The American Revolution was in many ways inspired by the scientific one. But this says at least as much about science as it does about America—and as vaccine-related controversies renew calls to “listen to scientists,” it’s worth considering how the philosophy of science parallels the philosophy of the Founders, and what those parallels suggest about the nature of scientific authority.
One parallel between the foundations of science and the founding of our country is their shared metaphysical legalism. Just as the Founders assumed the existence of unchanging, rationally discoverable laws of politics, so too do scientists assume the existence of unchanging, rationally-discoverable laws of nature. Another parallel is that science, like the Founding, has both a progressive and conservative character. By writing down the constitution and basing it in “self-evident truths,” the Founders were creating something genuinely new and revolutionary—but they were also claiming, in George Mason’s words, “the liberty and privileges of Englishmen,” which belonged to a preexisting tradition. Likewise, science seeks to develop new theories that explain more about the world than their predecessors—but it constructs those theories on the basis of background knowledge, not just new experiments, and even accidental discoveries are usually the result of an existing research program, an inherited epistemic agenda.
These two parallels culminate in a crucial third: the depersonalization of authority. The goal of both science and the American regime is a system robust against the whims of human actors. Mindful of King George’s caprice, the Founders designed the constitution to constrain the actions of any would-be tyrant, such that no man would be above the law. This anti-tyrannical impulse finds its epistemic equivalent in the scientific method. Science is performed by researchers, yes, just as politics is done by politicians, but the requirements of good science—falsifiability, replicability, full accessibility of the results to the scientific community—prevent any one person from amassing absolute epistemic power, from maintaining a monopoly on truth. Furthermore, the laws science postulates govern everything and everyone, even those who are mistaken about (or in denial of) their content.
Like the American Constitution, then, science seeks to transcend the individual. It vests ultimate authority in procedures and practices, not persons, whose judgments it regards as perpetually provisional. It is this very assumption of provisionality that allows science to progress—to build on received wisdom without being bound by it.
That’s why anyone who believes in the scientific project should be skeptical of appeals to scientists, or to what an anthropomorphized Science “says.” Such appeals reinforce an attitude that is ultimately anti-science, that mistakes the agents of the thing for the thing itself. It’s the very sort of epistemic authoritarianism science was meant to challenge, and it stifles the doubt, the dissidence, the disbelief, that makes scientific progress possible at all.
Case in point: Katalin Kariko, whose research on RNA allowed Moderna to create a COVID vaccine in just two days, “was chronically overlooked, scorned, fired, [and] demoted” throughout her career, according to the New York Post. For 40 years, most scientists regarded her work as a waste of time. “The [former] chairman of UPenn treated me horribly and pushed me out of my lab at one point,” Kariko told the Post. “That was where I made some of my main discoveries but he didn’t understand. He told me I could go have a small office near the animal house for my lab.” The creation of mRNA vaccines did not vindicate “the scientists,” in other words; it vindicated a researcher who ignored the scientists, and saved millions of lives as a result.
More generally, scientific practice presupposes the possibility of scientific error. If scientists were never wrong, there would be no reason for them to replicate their findings—yet scientists spend countless hours doing just that. If scientists were never wrong, classical mechanics would have been able to explain the divergence of the blackbody radiation spectrum from the predictions of the Rayleigh-Jeans law—yet it could not. If scientists were never wrong, there would be no debates among them—yet scientific debate abounds.
And if scientists believed they were infallible, there would be no science, period. Yet science exists.
But it won’t exist for long if scientists begin to think of themselves the way the culture seems to think of them: as technocratic oracles who speak with one, incontrovertible voice. Science requires a suspension of certainty and an openness to being proved wrong. It assumes the contestability of settled knowledge and the fallibility of its practitioners. To insist that we “follow the science,” even off a cliff, is not to take some brave stand on behalf of beleaguered truth-tellers. It’s to disrespect their work by ignoring the difficulties inherent to it—the very difficulties that drive its progress. It’s to invite the very sort of tyranny that both science and America were created to prevent, to spit in the face of the Enlightenment.
You could even say it’s to deny science.
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