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Thou Shall Not Preach, But Research

Thea Dorn, Die Zeit

Scientists should excel by doubting, not by being dogmatic. But already in the climate debate some of them have become ideologists. This disaster is now threatening epidemiology too. A warning call

One of the most valuable achievements of secular societies is the separation of church and state. One of the most disturbing developments of highly technological societies is the desire that science and state should be as close as possible. In recent years, the challenges posed by climate change have already led to a growing number of voices demanding that policy-makers simply listen to “the science” and implement its recommendations without further ado. 

In the course of the corona pandemic, this trend has become even more pronounced: The longing for a technocracy led by a scientific clergy that dictates science and also politics seems to be growing in parts of society.

“Belief in Science is playing the role of the dominant religion of our time.” This sentence is not from a conspiracy fanatic, but from Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. It is found at the beginning of a series of lectures the physicist, philosopher and pacifist gave between 1959 and 1961 on “The scope of science”. Today – even more than sixty years later – it is important to understand in which respect science has successfully inherited religious beliefs and in which respects science should be careful not to take on the heritage of religion.

Anyone who, as a member of a highly technological societies, denies that  modern sciences are superior to all known religions in terms of knowledge and mastery of nature, is making himself ridiculous. Anyone who insists with a smartphone in his hand that the Bible explains the origin of mankind more correctly than the theory of evolution is an irrational dogmatist. But there is a world of difference between an irrational dogmatist and a reasonable skeptic. It is therefore not acceptable to immediately defame anyone who expresses doubts about the reliability of epidemiological or climate models as a “climate” or “corona denier”.

In contrast to religion, modern science owes its success to its openness to doubt, criticism and self-correction; its claim to make sober and objectively verifiable statements. Only if it is strictly rational in this sense, can it accomplish achievements in the field of the control of nature and thus of fate, for which our ancestors could think of no other term than “miracle”.

This stupendous power of science must not, however, lead to the mistaken belief that it has the miraculous  gift of mastering the future. Anyone who wants to sell science as an instrument with which man can gain absolute certainty and control over his destiny is leaving the ground of serious science and making himself a preacher of damnation and salvation.
In the climate debate we have already seen the change from prominent scientists to high priests. It would be fatal if, under the pressure of a frightened public, helpless politics and headline-loving media, this change were to take place in the field of virology and epidemiology.

In the summer of 2019, an essay by the renowned climate researcher Stefan Rahmstorf about the coral dieback appeared in Der Spiegel under the pointed headline “Mankind is losing control over the state of the Earth”. It read: “Simply allowing this ecosystem to collapse would not only be completely unacceptable. It would be the beginning of a loss of control, the falling of a first domino in a closely interwoven living earth system in which everything is interconnected and interdependent”.

Even in the more differentiated wording, this view is based on an absurd and highly questionable assumption. On the one hand, Rahmstorf pretends that man has already had control over the “earth system”: for how can I lose something if I have never possessed it? On the other hand, he reduces all life forms on our planet, which are partly predictable and partly chaotic, into a bleak and mechanistic image of a domino sequence: knock over one domino and you can reliably predict the complete chain of consequences.

The pressure on virologists and epidemiologists

The advantage of this sleight of hand is that the fear of a hyper-complex system – such as our earth’s climate – is transformed into the fear of human beings who ruin this system. Thanks to the self-accusing shift in fear, the prospect of control can be held out – if only man, for his part, will behave as a domino in a mechanistic system, which must not wobble, sway or even step out of line. Human action is treated as a quasi-physical quantity whose consequences can then supposedly be calculated and reliably predicted just as precisely as the orbits of planets.

In mid-April, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber presented a double presumption of knowledge in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The physics professor, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and long-standing advisor to the German government on climate policy, is among the pandemic experts. He reinterprets the spread of the novel coronavirus as a strictly predictable phenomenon, with which he can declare the course of the pandemic to be controllable – on condition that people unconditionally believe in ‘the science’ and submit to its orders of behaviour. 

Schellnhuber writes:
“The epidemiological model calculations of the leading research institutes are crystal balls with which every country can look into its corona future for weeks, months, even years. […] Citizens, experts, entrepreneurs and politicians now stare together at the colourful diagrams that reveal which country is currently in which epidemic stage and who has allowed precious intervention time to pass where. Mercilessly, the tiny pathogen punishes the anti-scientific fools among the rulers and confirms the rationalists among them”.

If one thinks, for example, of the current president of the USA and his Jack with a Lanthorn approach to the Coronavirus, one may spontaneously agree with this remark. But the approval gets stuck in your throat when you read what the epidemiologists from the Centre for Infection Research at the University of Minnesota explain in the foreword to their statement they published at the end of April on the subject of Covid-19:
“The virus has caught the world community unprepared, the course it will take is still extremely unpredictable; there is no crystal ball that lets us look into the future and tells us what the ‘endgame’ for controlling this pandemic will look like”.

Should we brand these researchers as “anti-scientific fools”, too?

On the contrary: we can be thankful that there are still enough scientists who reject the magic of the crystal ball view and the delusion of complete control. For the pressure on virologists and epidemiologists to become soothsayers and uncritical advocates is growing.

When the virologist Hendrik Streeck remarked on a German talk show that if only “one factor” is misjudged in epidemiological model calculations, “then  all collapses like a house of cards”, he provoked strong protest from the chemist and science journalist Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim. 
On her YouTube channel “maiLab”, she accused Streeck of being guilty of “foreshortening” with this remark, which “can shake the confidence of laypersons in the important work of epidemiologists and their model calculations”. […]
Irrationalism is on the rise

[…] Democracies depend on the rational, realistic handling of problems. To do this, politicians need scientific advisors, including those who warn of the dangers for humanity. However, scientists have to stay out of the immediate political decision-making process – as Christian Drosten has repeatedly stated in his podcast.The concept of the activist scientist or “Conscience-ist” – which what Hans Joachim Schellnhuber calls himself – represents a relapse into pre-enlightened thinking. With a slogan like “Unite behind the Science!” crusaders may sway an oath of allegiance to a sacred mission. If you want to do a service to science, you have to fight for credibility of those scientists who, despite all hostility, stand firmly for critical rationalism and organised skepticism.

If you look at the conspiracy craze that is raging on the internet these days, you can only come to the conclusion that irrationalism is on the rise. But this terrifying advance cannot be stopped by science driving itself into an ideological tunnel. No matter how convinced you are of your cause: As an activist in a democracy, you have to be ready to fight for your conviction in the field of intellectual dissent. You can’t just carry a standard-flag around with the flawed concept of ‘follow the science’ like a magic spear that brands all opponents as “anti-science deniers” and which aims at silencing them by shame. This only blurs the boundaries between science and ideology, between reason and unreason.
All those who today project their expectations of salvation into science, who hang on the lips of researchers because they hope for redemptive sentences should note that No serious scientist can offer real peace of mind, or the belief that “everything” will be fine. Modern science comes from physics, not from metaphysics. Therefore, it cannot provide answers to how man should deal with his fear of the unknown, his fear of death, how he can make his peace with the fact that he is not only the master of his fate, but also subjected to his own mortality.

One of the most tragic acts a person can commit is suicide for fear of death. One of the most tragic acts a democracy can commit is self-submission to the rigid rules of action of a clerical science for fear of accepting the power of nature.

Full post (in German)