The world’s most interesting man, Matthew B. Crawford, offers a brilliant and chilling diagnosis of “How Science Has Been Corrupted” at UnHerd. The hinge of his analysis is the “dissonance between our idealised image of science, on the one hand, and the work ‘science’ is called to do in society on the other,” which is rooted in a “mismatch between science as an activity of the solitary mind and the institutional reality of it.”
Science has public authority because it claims to pursue truth in an objective, disinterested way. Science gains its aura of authority from the myth of the lone scientist-martyr conducting experiments in the face of barbaric (usually religious) opposition.
But that’s not how science works, at all. Science doesn’t conform to myth, even as it appeals to the myth to buttress its public status. Today, all science is politicized science.
This is partly a function of scale. It takes huge amounts of money to do scientific research, and that money comes from large corporations, foundations, or governments. Its sheer “bigness” puts science “squarely in the world of extra-scientific concerns . . . including those concerns taken up by political lobbies.”
It’s also partly a function of the political role we’ve assigned to Science. In our technocratic society, invoking “Science” lends authority to public policy.
Yet scientific authority is paradoxical: While science is supposed to tell us the truth about the world, its discoveries are inherently provisional, always subject to falsification by later discoveries and theories. To shoulder the kind of authority it needs, Science has to appear non-provision. It must be more dogmatic; it must “become something more like a religion.”
To publicize its dogma, politicized science needs modes of dissemination. We live, Crawford observes, in a mixed regime, an uneasy combination of popular and technocratic authority.
Theoretically, the gap between them is closed by universal education, but everyone – including scientists – takes most science on faith. In practice, “the work of reconciling science and public opinion is carried out, not through education, but through a kind of distributed demagogy, or scientism,” “distributed” in the sense that Science’s “interlocked centers of power rely on [demagogy] to mutually prop one another up.”
For instance: Peer-reviewed journal articles bear the seal of scientific approval, but peer reviewers can function as gatekeepers who weed out dissent. Dissenters are then dismissed as losers who can’t get their research into a reputable journal.
Journalists then trumpet authoritative journal articles, and the public accepts the demagogy as settled truth that “everybody knows.” What counts as “Science” is controlled by research “cartels” that pay out in the currency of “epistemic prestige.”
Recently, the cartels have been wracked by waves of skepticism, driven in large measure by the rise of the internet. Science’s failures and self-interests are no longer hidden but gleefully publicized by populists, whose disdain for science is part of a general disdain for bigness and for elites.
In response, the cartels double down: “a cartel of expertise can be maintained only if it is part of a larger body of organised opinion and interests that, together, are able to run a sort of moral-epistemic protection racket.”
When its authority contested, the cartel changes registers. It no longer seeks to persuade, but instead issues moralistic decrees. The self-protective circularity of institutional science tightens as “the institutions that ratify particular pictures of what is going on in the world must not merely assert a monopoly of knowledge, but place a moratorium on the asking of questions and noticing of patterns.”
Cartels “mobilise the denunciatory energies of political activists to run interference and, reciprocally, the priorities of activist NGOs and foundations meter the flow of funding and political support to research bodies, in a circle of mutual support.”
Celebrities, especially celebrity-victims, are enlisted to rouse moral indignation against dissent. As a result, “epistemic threats to institutional authority are resolved into moral conflicts between good people and bad people.” Good people Follow Science. Bad people are conspiratorial Neanderthals.
I haven’t even gotten to the chilling parts of Crawford’s essay, which I’ll summarize with a few quotations.
First, “we are increasingly governed through the device of panics that give every appearance of being contrived to generate acquiescence in a public that has grown skeptical of institutions built on claims of expertise. . . . Stoking fear has long been an essential element of the business model of mass media, and this appears to be on a trajectory of integration with state functions in the West, in a tightening symbiosis.”
And then, with reference to masks: “by the nakedness of our faces we encounter one another as individuals, and in doing so we experience fleeting moments of grace and trust. To hide our faces behind masks is to withdraw this invitation. This has to be politically significant. Perhaps it is through such microscopic moments that we become aware of ourselves as a people, bound up in a shared fate. That’s what solidarity is. Solidarity, in turn, is the best bulwark against despotism . . . Withdrawal from such encounter now has the stamp of good citizenship, i.e., good hygiene. But what sort of regime are we to be citizens of?”
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