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Matthew Crawford: How science has been corrupted

Matthew Crawford, Unherd

Like other forms of demagogy, scientism presents stylised facts and a curated picture of reality. In doing so, it may generate fears strong enough to render democratic principles moot.

Science as authority

In 1633, Galileo was brought before the Inquisition for his demonstration that the earth is not fixed but revolves around the sun. This was a problem, obviously, because the ecclesiastical authorities believed their legitimacy rested on a claim to have an adequate grasp of reality, as indeed it did. Galileo had no interest in being a martyr, and recanted to save his skin. But in the lore of Enlightenment, he is said to have muttered under his breath, “but it does move!”

This anecdote has a prominent place in the story we tell about what it means to be modern. On one side, science with its devotion to truth. On the other side, authority, whether ecclesiastical or political. In this tale, “science” stands for a freedom of the mind that is inherently at odds with the idea of authority.

The pandemic has brought into relief a dissonance between our idealised image of science, on the one hand, and the work “science” is called upon to do in our society, on the other. I think the dissonance can be traced to this mismatch between science as an activity of the solitary mind, and the institutional reality of it. Big science is fundamentally social in its practice, and with this comes certain entailments.

As a practical matter, “politicised science” is the only kind there is (or rather, the only kind you are likely to hear about). But it is precisely the apolitical image of science, as disinterested arbiter of reality, that makes it such a powerful instrument of politics. This contradiction is now out in the open. The “anti-science” tendencies of populism are in significant measure a response to the gap that has opened up between the practice of science and the ideal that underwrites its authority. As a way of generating knowledge, it is the pride of science to be falsifiable (unlike religion).

Yet what sort of authority would it be that insists its own grasp of reality is merely provisional? Presumably, the whole point of authority is to explain reality and provide certainty in an uncertain world, for the sake of social coordination, even at the price of simplification. To serve the role assigned it, science must become something more like religion.

The chorus of complaints about a declining “faith in science” states the problem almost too frankly. The most reprobate among us are climate sceptics, unless those be the Covid deniers, who are charged with not obeying the science. If all this has a medieval sound, it ought to give us pause.

We live in a mixed regime, an unstable hybrid of democratic and technocratic forms of authority. Science and popular opinion must be made to speak with one voice as far as possible, or there is conflict. According to the official story, we try to harmonise scientific knowledge and opinion through education. But in reality, science is hard, and there is a lot of it. We have to take it mostly on faith. That goes for most journalists and professors, as well as plumbers. The work of reconciling science and public opinion is carried out, not through education, but through a kind of distributed demagogy, or Scientism. We are learning that this is not a stable solution to the perennial problem of authority that every society must solve.

The phrase “follow the science” has a false ring to it. That is because science doesn’t lead anywhere. It can illuminate various courses of action, by quantifying the risks and specifying the tradeoffs. But it can’t make the necessary choices for us. By pretending otherwise, decision-makers can avoid taking responsibility for the choices they make on our behalf.

Increasingly, science is pressed into duty as authority. It is invoked to legitimise the transfer of sovereignty from democratic to technocratic bodies, and as a device for insulating such moves from the realm of political contest….

The bigness of big science — both the corporate form of the activity, and its need for large resources generated otherwise than by science itself — places science squarely in the world of extra-scientific concerns, then. Including those concerns taken up by political lobbies. If the concern has a high profile, any dissent from the official consensus may be hazardous to an investigator’s career.

Public opinion polls generally indicate that what “everybody knows” about some scientific matter, and its bearing on public interests, will be identical to the well-institutionalized view. This is unsurprising, given the role the media plays in creating consensus. Journalists, rarely competent to assess scientific statements critically, cooperate in propagating the pronouncements of self-protecting “research cartels” as science.

Bauer’s concept of a research cartel came into public awareness in an episode that occurred five years after his article appeared. In 2009, someone hacked the emails of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Britain and released them, prompting the “climategate” scandal in which the scientists who sat atop the climate bureaucracy were revealed to be stonewalling against requests for their data from outsiders. This was at a time when many fields, in response to their own replication crises, were adopting data sharing as a norm in their research communities, as well as other practices such as reporting null findings and the pre-registration of hypotheses in shared forums.

The climate research cartel staked its authority on the peer review process of journals deemed legitimate, which meddling challengers had not undergone. But, as Gurri notes in his treatment of climategate, “since the group largely controlled peer review for their field, and a consuming subject of the emails was how to keep dissenting voices out of the journals and the media, the claim rested on a circular logic”.

One can be fully convinced of the reality and dire consequences of climate change while also permitting oneself some curiosity about the political pressures that bear on the science, I hope. Try to imagine the larger setting when the IPPC convenes. Powerful organisations are staffed up, with resolutions prepared, communications strategies in place, corporate “global partners” secured, interagency task forces standing by and diplomatic channels open, waiting to receive the good word from an empaneled group of scientists working in committee.

This is not a setting conducive to reservations, qualifications, or second thoughts. The function of the body is to produce a product: political legitimacy.

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