The Abuse and Misuse of Science “Is Gross to Watch”

by Don Boudreaux on October 25, 2021

in Myths and Fallacies, Science, Scientism

An economist friend, who teaches at a prominent U.S. university (not George Mason!), just sent to me the following e-mail in response to this earlier Cafe Hayek post in which I quote Thomas Sowell on the abuse of science. I share the e-mail with my friend’s kind permission, but my friend wishes to remain anonymous.

Regarding your quotation from Sowell on the use of “Science (TM)” by elites:

I’m becoming increasingly creeped out by the way the phrase “follow the science” is entering our common lexicon. At a minimum, the phrase betrays fundamental ignorance about how true science actually works. Science can’t lead anyone (it is far too haphazard and chaotic for that). Moreover, science is a process of discovering what is (the positive), and can never tell us what we ought to do (the normative). But if this sort of ignorance were all we had to worry about, I think the problem would be manageable. I’m worried that Science(TM) is becoming religious in nature. Human beings have an innate religious tendency. They long to worship something that can imbue themselves and their world with metaphysical meaning. As the West has moved away from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, people are looking for substitutes to fill their religious instincts. John McWhorter has a new book out about how “Wokeism” is one such substitute. Others have pointed out that environmentalism often functions as another religious substitute. I think this cult-of-science is a third. (I’m a religious person myself, which I think makes it a bit easier for me to see the inherently religious nature of these phenomena.)

The cult wants to anoint scientists as 21st century scientist-priests who receive divine truth and convey it to the masses. To question the priests is to question the divine and thus out oneself as a heretic (i.e. a science-denier). I fear that precious few scientists will be able to resist the lure of celebrity and adulation that followers of the cult are offering them. They may not realize until it’s too late that it’s a devil’s bargain. In exchange for becoming the scientist-priests of the science-cult mob, these former scientists find that they are as much the captives of the mob as they are its leaders. True science is driven by evidence and almost always leads in surprising and unpredictable directions (because the universe is far more complicated than we can imagine). The cult-of-science is nothing more than scientism married to confirmation bias. Thus, the conclusions of the new scientist-priests are actually dictated to them by the mob. In return for status and celebrity (and even some money), the scientist-priests then furnish the mob with a sciency-sounding justification for their predetermined conclusions.  Thus, “follow the science” really means to follow the crowd, with some science jargon judiciously applied, like lipstick to a pig. The whole thing is gross to watch.

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