“Follow the science” ranks high on 2020’s long list of patronizing phrases. If we yield obsequiously to scientific data, we are told, coronavirus, climate change, and all our other problems will be solved. “Science will win,” boasts the gigantic poster in Pfizer’s New York City headquarters. It’s that simple.
Or is it? In tracking coronavirus developments, our government leaders have been as scientific as nomads following migrating woolly mammoths. The latest mutated numbers, which conjecture a much higher herd immunity threshold for the coronavirus, and a much lower quantity of Covid vaccine to generate immunity, should give us pause.
How can we “follow the science” when science is an ever-shifting target?
A modicum of sanity would return to our country if “champions of science” would admit what Catholics have known for centuries: that, on a number of levels, science requires faith in order to function, and that only with humility can we maximize science’s promises.
The scientific endeavor would be impossible without a score of prior assumptions: that the universe is ordered and intelligible, that our experiments will produce quantifiable results, that we can interpret these results within a rational framework and then act upon them appropriately. In short, we have faith that science “can win”; otherwise, we would not bother with it.
The successes of science, from engineering to medicine to technology, show us that our faith is rightly placed. But we cannot forget that scientific data do not constitute dogmas that must be believed by everyone, as its champions allege. All experimental data require interpretation, which is not an act of science, but of human reason that is fallible and influenced by prior assumptions and outside factors. We would not seek “second opinions” in medicine if it were so easy to draw conclusions from data.
We do not like to admit it, but our interpretations of science are acts of faith, that is, acts of trust based on reasonable circumstances. From this follows an even more unpleasant conclusion: we can interpret science incorrectly, as too many government orders in response to coronavirus have taught us.
Harvard’s Steven Pinker has asserted that science illuminates “the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives.” His faith in science’s power could move a mountain. In the strict sense, of these questions, science can only supply data for where we came from. For the others, a tremendous amount of interpretation and application are required, all of which depends not on science, but on human reason that is motivated by faith in the scientific enterprise.
Our science-obsessed world has to acknowledge the gap between scientific data and human interpretation. Declarations such as, “The science tells us what to do,” or “Follow the science,” conceal the interpretive element in order to squash potential dissent before it can arise. In this way, “follow the science” really becomes a form of fundamentalism: this dogma is true; do not argue. Ironically, “champions of science” hate nothing more than religious fundamentalism, yet they have formed their own kind where a deified “Science” replaces God.
To conflate scientific data with social dogmas that must be held always, everywhere, and by all is to misunderstand the goal of science, which seeks the best explanation possible of the world, its features, and its creatures. As such, conclusions drawn from science are always limited and shifting as we learn and experiment more. Our understanding of where the earth is in relation to the sun is an example. What we have learned about Covid-19 in one year is a more poignant one. Scientific theories are so called because they are postulations based on evidence. A theory is not an immutable law, still less a dogma.
Scientists, doctors, public health officials, and government leaders, then, need humility as they stand before scientific data, as they have to acknowledge publicly that the data can change—and that they can interpret data incorrectly. In scientific matters, it is always necessary to test, and then retest, the latest theories in relation to lived reality. For a governor or mayor to say, “Once the Covid positivity rate reaches X%, we have to lockdown everything,” is not a scientific statement. Politicians should stop pretending that it is, and they should stop threatening excommunication for anyone who disobeys their dogma.
For a proper approach to science, we can turn to the Belgian priest and physicist Msgr. Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), who developed the Big Bang theory. In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII wanted to speak of the Big Bang as scientific evidence for the Bible’s creation account. Msgr. Lemaître privately intervened against any such declaration. The truths of theology depend on God, he said, and not on science, which, he knew well, could one day find new evidence to undermine or even contradict his theory.
Science offers us important, but finite, insights into the world’s workings. Woe to those who, like Steven Pinker and our political leaders during the pandemic, manipulate science as a cover for imposing a philosophy of living on the rest of us. For the worth of those philosophies rests on a number of principles that are not derived from science, but taken on faith. Those who are so quick to denigrate faith, believing wrongly that science disproves it, have the proper views of science and faith blocked by beams protruding from both eyes.
Faith is a part of science. Let’s quit pretending the two are enemies. It is the Catholic approach, which acknowledges the mutual dependence of the two, that can best steer us out of the Covid crisis and into more sane political conversations.
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