Increasingly over the past decade, but infinitely more so over the last year, we’ve been hearing politicians, mainstream media and all kinds of experts urging, and often sternly demanding, citizens, voters and taxpayers to “follow the science”. This demand usually accompanies various new policies, regulations and mandates. Very often, those tend to have passed into law with very little public debate and most of the time, they require some type of sacrifice on the part of the governed. They are instructed to give up another chunk of their income, part of their liberties, or a few of their ideas and personal beliefs, always for the common good and in the name of science.
Examples of this phenomenon abound, from emissions taxes to fight global warming to today’s lockdowns to fight covid. And these are contemporary cases of policies that can conceivably make sense, at least to some.
However, governments have used the “science defense” for a very long time to silence opposition and criticism and to force through legislation and policies that have been infinitely more absurd and even criminal. The same flawed idea, that science must be blindly followed wherever it might lead and whatever it may cost, has also been the driver behind countless atrocities and savageries.
One doesn’t need to look in the chapters of extreme evil in human history or in modern dictatorial regimes to find that sort of thing. There are plenty of cases in “civilized” places too. Just a few decades ago in the US, but also in other enlightened western democracies, “following the science” led to multiple state-run experiments on unwitting citizens.
Poor and desperate people, minorities, pregnant women and even children, were robbed of their humanity and treated like lab rats, as the government-backed “experts” of the day studied their suffering and took notes as they died. At the time, everyone in those circles agreed with each other and thus the “scientific consensus” within those groups was clear: Human life and dignity can and should be traded for “progress”, whatever that means to whomever happens to be in charge.
Such obscenities and crimes against humanity are the direct result of a monomaniacal obsession with this vague and highly subjective notion of progress over all else. But they are also important reminders of the dangers of the perversion of science, either by single diseased minds that happen to occupy positions of power or, more often, by unfeeling and uncaring bureaucracies, fueled by a collective iron will, but lacking a conscience, that is the exclusive prerogative of the individual and can never emerge in the “hive mind”.
Where it all starts to go wrong and at the core of this perversion of science lies a highly unscientific notion. This is the twisted and primitive concept of “settled science”. This idea runs entirely contrary to the very nature of scientific inquiry and should offend every literate person that understands and appreciates all the marvels that the scientific method has produced and the protections it affords us from fanatics, zealots and ideologues.
Science, as it is understood and practiced by people who really seek truth and knowledge for its own sake, driven by Reason instead of passions, beliefs and biases, is by definition never settled. It can never be. Hypotheses are formed, compete with others, get tested and replicated until they become theories, but that status is anything but permanent or conclusive. Any theory can be dethroned by a single observed contradiction or failure of prediction, and then another hypothesis emerges from the free competition of ideas to take its place. It is a constant battle, a perpetual competition and every time a theory falls from grace we should all celebrate, for it brings us all an inch closer to the truth.
Therefore, this twisted concept of “settled science” can only be propagated by the hopelessly ignorant or the pathologically deceitful. And it is the latter group that should concern us the most, as it is among their ranks that we often find those that can shape and dictate the policies that govern all aspects of our lives.
The covid crisis presented many good examples of how far astray this toxic, backward notion can lead us. Myriads of inconsistencies between different state responses to the pandemic quickly emerged, revealing that the science stopped being so “settled” once you crossed national borders. Even within the same nation, mere hunches, assumptions and worst of all, “models”, were presented as irrefutable facts, only to be quietly and unceremoniously withdrawn a few days later with the actual, observable and measurable facts disproved them.
As a result, we saw countless policy flip-flops that cost jobs, and often lives too. Those were far from “isolated incidents” in many nations, whose leaders and officials claimed to have science on their side – and not just any old science, but “settled” science, on an issue just as new and unstudied as its name suggests; the “novel” coronavirus.
The arrogance on display can seem jarring to many, but for those of us who have been paying attention to monetary and fiscal policy for decades and who know the historical background, all this looks and sounds eerily familiar. After all, what field of research, what area of human knowledge has been more afflicted by hubris, pseudoscience and charlatanism than the “dismal science”?
The field of economics has arguably been at the forefront of this crusade against the scientific method and against Reason. For centuries, witchdoctors in fine silks and suits have been put in charge of centrally planning all productive activities, trade and businesses, as though such a thing were possible, as though the intricate mechanisms of the living organism that is the economy are controllable and as though a single person can ever improve on the outcomes that billions reached through voluntary exchange and free competition.
We’ve really seen “settled science” at work in this field. Any idea, no matter how ridiculous, can become sacred and dogmatic once enough “experts” espouse it. Politicians, the media, the academic establishment will ensure it will spread throughout the population, always asserted as fact, or the “only truth”, and as the result of science, which as we know we must all trust.
Take for instance the consensus-supported, nearly universally accepted Keynesian axiom that says if you want a healthy economy, you should make sure nobody saves too much and whatever they make they just spend immediately. Not invest, mind you, just spend. And if that doesn’t work, or if they don’t have any money left to spend, then you should get them to borrow more or just give them some. So they can spend that too.
Now, if you outlined this “theory” to a 10-year-old child, they’d recognize it as nonsense straight away. But if you say it to a college educated, newspaper-reading, well-meaning 50-year-old man, they’ll totally agree with it and with all the policies that are derived from it. If anything, they’ll probably complain the state doesn’t implement enough of them. To that man, the “science is settled” and what must be done is clear. And when it is done and it predictably fails, it wasn’t the theory that was at fault, it was our application of it. After all, “the science” can never be wrong, neither should it ever be questioned.
The problem with not questioning and not calling out bad ideas, especially when they are obviously and egregiously bad, is that it all quickly snowballs. You look the other way, or you nod in agreement without actually thinking, because everyone else does, and you let one questionable, but harmless sounding, notion pass though. Next thing you know, it takes root, it grows and it spawns a dozen more unsound ideas, less harmless and much more confidently asserted. Before you realize, collective blindness develops, vested interests form and fanatical adherence to the new dogma emerges. And by that point, nobody can speak out and question anything, even if they wanted to.
It was by not questioning that we got to absurdities like unbacked fiat money, then to negative interest rates and now to Modern Monetary Theory. It was by going with the flow, by not daring to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Most importantly, it was by allowing quacks, swindlers and fraudsters to hijack “science”, the greatest achievement of our species and the only way we know to understand the world and to peacefully better ourselves, and to appropriate the term to sell their snake oil.