How A Religious Devotion to "Following the Science" Became Unscientific

Science should always be contested, but if the evidence is clear, we should listen to science even if what we hear does not conform to our preconceived ideological, cultural or political notions.

America’s relationship with science has been fraught and tenuous, to say the least. Notwithstanding, something like the scientific method, in its broadest sense, is part of the fabric of the liberal project and an extension of the same enlightenment revolutions that produced the ideas of the founding. And of course, the practical applications of understanding the physical world — and manipulating it — are undeniable. America’s success is due at least in part to our ability to first encourage and then marshal scientific knowledge. The latest example — the speed with which very effective vaccines were developed, tested and implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — validates our reliance on and veneration of science. 

Yet there can be no doubt that our present moment, and the present crisis for liberalism, is marked by misuses and abuses of science. For all the admonitions from institutional authorities, both public and private, to “follow the science” in any number of areas, the political left has repeatedly ignored the best science on the one hand, and transformed a blind ritualistic faith in science into a kind of secular religion on the other.

Capital-S Science has become an alternative source of authority, usurping the position once held by cultural, religious and political traditions. And rather than simply a way to improve quality of life, it became a means to reshape culture, religion and politics. But in doing so, science supremacists undercut their own pro-science message to serve pre-existing agendas, while at the same time using science as a cudgel to beat opponents into submission (or at least into silence.)

The COVID pandemic that began during Donald Trump’s presidency proved a particularly fertile breeding ground for science skepticism and hypocrisy, and not just from those on the right who expressed incredulity about the severity of the pandemic. Now that vaccines are widely available and the end of the pandemic appears to be in sight, some who have shouted “follow the science” are now having a hard time adjusting. 

In The Atlantic, Emma Green writes of the unwillingness of progressives in particular to let go of the strict precautions established to slow the spread of the virus, almost as if the loosening of restrictions and resumption of more activities will hand the former president a tacit victory. When the CDC adjusted its guidance on outdoor masking, some state and local authorities quickly discounted the mounting scientific evidence, choosing a path that is beginning to sound like masks today, masks forever. Teachers unions also threw up objection after objection to a return to in-person instruction despite clear evidence of the relatively low risk to teachers and children.

School closures present an especially interesting case for progressives who claim a devotion to science. Normally, disparate impacts on minorities would be a slam dunk case for action for the left. But despite overwhelming evidence that a lack of in-person instruction disproportionately harms black and Hispanic students, many progressives duck the science and even turn the race charge on its head. From The Atlantic article:

Months slipped by, and evidence mounted that schools could reopen safely. In Somerville, a local leader appeared to describe parents who wanted a faster return to in-person instruction as “[f***ing] white parents” in a virtual public meeting; a community member accused the group of mothers advocating for schools to reopen of being motivated by white supremacy. “I spent four years fighting Trump because he was so anti-science,” Daniele Lantagne, a Somerville mom and engineering professor who works to promote equitable access to clean water and sanitation during disease outbreaks, told me. “I spent the last year fighting people who I normally would agree with … desperately trying to inject science into school reopening, and completely failed.”

The opportunity to stick it to Trump and “white supremacy” culture, however misguided, appears to remain a powerful motivation. 

Climate change is another area where rational examination of and action on the science has taken a backseat to apocalyptic predictions and projections. Enlightenment thinkers viewed science in a liberal society as an ongoing process, subject to constant debate and challenges to avoid confirming biases or, worse, using science to promote authoritarian impulses, through eugenics, for example. Yet rather than encouraging that debate, progressives, often fanatically, shout down opponents with mantras like “the science is settled.” 

As physicist Steven Koonin, who served in a prominent role in President Barack Obama’s Energy Department, argues in his recent book, the complexities and uncertainties related to the global climate are often either exaggerated or oversimplified to the detriment of actually developing workable policies that could address areas where politicians at least have a chance of reaching a consensus. Instead, politicians hide behind supposedly “settled science” to  propose expensive solutions that favor certain industries over others and push for global standards that many developing countries cannot afford and other unscrupulous, authoritarian governments have no intention of imposing on themselves, even if they agree to the standards on paper.

Often, those who advocate for drastic action on climate display a gross lack of personal commitment to their cause. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Green New Deal in 2019, she faced questions over why she was not personally cutting back in areas where her legislation sought to impose draconian cutbacks. Ocasio-Cortez glibly responded, “I also fly & use [air conditioning]. Living in the world as it is isn’t an argument against working towards a better future.” 

Jonah Goldberg recently wrote that “[m]any Democrats, President Biden included, describe climate change as not just a problem, but as an ‘existential’ or ‘extinction-level’ threat.” Despite the falling sky, however, a relatively small percentage of Biden’s recently proposed $2.25 trillion “infrastructure” plan seems designated for climate change mitigation, a sharp contrast to the $2 trillion over four years Biden pledged specifically for climate mitigation during the campaign. Perhaps the sky is more stable than it appears.

There are other fronts in the science war. For many transgender rights advocates, basic biological terminology is jettisoned in favor of “birthing people” and, via the ACLU, “Men who get their periods are men. Men who get pregnant and give birth are men.” This opaque reconstruction of language obscures our ability to develop a better scientific understanding of the real people who are dealing with these issues. Yet, any challenges to these assumptions are met with extreme hostility. Even a tentative dipping of toes into these waters with questions about the underlying biological science can get the likes of author J.K. Rowling and atheist/ humanist Richard Dawkins in much hotter water than they bargained for. Jesse Singal has written about how some have been penalized on social media platforms for posing scientifically accurate questions about the issue of transgender athletes in sports. 

Despite ever-improving, near photographic quality 3-D ultrasound technology and innovations allowing very premature babies to survive or be operated on in utero, abortion advocates assign “life” only to those “fetuses” who manage to fully exit the womb before termination.

Besides these, the “pro-science” left has also historically been on the wrong side of a number of other scientific debates. Writing for The Atlantic in 2013, Mischa Fisher noted:

Left-wing ideologues also frequently espouse an irrational fear of nuclear power, genetic modification, and industrial and agricultural chemistry—even though all of these scientific breakthroughs have enriched lives, lengthened lifespans, and produced substantial economic growth over the last century. 

When fear, human sensitivities, and “lived experiences” hold more weight and influence policies regarding education, health, and the environment more than science and common sense do, a shark has been jumped. To be sure, “science” is not always an exact science, and strict adherence to “science” does not always ensure good policy. But science should also not be treated as a buffet to be picked over for the choicest ideological morsels to support the latest cause. 

A selective use of science will only feed illiberal impulses and further divide a country desperately seeking fact-based solutions to any numbers of intractable issues. Science doesn’t have all the answers, but when it does, we should listen even if what we hear does not conform to our preconceived ideological, cultural or political notions.