Follow the Science?

Benjamin A. Kleinerman is the R.W. Morrison Professor of Political Science at Baylor University. He is the Editor of The Constitutionalist.

Illustration by Madeleine Kleinerman, Second Year Student, Emory University


Throughout this pandemic, science has often been invoked as a deciding authority on many of the important policies we’ve faced.  Those who advocate for certain positions claim that the “science” dictates it, which forces their opposition into an anti-science standpoint.  To disagree with the epidemiological suggestions of the CDC was to be fundamentally anti-science.  In using science as our guidepost for all questions of policy, we seem to be able to escape politics.  Policy decisions aren’t political; they’re scientific.  As such, they need not justify themselves in the same way that a political decision would.  Science promises neutrality and, as such, freedom from any value judgments.  Rather than being imposed on us by administrative experts in the CDC, science allows policy-makers to obscure that imposition. Anthony Fauci has not imposed the lockdown on us; it’s epidemiology’s fault.  Which is to say that it’s no one’s fault except the logical truth of science.  And so, anyone who opposes the lockdown opposes epidemiology.  To oppose epidemiology is to oppose the neutral authority of science; only stupid and ignorant people would do that.  By invoking science as its authority, these policy-makers have placed themselves beyond reproach among intelligent science-loving people and susceptible of reproach only by idiots.  This invocation, however, raises several problems all of which point back to the need for using politics to make policy decisions.  Politics, by contrast to science, promises democratic transparency and accountability, both of which have been obscured by our “follow the science” rhetoric.   

First, science does not speak univocally on an issue such as the proper response to an epidemic.  In a recent article criticizing the pro-Trumpers for their anti-science stance, David Frum seems almost accidentally to hit on the truth of the matter: “Scientists live with uncertainty.  Politics abhors it.”  Any good scientist would admit that science qua science is necessarily uncertain.  That’s the nature of modern science itself.  Scientists can come to reasonable conclusions on the basis of solid evidence.  But those conclusions are necessarily tentative.  Scientists come to them through non-falsifiable hypotheses.  They claim not so much that they are capital t True as that they can’t be falsified with the evidence that they have.  Unlike ancient Aristotelian science which seemed to want to find the Truth, Baconian modern science is pursued more for “the relief of man’s estate” than for “intellectual enlightenment.”  As such, scientists are more comfortable with some uncertainty so long as their findings are useful for improving human well-being.  As an example, medical scientists often don’t know why certain kinds of drugs work as they do when administered on human beings.  Because their scientific conclusions are based on non-falsifiability rather than causal connections, they don’t have the foundation on which to claim capital t Truth.  They don’t necessarily have a clear description as to how and why the medicine works as it does.  They only know through clinical trials that it works.  The clinical trials themselves are enough to satisfy modern science.  This isn’t to say that scientists might not figure out why medicines work as they do or that by unearthing causal connections they may not improve their science; it is only to say that modern medical science depends more on a principle of non-falsifiability than on explanatory truth. Given the tentativeness of this starting point, it is incompatible with modern science itself to say that there is some conclusive science to follow in the case of epidemiological science.  Epidemiology comes to its “scientific” conclusions concerning public policy on the basis of un-tested predictions about human behavior.   As the CDC defines the applied aspect of epidemiology, it is both “a science and an art.” Quoting the CDC page: “the epidemiologist uses the scientific methods of descriptive and analytic epidemiology as well as experience, epidemiologic judgment, and understanding of local conditions in ‘diagnosing’ the health of a community and proposing appropriate, practical, and acceptable public health interventions to control and prevent disease in the community.”  Although there is obviously some degree of science in this analysis, the judgments depend on predictions about human behavior in a global pandemic which, thankfully, don’t occur very often.  Scientists generally base their predictions on behavior that can be observed with sufficient frequency that a real pattern can be determined.   These predictions about behavior also depend on constancy within which the behavior occurs.  There are far too few global pandemics to generate, at least as a scientific matter, patterns of behavior.  And even the few that we have had took place in different times such that there’s no consistent background by which to generate any real predictions.   The Spanish Flu epidemic occurred in a very different time with different communication and transportation conditions.  Although I am not an expert in epidemiology, I would guess that, to use the language of the CDC, “local conditions” would have to incorporate those differences.  So, in truth, epidemiological applications take place in a relative vacuum of solid evidence. 

This lack of definitive scientific authority means that epidemiological “applications” are on much less solid ground than the language of clear and decisive scientific guidance suggests.  Although epidemiology can give us some solid suggestions regarding possible courses of action, the CDC itself goes no further than to call these judgments rather than clear courses of action.  That is, the science itself admits the need for prudential judgments that are informed by science but cannot be decided by it.

Our rhetoric about science tends, however, to obscure the profound uncertainty of the whole enterprise.  Frum’s observation that scientists live with uncertainty gets to the heart of the matter.  Science qua science is, in fact, a necessarily uncertain enterprise.  Again, its conclusions are always tentative because they rest not on any clear Truth but merely on the fact that insufficient evidence has been found to contradict the conclusion.  If new evidence were found, the scientist would give up the conclusion.  Modern science is comfortable with this uncertainty to the extent that it can, again quoting Bacon, relieve “man’s estate.”  Unlike ancient Aristotelian science which had difficulty making progress because it was always in search of a string of causes which would fully explain all phenomena, Baconian science could make progress precisely because it gave up on this certainty. 

Politics, however, uses science in precisely the opposite way.  It attempts to settle political questions by citing the absolute and changeless character of science.  Science’s authority allows a kind of absoluteness that politics might want but can never actually find.  Despite the fact that scientists actually do not claim absolute answers to scientific questions, politics uses science as though it does.  Scientists are always in a state of relative certainty.  Politicians have borrowed from scientists the claim that there is an absolute answer to questions like whether a lockdown is a good idea despite the fact that scientists would not make the same claim.  The rhetoric of “science” creates the possibility of absolute claims even though science itself wouldn’t make such claims.              

The problem, however, is even deeper than that if we take seriously the possibility that there are different answers to the question as to what political goods we ought most value.  When politicians come to judgments about policies, they typically come to necessarily contestable judgments.  That contestability comes partially from a procedural question already alluded to by the previous discussion of scientific answers to policy questions.  For instance, there could be a debate within the domain of expertise about whether and what kind of lockdown would best achieve the political good of public health.  But prior to that debate is the question as to whether public health as such ought to be the primary political good that we’re seeking.   On that level, whether a lockdown itself in relation to the epidemic is a good idea or not is also necessarily contestable.  It depends ultimately on a question as to what we most value.  If health and mere life are most valued then the lockdown quarantine makes sense.  If, however, we make the judgment, as they did in Sweden, that there are human goods more important than mere life, then it might make sense to follow a different path.  And the answer to that question cannot possibly be answered by science.  Science can answer the procedural question only provisionally; it cannot competently answer the value question. 

Influenced partially by Foucault, Giorgio Agemben, the same person who had been critical of the Bush-era national security state, has written quite critically of the “bio-politics” that lies at the heart of the lockdown.  Insofar as what Agamben calls “bare life” becomes the only political good, scientific expertise translates easily into power and that power becomes invasive.  It is, of course, an open question whether Agamben is right about the invasiveness of bio-politics or even whether he’s right in the implicit claim that there ought be something other than bio-politics governing us.  Either way, the answer to this question cannot be supplied by science itself.  Science comes after politics; to the extent that it attempts to displace politics, it is actually acting politically.  The political questions always come first; if scientific questions claim that they can come prior to political questions, they are necessarily political in and of themselves. 

This critique of science points back to the necessity that we “follow the prudence” rather than the science.  Political prudence involves considered judgment both about means and about ends.  Prudence can and should use science to the extent that science helps us make reasonable inferences about the best means to achieve certain ends.  These judgments are necessarily questionable precisely because they cannot possibly enjoy the authority associated with objectivity or neutrality.  Although they are not objective or neutral, we as a democratic people can accept them insofar as they are made by politicians chosen by us to represent our best interests, broadly understood.  Although political prudence can and should use expertise, it cannot be reduced to expertise.  Prudence is always and necessarily acting in a world of uncertainty, both about the best means and about the best ends.   But the turn to political prudence isn’t as far from the science as it might seem.  As has been already said, the CDC’s own statement about the science of epidemiological applications calls for “judgments” about best procedures.  Although those judgments can and should inform the prudence of politicians, it shouldn’t displace it.  Given the question as to whose judgments are best, we ought prefer that of a politician elected by us to represent us than faceless bureaucrats who cannot be held accountable for their judgments in the same way.   

Insofar as science has achieved a disproportionate political stature, it has created a dysfunctional politics that obscures political prudence.  During the Covid crisis, Anthony Fauci’s epidemiological conclusions about the need for a quarantine received a great deal of attention and became central to the procedures which politicians enacted.  As he came to play a central role in the quarantine procedures, we witnessed the odd phenomenon of a President campaigning against an administrator within his own Administration.   Because of the authority of science, the President would have had tremendous difficulty pursuing a path different than Fauci’s recommendations.  At the same time, he knew that many of his supporters didn’t approve of those recommendations.  In a healthy politics of responsibility, Trump would have had either to choose to follow the recommendations or choose not to; the people could have held him accountable for whichever decision he made.  As the saying goes, the “buck” would have stopped there.  The politics of “science,” however, allowed him essentially not to make a decision for which he could be held responsible.  He could implement the CDC’s applications even as he simultaneously called them into question.  This meant that his supporters could continue to cheer him even as they disagreed with the very policies that his Administration supported.  Had he been forced to choose, he would have had either to follow his supporters’ wishes with all of the potentially disastrous consequences of not implementing a quarantine or follow the CDC’s guidance with all of the political fall-out that would result in.  He was able to seem to do both and thus suffered the consequences of neither.  Instead of a politics of prudence and responsibility, we witnessed a politics of imprudence and irresponsibility.

As can be seen by the politics of the Covid crisis, the political authority of science has had a damaging effect on democratic transparency and accountability.  The conservative critique of progressivism seems ultimately rooted in a worry about the rule of expertise rather than the people.  Instead of the people exercising political authority over themselves, supposed experts guide them toward that which is said to be best for them.  Although some might be critical of the “experts”, they feel powerless in relation to them.  Insofar as expertise claims more political authority than the people’s inexpert criticisms, it holds the stage independent of democratic accountability.  Even democratic transparency disappears as the scientific claim to expertise shrouds decisions in scientific jargon inaccessible to the average citizen. 

The rule of science resembles in some important ways Tocqueville’s argument regarding the danger of “soft despotism.”  Scientists don’t rule the people tyrannically.  They look out for what they consider to be their best interests.  But as Tocqueville describes it, this is more like the relationship between sheep and their shepherd than it is political rule.  The people have very little actual voice in the way in which they’re ruled.  Because a democratic people is always inherently skeptical of their politicians, this relationship couldn’t occur on a purely political level.  On a purely political level, a democratic people would always remain skeptical of politicians who claimed they knew better what was good for them.  Science, however, can claim the authority that politicians cannot.  The people are compelled to follow it because it has an expertise that they don’t.  And, even if many people remain skeptical, as many Trump supporters were of Dr. Faucci’s Covid measures, that skepticism lacks serious credibility.

Even if science has the best solutions to certain policy problems, its unassailable position has serious consequences for healthy democratic politics. Healthy democratic politics would seem to require that everyone has an equal voice and an equal ability to influence policy.  Scientific expertise closes off access to all people for whom the science is inaccessible.  More than that, it makes an absolute claim that closes off access to almost everyone.  Only the expert scientists who know best can make policy.  So, regardless of whether Trump supporters were right in their disagreements with the CDC’s measures, one of the underlying motivations for their disagreement should be understandable to us.  They felt like they lacked a voice.  Lacking such a voice, it’s not surprising to see what amounts to a guttural scream first in the election of Trump and then in the January 6th events. 

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