terrified and I am going to make all of you act the way I want to make my fears go away.” It becomes self-reinforcing and a moral imperative. Good people behave according to “the science” and bad people do not. It is a quasi-totalitarian, self-propagandizing way of coping with our anxieties. We as a society are in denial.
It is deeper, though, than simple denial. In an excellent book, Vital Lies, Simple Truths: the Psychology of Self-Deception, Daniel Goleman carefully lays out the case that many of the decisions we make are made pre-consciously. We decide what sensory data to admit to our consciousness and what conclusions we are to make from it largely without being aware that we are making them. We have a pre-conscious filtering mechanism. What his and other’s research indicates is that we are constantly lying to ourselves and we are not even aware of it. We do this both individually and collectively. Groups of people will often forge complex group lies that they are not even aware of that filter out the things that they will attend to or not on a conscious level. We will protect ourselves, or our social group, or even society as a whole by not seeing what we don’t want to see.
Goleman would often consult with corporations to help them get past certain blocks that were holding the companies back. We generally need an outsider, someone who is not us or part of our in-group to expose to us the thing we do not see. It is obvious to them, and they struggle to understand how we don’t see it. We might call it a pre-conscious conspiracy of silence. Knowing this, though, does not tell us what to do with this research.
It seems self-evident to me that a portion of our society is in the grip of mindset, a coping mechanism, that makes it difficult for them to surface and face their true motives for how they and their social affiliates are responding to Covid-19. And because of its mutually reinforcing nature, combined with a clear good people/bad people moral imperative, it will be very difficult to break through to them. And even when you do, and they admit you might be right, their pre-cognitive filters will still remain strong for some time. Their conscious agreement with you will get filed away and they will go right back to pre-cognitively creating the reality for themselves that helps them cope. We as a society need therapy. Or better yet, perhaps, a religious conversion.
There is another dynamic at work here as well: a quasi-religious frame. Because most of society, even Christians themselves, have very little knowledge of religious frames and how they function, most of us are not aware that one of the significant dynamics at work here with our Covid-19 response is that of “clean” and “unclean.” The clean person is able to worship and be a part of regular society. An unclean person cannot worship and cannot be a part of society. Much of the masking, sanitizing and vaccine imperatives and the almost nonsensical arguments about the threat of those who have not been vaccinated are fueled by this clean/unclean religious binary. An unvaccinated person is essentially “unclean” and therefore not fit to join and participate in regular society. And it is this imperative that drives the vaccine mandates. We have to keep the “unclean” away from the “clean.” If totalitarian control of the population is the price to be paid, so be it. We must keep ourselves “clean.”
Because of the nature of these psychological and religious dynamics, even when all of the mandates end, this will have long-term social and political ramifications. But none of it has anything to do with “the science.”
My position? I am man of faith, a Christian. One of the creeds of my faith asks a question: what is your only comfort in life and in death? The answer the creed gives is this: I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. It is a short testimony of the framework that guides my actions. I am not anxious or afraid. If I feel fear rising, I remind myself of my core faith commitments and they provide comfort in times such as these. A virus will spread, mutate and make people sick. That is what viruses do. I will one day die, whether that is sooner or later. My death will either be pleasant and easy or it will be miserable and hard. Either way, I know that my future is hidden with Christ. So, for me, I feel no need to make people wear masks, get vaccinated, isolate or shut down down their businesses to protect me.
You will have to make your own choices - the burden of our frayed social fabric - but I urge you to see through the fog of the propaganda. Don’t buy into the mantra of “follow the science.” Know that any time someone uses “follow the science” as the basis for their argument, they are using that to mask the real reasons why they do what they do. Don’t play the game. Don’t get sucked into discussing cases and deaths and hospitalization rates or charts. None of it matters in determining what you should do. At best, it can help inform you and make you aware of what the virus is and how it works, spreads and makes people sick, or not. But in the end, what you do about it, those decisions, come from you, from your moral framework, your religious framework, your worldview. Own them as your own and take responsibility for the values that guide your actions.