Science and Liberty in the Days of COVID

Jonathan Badger is a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis.

In a recent essay, Benjamin Kleinerman argues that there’s something askew in the current relationship of science to American politics.  The insights of modern science are contingent, partial, and subject to revision, yet politicians and other public figures often invoke science as though they’re invoking gospel truth.  While credentialed members of the scientific establishment are generally cautious and modest in their claims and recommendations, pundits and politicians coopt the utterances of scientists as if they were the proclamations of all-knowing oracles.  This is problematic, as Kleinerman points out, in that while science might disclose some of the truth (with a small t), it cannot answer the larger questions of policy, which necessarily involve prudence and value-driven deliberation, both of which are beyond the purview of science as such.

Reasonable and correct as this observation may be, it abstracts from crucial aspects of the very dynamic it sets out to diagnose.  The limits of science are well-understood by science itself, and they represent prominent topics of discussion in the history of science, dating back to its politically driven beginnings in the sixteenth century. Francis Bacon’s ambitious hopes for advancement in the sciences were explicitly humanitarian and cosmopolitan even as he pointedly excluded metaphysical certitude and philosophical contemplations from the realm of this project. 

The modern liberal regime was a direct descendant of this scientific awakening, and established politics as an intelligible interplay of known elements, while acknowledging the limits of human understanding for reducing social and personal life to rational account and a control.  A rational structure for political power that simultaneously preserves and subordinates itself to the principles of individual dignity and liberty abides at the nexus of modern political science and the recognition of transcendent principles beyond the reach of any science. 

While particular scientists or scientific institutions may gravitate toward political power and influence — whether out of vanity, beneficence, or both — the liberal regime properly subordinates natural science to legitimate political power, which finally lies in the hands of the people.  The idea of a technocracy ruled by scientists is manifestly illiberal and incompatible with a constitutional republic like our own. 

Grappling with these historical and theoretical foundations of modern science and modern politics is always timely.  Despite the alternating adoration and hatred directed toward prominent figures such as, for example, Anthony Fauci, the scientific establishment does not hold political power.  It is advisory to those who do.  Yet there seems to be a persistent tendency among some to interpret this arrangement in sinister terms.  Kleinerman’s version of this holds that while the CDC doesn’t accept responsibility for decision-making and does not set policy directly or openly, it does in fact hold power, which it “obscures” by using elected officials as cover.  Depending on how seriously one holds this view, we end up at the mercy of a star chamber or at least a bureaucratic deep state.

The concern seems to suppose two problems, perhaps deeply related.  One is that America has become a technocracy ruled by scientific elites who operate behind the scenes.  The other is that public discourse is subverted by partisans of technocracy who cite the claims of scientists as though these claims are absolute and derived with apodeictic certitude.  The result is a regime in which puppet rulers invoke science as a political authority, to which the rest of us must bend the knee.  In Kleinerman’s analysis, empowered scientists avoid the transparency and responsibility of actual policy decisions, while instrumental politicians avoid the awkward posture of scientific precision, ignoring the restricted and contingent character of scientific claims.  Such a disjunction of power and responsibility does indeed sound like a serious problem.

But is this the right way to characterize our predicament?  In the spring of 2020, a number of state and local governments exerted varying degrees of force to lock down their populations, and they did so on the advice of public health experts.  The federal government exerted no such force.  So, right off the bat we should acknowledge that charges of scientistic overreach, in this case at least, should be restricted to state and local actors.  Such an acknowledgement underscores that the influence of the scientific clerisy is at worst a highly diffuse operation: the CDC issues guidelines on a website, which state and local health departments read along with everyone else.  This is even more difficult to regard as a star chamber or a deep state.   

If readers of the CDC website, including journalists and presidential candidates, point out that “scientists” tell us we can protect ourselves from SARS-CoV-2 by social distancing, wearing masks, and washing our hands, this does not seem on the face of it to be a vaunting hubris, overstating the metaphysical and epistemological capacities of natural science.  In fact, this was basically the extent of the scientific advice to the public during most of the pandemic, and it has consistently been demonstrated to be effective and correct.  To deny that these measures are effective at curbing the spread of the virus would indeed be anti-science.  Kleinerman is right to say that such contrarian voices have been dismissed as anti-science, because this is exactly what they are.  There is no pro-science position that holds that masks and social distancing do not diminish the spread of the virus.  There may have been a moment in early 2020 when a scientifically informed point of view would honestly ask questions about these measures, and perhaps even become perplexed at the array of evidence.  But there is little excuse for such skepticism among scientifically literate non-scientists in the summer of 2021. 

It may be correct to complain that spokespersons for the CDC and NIH were less forthright and unified in their messaging in the early days of the pandemic.  This in itself does not constitute an illiberal political arrangement.  The situation was unprecedented; it was difficult to monitor facts on the ground across disparate state data-gathering protocols; and political leadership was often erratic and inane.  The good news is that the experts continued to evolve with the threat and found their way toward steady prescriptions that they conveyed to the public, perhaps as best they could under political leadership that routinely undermined their efforts.   

Over the course of a few weeks, from February to April of 2020, the advice became uniform and consistent.  This evolution in guidance is understandable.  It is very true to observe, as Kleinerman does via David Frum, that science is inherently skeptical of its own conclusions, at least as a matter of procedure.  What gets left out of this highlighting of science’s admirable self-critique, however, is that at a certain point after a hypothesis has been tested and re-tested and challenged unsuccessfully from every side, after its empirical demonstration has been duplicated in the field and in labs around the globe, some scientific claims gather what can broadly be called consensus.  Granted, even this doesn’t qualify for the metaphysical truth-status that non-scientific minds might feel to be the real standard for Truth.  To persist in challenging such consensus, however, requires taking a stand outside the scientific apparatus, and this is indeed an anti-science posture by definition.  Strictly speaking, we can’t say that such a challenge is “wrong,” but its source is not a scientific source, and such skepticism is necessarily rooted in a skepticism of science as such, and is thus rightly associated with an “anti-science” view.   

There is certainly room for a non-anti-science opinion that nevertheless rejects masks and lockdowns, but this would need to be more artfully and honestly articulated than what we typically heard from the political right or from the White House in 2020 (and what we hear from the Florida governor’s office now).  For example, one could rationally argue that despite the far higher public death toll and the crushing burden that would surely have descended upon our health care infrastructure, the alternative policy of leaving the economy wide open and letting the virus burn through the population would have been a better policy than the policies that were actually adopted by state and local governments last year.  One might argue that governments have no legitimate authority to mitigate natural threats to health, and that if a viral disease kills millions and overwhelms hospitals all over the country, this is an acceptable outcome in the preservation of liberty.  The damage to the economy might be even worse and more long-lasting than what we have endured during the current pandemic had most states taken that approach last year, but in that hypothetical case with few masks and no lockdowns at least the damage would have been wrought by the hand of nature’s god, and not by our own overweening technocratic elites.   Many would argue that this would have been bad policy, but it wouldn’t have been an anti-science policy.    

Science cannot tell us that we must wear masks and shelter in place; it can only tell us that orders of magnitude more death and suffering from the virus would result by not doing so.  The policy deliberations that take a wider set of national concerns into consideration are part of a political process beyond the scope of natural science.  If the public has become confused and has come to believe that Anthony Fauci, the CDC and NIH are issuing decrees and exerting force, then it’s very good to point out that this is not so and that these people and institutions have no authority to compel state lockdowns or mask mandates.  But it is also right to be honest about the actual rhetoric of those who opposed lockdowns and mask mandates.  On the whole, it seems fair to say that this rhetoric was not appealing in good faith to scientific insight, nor were those who advocated masks and lockdowns proposing technocratic despotism.  If the public was confused about the authority of the CDC it’s possible this was because of the rhetoric of the anti-science right. 

As Kleinerman acknowledges, Donald Trump irresponsibly called science into question in his zeal to keep the U. S. economy up and running during the pandemic, but the counter-argument to Trump was not that science should rule.  Particularly at the federal level, this is easy to see.  After his inauguration, Joe Biden did not establish a committee of scientists with the authority to set policy.  He did not abrogate his proper role, although some might have preferred him to exert more force.  Rather, he pleaded with the country to wear masks and socially distance, openly acknowledging that this was the advice of those who actually understand the effects of viruses on human populations. 

The hue and cry from the political right seems focused on a straw man.  If Biden et al., were calling for the country to subordinate itself to the CDC or calling for simply allowing Anthony Fauci to dictate policy, then yes, this would be cause for alarm.   But of course, no such thing was ever suggested. 

Rejecting the idea of a technocracy is one thing.  Denying the claims of world-class epidemiologists is very different.  Trump and his allies and supporters were not protesting the illiberal usurpation of constitutionally prescribed governance.  They were denying that the pandemic was serious, that masks were effective at slowing the spread of the virus, that the pandemic would worsen through the end of 2020, that lockdowns made any difference in hospitalizations and deaths.  They attempted to portray the medical professionals as hacks and clowns, as disingenuous and politically motivated in favor of some unspecified agenda, presumably having to do with unseating the president, enriching themselves, or satisfying their greed for power.  Such rhetoric is not the understandable complaint of a legitimately aggrieved public.  It is craven disregard for public health flowing from an apparent conviction that since scientists generally make noises that are broadly harmonious with center-left policy, then they must be politically biased and untrustworthy, so untrustworthy in fact that all bets are off: we’re just as likely to fare well against the coronavirus by heeding CDC recommendations as we are by ignoring them.   

Klienerman’s analysis carves out no solid ground for Trump and his anti-Fauci supporters any more than it persuasively chastises the epidemiologists and the public figures who stressed the need to heed their warnings.  The former were not acting in defense of enlightened self-rule and the latter were not advocating for technocracy.  Including epidemiologists in policy deliberations is no more authoritarian than taking advice from your doctor is slavish. 

It’s true that in a liberal constitutional republic science cannot dictate the right balance between health risks and temporary restrictions on behavior.  It cannot command us to shelter in place or to wear masks.  It can, however, tell us what the likely consequences are for various policies, leaving it to our elected leaders to make the call.  As Kleinerman acknowledges, Trump was unwilling to take responsibility for making that particular call.  Instead, he shrewdly chose to do precious little with respect to masks and lockdowns even as he defamed the scientists who recommended them.  He had little power to interfere with state and local governments that chose to take action, but he could threaten and demean governors and pit states against each other, in order to score political points, and this he did.  Neither this, nor the roar of the crowd in support of such conduct, is an “understandable” resistance to illiberal elitism.     

It is good to remind ourselves of the proper relation of science to politics, but we should be frank about the deep and obvious disfunction that has overcome our public discourse.  We should acknowledge that it is very fortunate that despite the mendacity and irresponsibility of many national figures, state and local governments behaved like grownups and resisted the jeers from Trump and his supporters through most of the pandemic.  It is important that our rhetoric in defense of liberty avoid directly or indirectly contributing to the all-too-human resentment against scientific reasoning, even when that reasoning points toward policy we tend to resist.

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