Most middle schoolers or high schoolers in America are taught a mode of empirical inquiry and knowledge attainment usually referred to as the “scientific method.” Although the discipline has origins dating back to classical antiquity, the term emerged in the 19th century and took on sustained life in the 20th century. The multistep “scientific method,” as it is generally formulated, amounts to something along the lines of: 1) problem; 2) research; 3) hypothesis; 4) experiment; 5) data collection; 6) analysis; and 7) conclusion.
Rational empiricism and a skepticism of the status quo inhere in the very process; they are baked into the entire enterprise. The purpose of the scientific method is to constantly contest and, when necessary, disprove flawed hypotheses and mistaken conclusions previously deduced about the workings of the natural world. A basic thought experiment is instructive: Imagine what sort of world we might have today had Copernicus, Galileo and all subsequent astronomers blindly accepted the erroneous, then-dominant belief in a geocentric universe.
True, as the conservative icon Edmund Burke taught, epistemological humility is a defining trait of political statesmanship. But science is not, contra the Left’s frequent hysterical shrieks, synonymous with politics. On the contrary, any scientist worth his salt must approach his discipline with something resembling the opposite of epistemological humility—skepticism, that is, of the legitimacy of the inherited status quo and an insatiable desire to challenge the status quo’s underlying precepts. Only through such intellectually unconstrained, methodologically rigorous testing can we approach confidence in the validity of any claimed scientific knowledge.
Alas, the Democratic Party, America’s would-be “party of science,” whose leading lights bellow, “Trust the science!” as an authoritative command akin to the tablet-bearing Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, missed the memo. Whether the issue is climate change, COVID-19 mask mandates, pandemic-era school reopenings or any other number of issues, the Left browbeats its political opponents with the faux mantle of science and accuses those who have the temerity to ask questions as science “deniers.” Flat-earthers no doubt nod with approval, but Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein scowl from the grave.
Hold aside the fact that the Left, on issues such as the biological personhood of the unborn child and the chromosomal immutability of sex, holds substantive policy positions that are manifestly hostile to science. The frequency with which the Left acts as if the science on any given issue is “settled”—indeed, the very notion of “settled science”—is anti-science, no matter how confident proponents of any specific scientific theory may be. It was less than a year ago, after all, that the World Health Organization’s Dr. Mike Ryan pronounced: “There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit.”
It turns out that “science” was not particularly “settled.” And within just a few months, after the WHO changed its mind on the efficacy of mask-wearing, Facebook outright removed a prominent mask-skeptical group on its platform for spreading COVID-19 “misinformation.”
All throughout this pandemic—whether it was “15 days to slow the spread,” mask mandates, social distancing, draconian lockdowns, business closures or massively delayed school reopenings—skeptics have been told to shut up and just “follow the science.” But even if the notion of “settled science” were somehow not oxymoronic (which it is), it would be unjust to structure a public policy agenda and political regime solely based upon the whims of science. Scientists naturally view the world and advocate policy recommendations through the prism of their chosen discipline. So, medical doctors, such as the much-ballyhooed Dr. Anthony Fauci, naturally view the world through the prism of medicine. Economists naturally view the world through the prism of economics. The task falls to politicians alone to deploy prudence, discernment, and careful judgment in balancing competing inputs and best channeling the pursuit of justice, human flourishing, and the common good.
With apologies to Neil deGrasse Tyson, no one should want to live in a world in which science rules the roost. Such a life would be desiccated, miserable, and meaningless. Science exists to assist in our understanding of the natural universe, but it has no answers whatsoever to life’s most existentially pressing questions—the existence of God, the best way to lead a virtuous life, and so forth.
Lowercase “s” science is good; uppercase “S” Science is bad. And it would benefit our political leaders to grasp the all-important difference.
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