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August 2023 Issue [Essay]

Doctor’s Orders

COVID-19 and the new science wars
Photographs from the series The Masks We Wear by Benjamin Lowy © The artist

Photographs from the series The Masks We Wear by Benjamin Lowy © The artist


Doctor’s Orders

COVID-19 and the new science wars

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not unusual to enter common spaces across the United States—grocery stores, malls, office buildings—and experience a kind of perceptual whiplash. People wearing N-95 masks and latex gloves stood beside others wearing no mask at all—or else letting their mandatory face coverings slouch flaccidly beneath their chins. As protests broke out both for and against various public health measures intended to combat the spread of the virus, this polarization went beyond policy decisions concerning mandates and lockdowns to questions of medical fact and expert authority. It was as if the authorities had set off the fire alarm in a nation-size movie theater: one half of the audience vacated their seats in muted panic while the rest defiantly continued to eat their popcorn.

The pandemic laid bare the extent to which Americans occupy a split reality. From within the credentialed classes, the demos appears increasingly and disturbingly resistant to rational argument and evidence, with rowdy populist movements undermining at every turn the response to an unprecedented public health emergency. But from within these populist camps, it seems that many Americans have been blindly following—or worse, knowingly supporting—an undemocratic regime intent on imposing its values under cover of scientific neutrality. In this view, the pandemic was just the latest excuse for this regime to advance its technocratic agenda; often, resisting that agenda meant rejecting technical expertise entirely.

The result is that American democracy and scientific authority are suffering parallel crises of credibility, each standing accused by the other. This twofold crisis has many causes, among them political polarization and the spread of misinformation on social media, as well as long-standing antirationalist religious traditions and anti-intellectual strains in American business and culture. None of these factors should be minimized when attempting to understand America’s widespread antiscientific sentiment. But they need to be supplemented by another, far less widely acknowledged, fount of skepticism—one that requires contending with what the populist view gets right: scientific expertise has encroached on domains in which its methods are unsuited to addressing, let alone resolving, the issue at hand.

The overextension of scientific authority—or scientism—has become so ubiquitous that it now hides in plain sight, influencing every sphere of American life from policing and economics to dating and psychology. Increasingly, Americans must contend with the confusing noise of conflicting models and theories all claiming the talismanic power of “science.” Like prescientific peoples, we have grown accustomed to the existence of our own shamans and wizards.

To identify the peculiar pattern of pseudoscientific authority in American life, a few key anthropological insights must first be established. Humans are meaning-making creatures, and our practices, institutions, and entire social lives are expressive of our beliefs. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has put it, we are “language animals,” dwelling in worlds of signification. Our linguistic capacity allows for cultural change to occur far more rapidly than the pace of natural history. Even as the biological basis of our species remains stable, human life is characterized by epochal shifts in meaning that can render Homo sapiens utterly alien to one another.

This accounts for the central difference between the natural sciences and those that analyze human behavior. In the natural sciences, the object of study (say, COVID-19) exists independently of any attempt to describe it scientifically. In the social sciences, by contrast, where the objects of study involve human behavior and psychology, the descriptions being offered can penetrate our self-understanding and build new realities. A theory of the planets (whether accurate or not) does not alter the paths or locations of those heavenly bodies, but in the social sciences, theories and ideas have the potential to radically transform society itself by becoming part of our identities, practices, and institutions. What was first articulated as a description of the social world becomes a kind of script or map for reorganizing human life.

In popular psychology, millions of individuals have been taught to perceive afflictions like anxiety, depression, and ADHD as the result of chemical imbalances. Political and religious alienation is sidelined as people begin to treat themselves as “wet computers.” In the study of criminal justice, the “broken windows” theory justified zero-tolerance policies for misdemeanors, alongside the militarization of policing in American cities. The theory of “democratic peace,” meanwhile, was used by the second Bush Administration to legitimize the war on terror.

There are many more examples of such theories infiltrating and shaping modern societies, but one that’s crucial to consider in light of the crisis of scientific authority during the pandemic is the governing regime that formed around the economic “sciences.” As this system was codified over the past fifty years, its boosters often drew on the prestige of neoclassical economics and its highly abstract models of human society, as structured by the rational decisions of Homo economicus.

The supposed scientific basis of neoclassical economics was instrumental in the ascent of economists to the highest levels of government and the private sector. These wonks presented their account of “the economy” as a surefire formula for prosperity and efficiency. There was a rational way to build an economy, and there were irrational ones. Entire policy possibilities—often associated with egalitarian and social-democratic aims—could be deemed unrealistic, as demonstrated by running the data through the proper models.

In popular discourse, the economy was portrayed as a bundle of accountancy measures. These included indicators like the stock market and consumer price indexes, gross domestic product, and the unemployment rate. Other indices were rarely considered as part of the economy—the number of evictions and the poverty rate went ignored, as did measures of ecological devastation and quality of life for wage workers. Uncountable goods were omitted from the scientific description of the economy, as were questions of justice, exploitation, and greed.

Like EKG machines in a hospital, these accountancy measures were said to capture brute data about the health of American society, which lawmakers used to enact a policy regime of efficiency. Often this meant privatizing and contracting out public-sector benefits. Similarly, government agencies were redesigned to create incentive structures that matched those of the private market, as with school vouchers. In this way, economic models ushered in a new society that increasingly resembled neoclassical models of economic rationality.

But by appealing to a science of human behavior to justify their redesign of American life, the free-market economists not only ensured a backlash to their policy ideas, they bolstered skepticism about scientific authority as such. Following the 2008 financial crisis, large numbers of Americans on both the left and the right strenuously rejected the preexisting policy consensus even as the political establishment insisted that this consensus still offered the only rational path forward. One way to understand the force of today’s populist movements is as an expression of the conviction that the experts who dominated American politics at the time of the crash did not know what they were doing after all.

Regardless of whether such political mobilizations are ethically desirable, or even coherent, they have brought to the fore a critical question about the way policy decisions are made: Are they, as experts claim, straightforward responses to the data, dictated solely by numbers? Or do they contain world-making projects? Too often this question has been neglected in discussions about governance during the pandemic.

From their very emergence, the social sciences have often been pictured as a realm of “facts,” distinct from the realm of “values.” A locus classicus for this idea is the German sociologist Max Weber, who expressed the still-widespread view that the social sciences were about description and explanation, disavowing any ethical or ideological commitments.

Weber believed that the vocation of the social scientist should be sharply distinguished from that of the politician. Yet the very attempt to construct value-neutral scientific authority over the organization of social life inspired a new class of experts—managers in both government and the private sector—who claimed to offer policy prescriptions grounded in empirical fact.

One of the ironies of modern life is that these self-proclaimed scientific authorities have never spoken in one voice. Unlike in the natural sciences, where there exists a certain amount of theoretical consensus within which to stage disagreements, there is no shared framework, conceptual language, or paradigm recognized by all or even most social scientists. To the contrary, there has been a ceaseless multiplication of rival and largely incompatible sciences of human behavior: stimulus response, sociobiology, rational choice theory, various structuralisms, many attempts at socioneuroscience, and so on. These human sciences present a patchwork of conflicting claims to epistemic supremacy. The unpleasant truth is that any given social scientific attempt to offer a predictive theory has always appeared patently inadequate to those working in rival research programs.

The inability to found any discipline of social science akin to one of the natural sciences is a key feature of the spread of scientism in the modern world. And the prestige of the natural sciences is often borrowed by those seeking to exercise authority over the organization of society. The result is that theories presented to the public as “scientific” are in fact enacting a particular social and political agenda. Sometimes policymakers draw on research developed in the academy that they have distorted beyond recognition.

Epidemiology largely involves formulating natural scientific claims about the spread of diseases. A theory that attempts to describe a virus will not change the virus’s structure or affect the mechanics of how it is spread. Epidemiology’s propositions are therefore often straightforwardly (even if provisionally) descriptive, and these descriptions are invaluable in illuminating a disease’s symptoms, transmission, severity, diagnosis, and prevention, among other factors. Indeed, there is no rational alternative to scientific authority in this domain, and a political community that does not avail itself of this knowledge is choosing ignorance.

But throughout the pandemic this science has been used not merely to inform the public but also to legislate policy from the top down. Who can forget those charts and graphs with color-coded levels of emergency? The facts and figures on these charts were usually scientifically legitimate, but public officials spoke as if the models could automatically trigger particular policies. If a numerical measure reached a level of emergency, “science” dictated the appropriate response. In this way, descriptive epidemiology was invoked to justify the closure of schools, places of worship, businesses, and other vital institutions.

The first thing to note about such policies is that they are prone to the kinds of social-scientific distortions discussed above, even though they seem to emerge from the “hard” science of biology. They are not acts of description but accounts of the way humans ought to behave under given circumstances. And they are—like all human endeavors—fallible; it will be many years before we know which of these policies achieved their desired effects.

But even to the extent that they were perfectly successful on their own terms, these policies entailed balancing conflicting interests. The closing of a school, for example, meant one thing to a child with nowhere else to go during the day or a parent whose job had been deemed “essential,” and another thing to a teacher living with a vulnerable family member—or for that matter, to a person with no immediate contact with the school system. Discerning the public good amid this array of individual interests is an unmistakably political act—it is, in fact, the political act par excellence.

Nonetheless, when public officials were challenged on these policies, they routinely insisted that they would not let “politics” dictate their decisions. As President Joe Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki put it in response to a question about the administration’s mask policy, officials would simply “listen to the data, listen to the science.” Data, she said, “doesn’t move at the speed of politics; it moves at the speed of data.” Psaki and other officials who helped justify the government’s approach seemed to ignore the idea that some American communities might have goods that rivaled those heralded by the government in the name of “health.” For all their virtues, neither epidemiology nor social science can establish what is significant or worthy of risk and sacrifice. The sciences as a whole are impotent before this question.

Invoking science and data to resolve ethical and ideological controversies obscures the values and interests of particular groups and policymakers. Anyone governing in the name of data is still making judgments. When the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggested that emergency dictates reflected that the governing ethic in Western societies had become “bare life, and the fear of losing it,” thereby reflecting a politics that “values nothing more than survival,” he was criticized for recklessness. Yet he rightly intuited that much of the expert response to the pandemic was shaped by an unstated vision of what human life was ultimately about. The assertion made by officials that the pandemic simply dictated certain policy responses was a way of suppressing underlying ethical and political disagreements.

In this way, “the pandemic” served a governing function not unlike “the economy.” There was a bid—albeit never fully successful—at creating a social object to scientifically overcome ideological conflict in American politics. A cost-benefit analysis was then presented as securing a set of outcomes—namely, the reduction of viral spread and the preservation of life. Newspapers put COVID dashboards on their home pages, with new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths replacing daily stock tickers, monthly unemployment reports, and quarterly GDP updates. Readers could check in each morning to see how the pandemic was doing. These charts tabulated lives and infections, but what about anxiety, depression, learning loss, and social isolation? Or what of those goods which are uncountable and not easily subject to rational calculation, like the health of democracy, ordinary camaraderie with family and friends, or communal spiritual practices?

Sometimes the pandemic was specifically linked to the older governing fiction of the economy. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered that churches not conduct in-person worship during the 2020 lockdown, while various businesses, including film studios, were permitted to reopen. These businesses, it was argued, were simply too vital to the economy. Evidently, some values—in this case economic productivity—superseded even that of bare life. What remained the same was the way that politicians and other authorities cloaked ethical and ideological aims in theories that claimed the authority of fact.

The implied message was that business of the right kind was worth risking illness and even life for, while the worship of God, or the observance of funerals, weddings, and baptisms, was not. “We allowed thousands of people to die alone,” the Yale sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis said. “We buried people by Zoom.” Yet the filming of movies and television shows went on. That fall, it was revealed that Newsom’s children were attending a private school that was exempt from the shutdown, at a time when many Californian parents were forced to juggle jobs and online schooling. The following month, the governor was outed for violating his own safety guidelines to celebrate a birthday party at the upscale restaurant French Laundry.

These facts reinforced the populist sense that governance in the name of science was an ideological sleight of hand—a tactic for controlling some groups while allowing others greater freedom. At the very least, the tensions between Newsom’s private and public actions showed that personal notions of significance always come into play when humans are navigating difficult ethical and political decisions. Even the highest officials governing on behalf of “bare life” seemed to experience a complex conflict of meanings—the pleasures of affirming ordinary life, companionship, education, celebration, and friendship overriding the risk of physical harm.

To cover questions of interpretation and significance with the curtain of data is to recruit the authority of science in a way that ultimately undermines it. This dynamic serves to explain not only the increase in antiscience skepticism during the pandemic, but also the proliferation and resonance of dangerous conspiracy theories—for example, that the COVID-19 vaccines were being used by Bill Gates to inject microchips into the population. Some infected Americans went to their deaths insisting that they couldn’t possibly be sick with the virus. In a telling contradiction, these patients entrusted themselves to the medical care and authority of the very science they obstinately rejected, insisting from their deathbeds that their affliction must be something else—some other virus, some other illness.

Such a rejection of science was both personally and politically disastrous, but it’s worth asking what lessons we can take from the fact that rich governors joined their friends to celebrate posh birthday dinners while other citizens tried to magically think their way out of COVID-19. One clue emerges from anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories, which often argued that the virus was an invention of a particular political elite’s will to power. This was a version of the argument Agamben made, albeit in more abstruse language, in his controversial dispatches: that the state had been overtaken by a “medical religion” amounting to “technological-sanitationist despotism.”

Conspiracy theories have their unsound, foolish, and even wicked dimensions, but they may also contain seeds of political resistance. Pandemic-era governing involved top-down decrees and little dialogue with ordinary people. Town halls and assemblies, traditionally the arenas of such deliberations, were themselves controversial from a public-health perspective. The move away from such forms of participatory democracy has been a long-standing feature of our technocratic age, but the pandemic alarmingly accelerated it. Democracy itself was—with little debate—deemed too dangerous.

The difficult truth is that scientists, doctors, and other public health experts are on the same level as ordinary citizens when it comes to thinking through questions of political and ethical significance. Science offers them no special insight or authority in this domain. There is no science that can determine what is meaningful, no way for experts to quantify what values we ought to prioritize. Likewise, no one culture is simply scientific and rational. Rather, a plurality of ethical and political positions can avail themselves of the latest science.

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer observed that the chief tasks of a humanistic approach to politics are, first, to guard against “the idolatry of scientific method,” and second, to return to ordinary people “the noblest task of the citizen—decision-making according to one’s own responsibility.” Scientism produces a discourse of mere facts that are in no need of interpretation. Politics and social life are supposedly captured in a single privileged, scientific language, while other moral and ideological vocabularies are muted. It is revealing how many of the conspiracy theories now plaguing American life ape a certain confused vision of science in which the vastly intricate, ambiguous, and confusing phenomena of the world are explained by a single underlying structure. Against the overreach of experts, certain segments of the populous have created a doppelgänger of science, with its own hypotheses and theories.

Where scientism reinforces hierarchies, a more humanistic and sensitive approach instead sees that all humans are in the same existential predicament. We are all trying to achieve clarity on which sources offer our lives meaning. These meanings cannot be empirically verified, and they are always contested. There is no set of facts that determines the course of political life.

Consider the mass protests that followed the murder of George Floyd during the first wave of the pandemic. After months of social distancing and restrictive lockdown policies, millions of people took to the street, marching shoulder to shoulder. Soon after the protests began, hundreds of medical experts and public-health officials signed a letter expressing continued opposition to “protests against stay-home orders” while citing the “lethal” threat that white supremacy posed to the “health specifically of Black people” as justification for these particular protests.

But the protests were not a public-health action. They were a public expression of an urgently felt moral outrage. The need for such expression in that moment may well have trumped the need for social distancing; regardless, it wasn’t for those health authorities to determine. Their effort to reconcile a political action of which they approved and the pandemic regime they took it as their job to enforce sent a simple message: the rules apply when we want them to.

“You are entitled to your own opinion,” goes the saying often attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the past century’s most notorious technocrats, “but not your own facts.” It is a common—and justified—complaint that today’s populist movements deal in “alternative facts.” But it must also be said that today’s scientistic administrators seem less and less inclined to allow people even their own opinions. Instead, they treat “the facts” as largely determining what counts as acceptable opinion.

One of the gravest errors of governance during the pandemic was that ordinary people were not heard. Instead, they were informed of the scientifically rational policy and, if they protested, lectured into compliance. Total confinement of the sort practiced in the first months of the pandemic is not an option in a real democracy. Even if meetings need to take place outdoors, deliberations over the difficult questions posed by a pandemic require an exchange of ideas in a community local enough to give all citizens an opportunity to participate. The turn away from scientism would mean a return to such dialogue.

Given the heterogeneity of American cities and states, it seems unlikely that such a process would yield a one-size-fits-all policy narrative about pandemics and other emergencies. Different communities, allowed to debate what they wish to balance against risks of health, life, and prosperity, might come to different conclusions. In a comparatively young community with many families, children, and teenagers, mental health or education might be given greater consideration. In another community, with a disproportionate number of elderly residents, precautions against viral spread might receive more emphasis. A community with many religious members might allow a wider range of risks in the name of worship, while another whose identity stems from entrepreneurialism or activism might aspire to accommodate those interests instead. All Americans would need to wrestle with what democracy demands in the face of a plague. Whatever their answers, they would not be decided independently by scientific experts.

Presumably, this kind of deliberation would also weigh questions of infrastructure, stress on regional hospitals, and the density of populations. Once again, science would play an essential advisory role but would enjoy no special status. To the contrary, what is needed to conduct such policy discussions is what interpretive social scientists call “local knowledge” and “thick description.” The only way to understand the priorities of a given community is to become fluent in the stories its members tell—through both their words and their actions—about how they live and wish to continue living.

Finally, this dialogue would allow for the possibility that at any given moment scientific consensus may be wrong, even within those spheres where it rightly claims authority. This is a truth that scientists themselves embrace, though it will not fit on an in this house we believe lawn sign. For example, while most scientists agree that mask mandates were an appropriate response to the pandemic, retrospective data offers a decidedly mixed picture of the benefits of these mandates. This is not a failure on science’s part. As a society we were dealing with difficult choices that needed to be made in real time with limited information. But when the authority of science is misused to make such choices seem easy, science’s credibility inevitably suffers.

Unable to reach any kind of democratic consensus, Americans largely faked their way through the early stages of the pandemic. Some fraudulently claimed conspiratorial knowledge in order to challenge scientific expertise. Others disguised their preference for the preservation of bare life or for economic growth as the consequence of inarguable scientific findings, and denounced all dissenters as irrational and immoral.

Many have seen the pandemic as a forerunner to a much darker and more devastating global crisis. The next catastrophe—very possibly ecological in nature—may be far more destructive. Averting such a crisis will require listening with careful humility to scientists and scientific authority. Science’s role as adviser and counselor, keeping the demos in contact with reality, is irreplaceable.

At the same time, American society long ago allowed major institutions to be governed by scientism. If the wonks and data evangelists do not have their power curbed, the country could descend into a battle over whose values trump whose. Such a turn would signal not only the end of democracy in America, but also the imposition of an alien notion of life on those who no longer recognize themselves in the government that presides over them.

Prioritizing democratic dialogue and shifting away from top-down policymaking will not be easy. In a society as large and as varied as ours, there will always be the temptation to outsource contentious decisions to supposedly neutral authorities. But if we want to stand a chance of weathering the next crisis better than we have this one, we’ll need to learn to trust ourselves.

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