In Science We Trust?

Utter the word science and many people feel better. The word conveys to them an image of a safe harbor and a rational world. Polls confirm this attitude. Americans trust science more than any other institution. Almost 90 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in scientists, slightly higher than for the military and much higher than for religious leaders, business leaders, journalists, or elected officials. Confidence in science has risen even more during the pandemic. Yet science is not always solid ground beneath our feet. It can be irrational in its own right. Having penetrated almost every profession now, the scientific way of thinking has exacerbated some of the worst tendencies in American political life.

The problem began with a detour that science took in the nineteenth century. The scientific revolution had been about using the senses to detect material causes of events. Before the revolution, for example, some doctors thought neurological diseases were caused by evil humors—forces the senses could not detect. To use the senses to detect the material causes of disease, as during a physical exam, signified progress. Materialism also influenced the new social science. Rather than contemplate the soul, which lies beyond the senses and may not even exist, social critics began to focus on material things that do exist and that the senses can detect, such as wages and living conditions. Marxism, also called scientific materialism, is an example.  

Yet the senses were shown to sometimes mislead people. In a famous example, Florence Nightingale saw how fresh air had helped to prevent disease in the Crimea, but later, for that reason, foolishly demanded that windows in a hospital in India be left open—during hot weather. The naked eye, the ear that hears, the fingers that touch were not enough by themselves to discover truth. To correct course, science, once a theory of perception, became a theory of non-perception. Scientists began to search for a more fundamental order in nature hidden from the senses yet behind everything. Physicists looked for tiny particles. Biologists looked through microscopes for a secret world lying hidden within the cell. Mathematicians kept looking for more infinitesimals.

When science’s way of thinking penetrated non-scientific fields, its new mission entered along with it. In the university, philosophers began to ignore the obvious meaning of a text and looked for a hidden subtext. Literature professors applied “theory” to classic novels to discover hidden truths, such as the workings of sexism or colonialism. Law professors invented Critical Legal Theory to identify the invisible forces driving legal decisions. Critical Race Theorists searched for the hidden racism in everyday conversation. Like scientists, many non-scientists believed in a hidden permanent reality in life’s background, something that threw transient pictures of itself on the screen of our senses.

The Science of Politics

When science’s new mission penetrated politics it fueled an explosion in the number of abstract political ideas said to define some hidden, permanent reality. The word “fascism” was an early example. The word has a concrete origin: In 1921, Mussolini founded the National Fascist Party in Italy. But over time the word became a catchall phrase for abusive state power of any kind. Older abstract political ideas like “democracy” were the sum of mentally distinguishable parts—voting rights, majority rule, and parliaments. New ideas like “fascism” abstracted from the time, place, and details of particular events the element that people felt passionate about. Rather than consisting of well-defined cognitive content, the ideas mostly expressed people’s hopes and fears. Unlike democracy, which has clear tests for its existence, fascism has none. There is no distinctive fascist economy or political system. Fascism employs political violence and is tyrannical, but the same can be said for many other historical regimes. Thus, George Orwell said, “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.” It is why to this day people feel ashamed to be called a fascist yet are often unsure why they are.

Something similar happened to the words “capitalism” and “communism.” Even economists have trouble defining capitalism, while communism’s definition ranges from complete state control to the withering away of the state. The words “capitalism” and “communism,” like “fascism,” took on a kind of occult power. Rather than encompass particular parts, they supposedly explained a hidden reality that made the world go around. It is why the words so easily lent themselves to conspiracy theories.

Social science generated more abstract political ideas, such as racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, and toxic masculinity. Each of these ideas describes some hidden reality—existence outside of existence—that defies description other than in the most general terms. For this reason, these concepts are allowed to ignore the usual rules of logic that govern reality. In the case of “racism,” for example, people are told that if they admit to seeing color, then they are racist, but if they deny seeing color, they are also racist. Also, if they admit to being racist, then they are racist; but if they deny being racist, they are also racist; and if they say nothing, they are still racist. It defies logic.

Here the scientific way of thinking plays a role. Abstracting the concept of “racism” from racist events is like abstracting the concept of “motion” from moving objects—something that physical scientists mistakenly do all the time. “Motion” itself has no independent existence apart from moving things. There is no motion without a thing moving. Yet scientists cannot easily control their urge to abstract; hence motion is sometimes spoken of in science nonsensically as if it had an independent existence separate from existing things. “I study motion,” a scientist will say, while the study of motion is called kinematics.

Similarly, “racism” has no independent existence apart from racist events. There is no racism without particular people, institutions, or laws being racist. Before politics grew infected with the scientific predilection to abstract, calling two people racist despite their behaving in diametrically opposed fashion would have been unthinkable. With science’s penetration, however, people imagine a ghost of racism having departed from racist acts and existing independently. Racism became an inert, unknown substance beyond clear definition, yet standing under and supporting virtually every human action. The ghost of racism can attach itself to any person at any time, even while sleeping.   

Science has always had within it this tendency to over-abstract. In the eighteenth century, philosopher George Berkeley spoke of the madness lurking in the mathematicians’ belief in an abstract triangle that was “neither oblique nor rectangle nor scalene, nor equilateral, but all and none of these at once.” The concept was absurd, he said. Such a triangle cannot be formed. Mathematicians err, Berkeley explained, by trying to frame a general idea of something, when in fact, all they do is consider separately a common feature of something and ignore its particularity. Here, they mistakenly abstract the notions of “equilateral,” “oblique,” and “scalene” from real triangles and pretend these concepts have a real existence independent of any triangle. Then they mistakenly try to incorporate these abstract concepts into an imaginary triangle. Although people can distinguish between particulars common to triangles, such as equilateral angles and scalene angles, they cannot create abstract particulars, Berkeley reminded them.

Science’s penetration in public affairs has caused partisans to wrongly imagine that public policy can be approached solely from the intellectual point of view.

The ghost of racism is an abstract particular. Activists steeped in social science extract a particular noxious behavior from real people and try to generalize it, thereby making it seem as though the behavior can exist without being connected to anything that does exist. Racism then takes nonsensical forms, everywhere and in everything. Thus, some activists today believe food is racist.

The scientific way of thinking mistakenly overlooks the fact that words sometimes have no logical cognitive content. They are spoken merely to raise people’s hopes and fears. The words leave people feeling accused and confused, and politics severely divided.

The Denial of Feelings

The scientific way of thinking contains within it another error that affects our politics.

As an anesthesiologist, I usually adopt the scientific view toward patients and look at them from the intellectual side. I am forever measuring things, such as heart rate and blood pressure. I sometimes look at patients as an object of sense and study the color of their fingernails or the sound of their breathing. But I rarely regard patients in emotional relation to myself—in other words, how I feel about them. To do seems unscientific.

Yet I err when I imagine being purely scientific by being purely intellectual. Contrary to what science says, intellectual inquiry cannot really be divorced from feeling. Science advances knowledge by creating long intellectual chains of fact and discovery, yet no stress can be put on the chain unless the first link is secured somewhere, and that first staple is always a human feeling. In economics, for example, studies on wages ultimately spring from an economist’s attachment to humanity—an unreasoning state of mind that an economist can only defend by saying, “I feel like that.” Substitute a regard for people with a distrust of people as the primary emotion and the economist’s whole method of thinking changes, along with the whole structure of the science.

Science keeps the practical end in view to conceal this defect. Its intellectual abstractions are links in a chain toward some practical result—for example, strengthening a bridge or, in my case, waking a patient up from anesthesia. The error behind the abstractions doesn’t matter so long as the abstractions haul the practical result after it. The error surfaces mostly when science ventures beyond the practical, such as when trying to understand the mind-brain dichotomy. Rather than remain in the realm of the practical, scientists move into unverifiable and abstract regions. Then the wish becomes the father to the thought, and people who feel differently disagree.

That people do so is not new. But science’s penetration in public affairs has caused partisans to wrongly imagine that public policy can be approached solely from the intellectual point of view. They believe their social models and theories have an authoritative existence and are true independent of how anyone feels. Even worse is when partisans put their abstractions toward abstract purposes, such as reshaping society or reconfiguring human beings. They forget that feeling precedes thinking the way the body precedes clothes; all their models, theories, and plans are stapled to a feeling. They are then taken aback when others disagree with them. They assume other people disagree because they reason differently—and reason wrong. But the difference lies beyond the reach of reason. It is not a question of right or wrong. Other people simply feel differently. They are different people. Partisans imbued with the scientific way of thinking cannot assimilate this simple fact.

Many Americans believe those who disagree with them on policy matters are irrational, which represents a significant change. In the past, partisans thought the other side was evil, stupid, or selfish. But polling now suggests that each side simply baffles the other. A study called “The Perception Gap” observes, “We struggle to understand how those on the other side of the political fence could possibly hold so many wrong-headed views.” The study’s observation that contempt intensifies with more education is telling, as more educated people are more likely to be indoctrinated in the scientific way of thinking. By refusing to acknowledge the guiding role that feeling plays in all intellectual endeavors, each person believes his or her position represents the only intellectual point of view. Blinded to the difference in feeling that underlies the disagreement, each person sees the other party as irrational.

Such narrow thinking manifests itself in different ways. Since the mid-20th century, for example, educated opinion expects all Supreme Court justices to be highly trained lawyers, and preferably judges to begin with, as only people trained intellectually in the law are presumed to be capable of ruling intellectually on the law. It was not always this way. In fact, the Constitution has no requirements for federal judgeships other than candidates show “good behavior.” That judges might look at cases from the intellectual view, but also from the perceptual and emotional view, once seemed reasonable. When Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that a Supreme Court Justice should be “a combination of Justinian, Jesus Christ, and John Marshall,” it was not Christ’s intellectual mastery of the law that he was referring to, but some unquantifiable emotional aptitude. This is no longer acceptable. Steeped in the scientific way of thinking, educated opinion presumes people less trained in the law would deliberate unscientifically—that is, they would allow feeling to enter into their decisions. Educated opinion forgets that all intellectualizing is rooted in feeling.

The mania for credentials originates in the same belief. People with credentials presumably look at issues in their field from the intellectual point of view. The older, more “primitive,” policy type was the businessman who knew a particular field well, but not necessarily from the intellectual point of view. He gained an understanding of his field through perception and feeling, including self-interest, as much as through study.

The link between the scientific way of thinking and intellectual intolerance has a long history. The nineteenth-century founder of the term ideology, Antoine Destutt de Tracy, got his intellectual start in science. Indeed, he proposed ideology (“idea-ology”) as a new “science of ideas.” To organize society according to science was to organize it one way, based on “reason,” and in no other way, he explained. This was too much even for the dictator Napoleon, who accused de Tracey of ignoring “knowledge of the human heart”—in other words, ignoring people’s feelings, which may vary.

The scientific way of thinking takes a man and breaks him up; examines his desires on the one hand and his needs on the other, all separately; and produces long strings of generalizations from each aspect to guide public policy. This is what it means to make policy from the intellectual point of view. Yet how all these qualities fit together in a man, what their relation is that constitutes a man, science can never really say. Science takes a man and dissects him; it analyzes every aspect of his working life, education, and social situation; yet what binds these together into a unity, what makes the man feel the way he does, science cannot know. Many policy professionals overlook this point. Hence the surprise they express when people who think differently from them because they feel differently reject their policies.

A Future Without Distinction

Physicians in other countries have always been more active in public life than American ones, especially over the last century. While many U.S. physicians played important political roles early in the country’s history—10 percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were physicians—their participation in public life has steadily declined. American physicians began their relative withdrawal from public life at the end of the nineteenth century as a consequence of scientific advance. Science enabled the medical profession to become specialized. My own specialty of anesthesiology is a case in point. To practice anesthesiology, I must know science more than people.

This trend represents the first phase of science’s influence on American public life. Science’s growing complexity demanded a more intense division of labor. Doctors specialized and sub-specialized, as did scientists, engineers, psychologists, and social scientists.

If science’s first phase grew out of science’s urge to specialize and classify, the second phase grew out of science’s countervailing urge to obliterate distinctions. Although established by science, many classification systems grow increasingly meaningless under the eye of science. For example, in the first phase of the scientific era, science rigidly divided human beings from other species, and the organic from the inorganic. But over time, science began to wonder whether a human being is a variation on the amoeba, or if the amoeba is a variation on the human being. Similarly, it wondered if the organic is a variation on the inorganic, or the other way around. Science realized that whichever way it chose, based solely on the intellectual view of life, was arbitrary.

Without some sustained feeling to preserve them, all lines of distinction, whether created by science or non-science, eventually run and waver in the face of scientific thinking. Science sees only a continuous variation from the amoeba to the human being, or from the organic to inorganic. Divisions cease to exist in a hard and fast way, and instead of seeing many things science eventually sees only one thing. Science, which began as a system for classifying things and making distinctions, ranging from stars to plants to animals, eventually recognizes that its own distinctions are arbitrary, at which point it turns on itself.

One finds this process ongoing in different venues. In academia, for example, the rigid divisions between social science fields, and between the humanities and the social sciences, based on science’s earlier classification system, now seem outdated. Science’s division between men and women has collapsed, as traditional gender classifications now seem arbitrary. The division between parents and non-parents is also collapsing, with both groups now called “caregivers.” Spouses, non-spouses, friends with benefits, and hook-ups are all called “partners.” In my own field of medicine, doctors, nurses, and technicians are called “providers.” In business, both managers and secretaries are increasingly referred to as “administrators.” Even the distinctions between nations have become pointless to some. Where science once saw many things, now it sees only one.  

Some might say the breakdown of these divisions is the result of mundane political correctness rather than the scientific way of thinking. But political correctness and the scientific way of thinking go hand in hand. Certainly they do in accusations of racism run amok. They also do in the obsession with being “inclusive” and effacing all distinctions so that no one feels “marginalized.” Almost all distinctions constitute an emotional threat to someone, political correctness argues; hence it is best to eliminate all distinctions, or at least water them down by making them seem like variations within a single type. Thus, rather than say “dull” and “smart,” people now say “mentally challenged” and “mentally advantaged.” That many of the new universal categories, such as “provider,” “caregiver,” “administrator,” and “gender neutral,” have a sanitized, emotionless, scientific air about them should not surprise.

The politics of the future will pit traditionalists, both liberal and conservative who for whatever emotional reasons, want to preserve what divisions are left, against the scientific way of thinking, which will continue to seek its purely intellectual representation of the universe while destroying all divisions in the eternal rhythm of the onward and upward.