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Science Fiction

Jason Blakely offers a persuasive critique of the scientism that was widely apparent in the early days of the pandemic [“Doctor’s Orders,” Essay, August]. Public officials justified controversial policies—lockdowns, mask requirements, vaccine mandates—by gesturing at “the science,” seldom acknowledging that their decisions reflected implicit value judgments. They prioritized reducing risks to human life over the needs of many businesses, schoolchildren, working parents, and churchgoers. In insisting that they were merely following the science, they suppressed inconvenient moral and political disagreements. If more citizens had been able to participate in the crafting of local pandemic policies, the rate of public approval might have been higher. 

It’s less clear, however, that the tendency of officials to conceal value decisions behind the veil of science “serves to explain,” as Blakely puts it, “the increase in antiscience skepticism during the pandemic.” Research shows that mistrust of mainstream science on certain topics—like vaccines, climate change, and genetically modified food—is caused mostly by people’s sense that it poses a threat to their values, interests, and identities. 

As COVID-19 vaccines became available, the initial hesitancy to receive them among African Americans (which later declined) was explained in part by the medical establishment’s historical mistreatment of their community. Vaccine hesitancy among Republicans, meanwhile, was driven by a perception that Democrats were exaggerating the extent of the pandemic for partisan advantage. Donald Trump and other Republican leaders fueled that perception for their own gain. Their goal was not to defend democracy against technocratic elites but to fashion opposition to pandemic policies into a core aspect of Republican identity. 

Mark Brown
Professor of political science,
California State University
Sacramento, Calif.


Blakely is right that moral commitments shape social research, but his other arguments dangerously simplify science’s role in the world of politics. He suggests that a localist, deliberative form of democracy would emerge if only the liberal avatars of scientism were put in their place and power returned to the people. Each community could operate freely within its chosen interpretive world, recognizing the “existential predicament” it shares with other moral communities and never making choices for its counterparts.

As I write in my book Science under Fire: Challenges to Scientific Authority in Modern America, this political critique of science dates to the Twenties. Since then, commentators of various political and religious persuasions have attributed to scientism a remarkably broad array of problems. Until the late twentieth century, most insisted that their own views were correct, not that, as Blakely contends, many different views are equally valid. Yet Blakely’s more pluralistic approach still shifts the blame from political actors to scientific experts—and from broad ideological tendencies to academic theories of knowledge. 

It is true that science is a potent political force, that governance has become more bureaucratic, and that officials have a bad habit of invoking science to deflect criticism. But even if policymakers could find a more democratic way to integrate science into politics, warring social factions would not suddenly tolerate one another’s world-making projects. Politics is not only a contest of alternative values but a response to the fact that individuals and groups have competing agendas that can directly harm others, even at the local level. Blakely’s view of scientism obscures searing conflicts around race, sexual identity, immigration, economic policy, and much more.

Andrew Jewett


Jason Blakely responds: 

While I appreciate the scholarly heft and erudition behind Andrew Jewett’s letter, I do not believe he has grasped my philosophical argument correctly. My position is most definitely not the one hearkening to the Twenties that sees the natural sciences as suspect forms of cryptoideology. To the contrary, findings of the natural sciences—whenever valid—I see as mostly transcending ideology and politics. My position is instead that the “human sciences” are not really sciences at all. It follows that no politics can properly be crowned “scientific” (on the model of the natural sciences). This is a position derived from the hermeneutics of Charles Taylor and Hans-Georg Gadamer.

Similarly, I would not deny for a moment that even local politics is a zone of “searing conflict.” My claim is merely that scientific authority does not provide an exit from this existential human predicament.


In Sickness and in Health

Krithika Varagur notes that the prevalence of sickle cell disease in West Africa makes carrier testing a good fit for Nigerians concerned about bringing children with the disease into the world [“Love in the Time of Sickle Cell Disease,” Letter from Lagos, August]. But many of us in the bioethics community are concerned about how reproduction and parenting will be changed by the use of prenatal genetic tests, especially when testing for non-disease traits like intelligence or athletic ability become available. 

As Varagur points out, prenatal testing for Down syndrome has been available for decades, and in certain countries the condition has almost been eradicated. Over the past ten years or so, prenatal tests for many other disabling conditions have also been introduced. Many people with disabilities now worry that these new tests are making their communities less welcoming for people like them. While these tests might address a desire on the part of parents to avoid having children with disabilities, we must consider the impact these decisions will have on those who live with those conditions today. It’s very possible that routine testing will change us for the worse, making us less open to difference and less accommodating to the vulnerable among us.

Chris Kaposy
Associate professor of bioethics,
Memorial University
St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador

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October 2023

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