Just Follow the Science: The Cult of Experts and COVID-19

Framing Everything in Life as a Matter of Empirical Science Disregards the Immaterial and Transcendent Aspects of Human Existence, Succumbs to the Illusion of Control, Enthrones Experts, and Leads to Tyranny.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, one of the many repeated mantras has been that we need to “follow the science” when determining the public policy response to this highly infectious disease. While many have welcomed this assertion, it has not been without its critics. For example, one writer points out the danger to such an approach by noting the following:

As President Dwight Eisenhower said in his 1961 farewell address, public policy can ‘become the captive of a scientific-technological elite,’ which by nature lacks the temperament and broad thinking necessary to steer a democratic society. Instead, this elite’s conceptual blindspots and ignorance of broader human and spiritual concerns mean it is likely to steer us into the ditch of never-ending lockdown cycles to ‘slow the spread’ of a virus that is demonstrably uncontainable by governments and their edicts.

Similarly, former Bureau of Justice Statistics director Jeffrey Anderson argues that, while public health officials now play a prominent role in our governance, such people do not make for good rulers because “it is in the nature of their art to focus on the body in lieu of higher concerns,” and because they “are naturally enthusiastic about public health interventions.” 

He adds,

Their guiding light is the avoidance of risk — narrowly defined as the risk of becoming sick or dying. The risk of stifling, enervating, or devitalizing human society is not even part of their calculation. Under their influence, America has been conducting an experiment in mask-wearing based largely on unsupported scientific claims and an impoverished understanding of human existence.

(For data on mask-wearing, see this, this, this, this, this, and this. It is important to remember that the controversy over masks is not whether people should be able to wear them without being given a hard time. Of course they should. Rather, the controversy pertains to whether some people should be allowed to force other people to wear masks against their will.) 

“Experiment” is the proper word to describe much of what has been done in response to this pandemic. One wonders why previous generations did not respond to their pandemics by employing the strategies that have been implemented during the COVID-19 outbreak. After all, it is not as though there is anything technologically advanced about non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) like stay at home orders, closures, compulsory mask-wearing, gathering restrictions, contact tracing, and physical distancing mandates. People had a basic knowledge of the way infectious diseases spread during the pandemics that took place in the late 1950s and late 1960s.

Why weren’t those pandemics dealt with in the way we have dealt with this one? What is it that has made so many people see the COVID response as reasonable even though the data has shown for some time that the virus is not deadly for the vast majority of those who contract it?

While there are surely a variety of factors that have contributed to what has happened with COVID-19, one of them may be connected with the fact that our society is significantly more secularized today than it was in earlier eras. That is, the widespread acceptance of prolonged, government-imposed NPIs that radically disrupt ordinary life and suppress civil and religious liberties is due in part to the waning influence of the notion that human life has a transcendent meaning, along with the increasing acceptance of a scientism that is focused entirely on controlling the material world.

C.S. Lewis had some important things to say about the threat of scientism. This does not mean that he was anti-science, though he knew that charge would be leveled against him. In a letter written in response to such criticism, he defined scientism as “the belief that the supreme moral end is the perpetuation of our own species, and this is to be pursued even if, in the process of being fitted for survival, our species has to be stripped of all those things for which we value it — of pity, of happiness, and of freedom.” One writer aptly summarizes Lewis’s concerns about scientism by saying that he “feared what might be done to all nature and especially to mankind if scientific knowledge were to be applied by the power of government without the restraints of traditional values.”

Lewis’s most focused treatments of scientism are found in his brief nonfiction work The Abolition of Man and in his fictional Space Trilogy. In the first volume of the trilogy, the scientist-villain (Weston) justifies his mistreatment of the hero (Ransom) by telling him:

I admit that we have had to infringe your rights. My only defense is that small claims must give way to great. As far as we know, we are doing what has never been done in the history of the universe… You cannot be so small-minded as to think that the rights or the life of an individual or of a million individuals are of the slightest importance in comparison with this.[1]  

In the last volume of the trilogy, the plot revolves around how an organization called the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE) “follows the science” in its social planning efforts, with ruthless disregard for both animal and human life. At one point in the story, the narrator makes this observation: 

The physical sciences, good and innocent in themselves, had already, even in Ransom’s own time, begun to be warped, had been subtly maneuvered in a certain direction. Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists; indifference to it, and a concentration upon mere power, had been the result.[2] 

This is what Lewis sets his sights upon in The Abolition of Man, the main thesis of which is summed up in this quote: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”[3] Michael Aeschliman unpacks this assertion as follows:

Without a doctrine of objective validity, only subjective, individual desire remains as a standard to determine action. In the hands of an empowered elite, the capacity to reorder society with the techniques of a vastly powerful and unchecked science is virtually limitless and, of course, open to monstrous misuses.[4]

It is certainly true that those who wield such power sometimes have what they deem to be good intentions. But this does not change the fact that it is dehumanizing to disregard the immaterial and transcendent aspects of human existence while using the coercive power of the state to impose whatever is deemed to be in the interests of science.

Lewis challenged the notion that having expert credentials makes one deserving of unquestioning obedience. As Aeschliman puts it, Lewis “resented and opposed the implicit claims of both scientists and ‘humanists’ to moral superiority over the common man.”[5] Ordinary people have the natural right and ability to evaluate the claims and proposals made by experts because there are objective standards of truth and goodness, and these standards are intelligible to all people in the natural law. To deny this is to require that ordinary people subject themselves to the tyranny of those who have a reductionistic view of life. G.K. Chesterton put it well when he quipped, “If the ordinary man may not discuss existence, why should he be asked to conduct it?”[6] This is why medical authoritarianism is morally wrong. Even in a pandemic, people are capable of exercising common sense.

Such themes were central to the thought of the distinguished scientist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi. As Lesslie Newbigin explains:

Polanyi unmasks the illusion that science is a separate kind of knowledge, sharply distinguished from the vast areas of our everyday knowing which we do not call ‘scientific.’ His message… is addressed to Everyman, with the assurance that we do not need to be intimidated by the claims of some populariser of ‘science’ to represent a superior kind of knowledge by which all the rest of our knowing is to be tested and judged.[7]

Born and raised in Hungary in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Polanyi took a post in Berlin after attaining his Ph.D. at the University of Budapest. But when the Nazi party rose to power in Germany, he resigned his chair and accepted a position in Manchester, England. Not long after that, during a visit to Moscow in 1935, he was alarmed by the Soviet regime’s dogmatic control of science, and upon returning to England he set himself to the task of preventing such an approach from being introduced there. He wrote in a letter to a colleague,

We cannot defend the freedom of science unless we attack… collectivism. If the community acting through the power of the State is to be the sole judge of what is bad for men living in society, then it has to claim also supremacy over what is to be considered true and what untrue. Science cannot be free in a state formed as sovereign master of the community’s fate, but only under a state pledged to the guardianship of law, custom and of our social heritage in general, to the further advancement of which —on the lines of the universal ideas underlying it— the community is dedicated… Democracy is the form of public life by which a community, dedicated to certain universal ideas, cultivates these ideas and develops its institutions under their guidance. The adventure of scientific research, undertaken regardless of the possibilities to which it may lead, is only one of the ideas to the service of which our community is pledged; and it cannot retain its claim on society by defending its title in isolation from the other ideas similarly endangered by the absolutist state.[8]

In other words, Polanyi contended that governance based on “following the science” was not only reductionistic, but was also destructive of true science and of ordered freedom under the rule of law.

It has been noted that the politicization of science during the coronavirus pandemic has brought significant damage to science’s reputation. This is to be expected given that public policy decisions, which are not empirical but moral and political in nature, are being defended as necessary in the name of following the science. As these authors explain:

To apply empirical logic to morals and politics is to commit a category error… [W]hen, by sleight of hand, contestable moral judgments masquerade as scientific facts, skepticism and mistrust will follow. In public deliberations about what we know, we cannot dispense with distinctions between the types of claims to knowledge we’re making: scientific, moral, or prudential.

The fact that scientists, medical professionals, politicians, and even Christians are so sharply divided over the COVID policies attests that these policies are matters of moral and prudential judgment, not matters of empirical certainty. 

Another example of the category error mentioned in the above quote can be seen in how some political and public health leaders are now claiming that following the science warrants pressuring, shaming, and even coercing everyone into getting the COVID vaccines. Are there truly no other considerations even worth contemplating? Consider the following:

• The long term effects of these vaccines are unknown

• The COVID vaccines do not offer any significant benefit to those who have already recovered from the virus or those to whom it poses little risk

• A significant percentage of medical professionals have been unwilling to take these vaccines

• The rate of reported adverse effects from these vaccines has been significantly higher than with other widely used vaccines

• The effectiveness of these vaccines has been called into question amid the spread of the delta variant

• Unlike smallpox, COVID-19 can also infect animals and therefore cannot be wholly eradicated through a vaccination program

Furthermore, the scientist who invented the mRNA technology employed in the vaccines has argued that the push towards universal vaccination (instead of a strategy of targeted vaccination of the most vulnerable) may very well prolong and worsen this pandemic. Perhaps he is wrong. Perhaps the concerns listed above can be answered satisfactorily. But if politicians and public health officials want more people to trust them, they would do better to try to refute opposing arguments rather than arrogantly dismiss them as “misinformation.”

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In spite of concerted efforts by civil leaders, public health officials, big media, and big tech to silence dissent during this pandemic, there have been a number of scientists who have contended that the prolonged use of government-imposed NPIs in a pandemic does far more harm than good. Some of the more notable among these figures are: Donald Henderson, the epidemiologist who led the successful international effort to eradicate smallpox; the Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford epidemiologists who authored the Great Barrington Declaration, along with the over 58,000 medical professionals and medical and public health scientists who signed the declaration; former White House Coronavirus Task Force advisor Scott Atlas; and Marty Makary, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Why is it that the science of these experts needs to be ignored, while the science of the bureaucrats must be followed? Are they all quacks because they diverge from the single acceptable narrative of the day? Or is something else going on?

All of this illustrates the difference between science and scientism. The former thrives on debate, is honest about the provisional nature of its conclusions, and understands that people have a right to form their own judgment about its recommendations, especially when those recommendations are turned into discretionary health edicts that have unknown effects and that prohibit or impede the carrying out of basic responsibilities and normal life for an extended period of time. As the 19th century Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge notes in his comments on the apostle Paul’s teaching on liberty of conscience in 1 Corinthians 8: “Whenever a thing is right or wrong according to circumstances, every man must have the right to judge of those circumstances.”[9] By way of contrast, scientism stifles debate, insists that its conclusions are the only possible rational conclusions, and cites its expert credentials to demand unquestioning acceptance of whatever it says. While science is an extremely helpful tool when it stays in its proper lane, it is a pawn of tyrants when it is presented as a god that must be followed. 

It is not surprising that a society as secularized as ours would embrace scientism. In the words of Harvard professor of history James Hankins:

Science is the default god of a civilization without religion or shared standards of right and wrong. The pseudo-religion of diversity and multiculturalism, which undermines shared moral standards, in effect enthrones Science as god, since Science is the only authority widely believed to be value-neutral. The great god Scientia (to be distinguished from the actual sciences) is not in fact value-neutral, but in public she plays the part of a lady who loves the truth but is flexible when it comes to other moral principles. Hence public science cannot give us “values,” that is, the practical wisdom to make morally sound decisions. “Follow the Science” is morally vacuous advice. It’s like asking a computer program whether you should get married (though no doubt some genius has created an app for that, too).

The pandemic has exposed Scientia as a false god. There is good reason to suspect that COVID-19 originated from gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses that was funded in part by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is headed by Anthony Fauci. Furthermore, the efforts to “slow/stop the spread” have not only proved futile, but have produced a great deal of additional misery and strife. Christians should seize this opportunity to call people’s attention to how this demonstrates scientism’s illusion of control and the impoverishment at the heart of an approach to life that is willing to sacrifice human dignity and freedom in order to follow whatever those with the most power deem to be “the science.”

[1] C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scribner, 1996), 26-27.

[2] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Scribner, 1996), 203.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 74.

[4] Michael D. Aeschliman, The Restoration of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism (Seattle: Discovery Institute, 2019), 110.

[5] Aeschliman, Restoration of Man, 33.

[6] Cited in Aeschliman, Restoration of Man, 29.

[7] Forward to Drusilla Scott, Everyman Revived: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), v.

[8] Scott, Everyman Revived, 5-6.

[9] Charles Hodge, 1 and 2 Corinthians (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 151.

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Andy Wilson

Andy Wilson Andy Wilson is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Laconia, New Hampshire. He is the author of The Marrow of The Marrow of Modern Divinity: A Simplified Version of Edward Fisher's 17th Century Classic.