Criticizing science, or questioning the motives of scientists, is not a way to make yourself popular in this day and age. However, I would argue that in our era, a critique of science and what sort of society it will lead us towards is more necessary than ever before. It is easy to pre-empt criticism of science, by proclaiming that science is value neutral. Science delivers us knowledge, but it is entirely up to us, to decide how we are going to use that knowledge and towards what ends.
The problem is that this is not true, because the pursuit of science inevitably results in the emergence of certain moral dilemmas that could otherwise have been avoided. There are certain scenarios imaginable, in which the absence of knowledge can be preferable over its acquisition, because this knowledge burdens us with choices that we would rather not have. To willfully create such moral dilemmas is in itself a choice that is not value-neutral.
The trivial example is that of a patient with Huntington’s disease. Formerly, it was a mystery to us, who might lose his mind in old age and who would maintain his cognitive capacities. If someone lost his mind, we didn’t know the cause. Perhaps the water is full of aluminum, perhaps you shouldn’t have worked in the coal mines, perhaps you inherited it from your parents, or perhaps your neighbor has simply bewitched you. Knowledge about these things was ultimately unobtainable, the opinion of one expert exchangeable for another. Most people sought to find solace in a faith in Providence, the idea that a higher force works in accordance to a divine plan that is ultimately just and meaningful.
Today, scientific progress enables us to know whether a person will one day suffer the effects of Huntington’s disease or not. However, we have no effective means to treat the disease. Most of those who might have inherited the disease, choose not to find out. They expect medical professionals to stay quiet about this to them. And yet, the very fact that this knowledge exists, burdens those people with a huge dilemma: Is it ethical for me to have children, if I might have inherited this disease?
Medical professionals in turn, are endowed with a newfound power: They now determine the genetic constitution of our population. We don’t acknowledge this of course, we live in denial of this new reality, until our culture has changed enough that we start to take it for granted. Until that time, we imagine ourselves to be free, as we maneouver ourselves within the ever shrinking degree of freedom that is tolerated by our collective medical knowledge.
Consider the following question: Should I be allowed to abort a child with Down syndrome? Most countries consider the answer to be yes and most people within those nations choose to abort such children. Down syndrome has thus practically disappeared in some societies. But Down syndrome of course, is hardly the only abnormality we can discover before birth. New scientific techniques enable us to discover whether a child will have a harelip, pregnant women respond to that knowledge by aborting the child.
Soon, it’s expected that we can determine whether or not someone will be born with autism. Should I be allowed to abort children with autism? In the autistic community, there is enormous opposition against this scenario, but many pregnant women rather not spend the rest of their lives raising an autistic child. As a result, the question inevitably becomes: Should a woman be allowed to know her child will be autistic? This decision now becomes the domain of our government. The government in turn, will consult the scientific community for advice. And thus, a consensus of scientific experts will ultimately have to determine whether autistic people are about to go extinct or not. Whatever decision they take will be upsetting to some people. Scientists will be tasked with determining what degree of deviation from the norm, intellectually physically and aesthetically, we will be obliged to tolerate in our offspring.
Domains of life that were previously subject to spontaneous cultural evolution and frivolous human preferences, increasingly enter the realm of scientific control. For example, what you’re going to eat today is decided by scientific consensus. For generations, human beings have eaten wild animals. Today we know that some of these species are likely to transmit viruses to us, so we no longer eat those animals. The human diet thus gradually shrinks to a small number of domesticated animals, composed of numerous genetically identical animals.
Consider what has happened in China, where the government has had to ban the wet markets. Some people were eating bats, snakes and pangolins. There are perfectly valid arguments to be made against eating those animals, but people in parts of the world have consumed them for generations, no medieval king would even have dared to consider prohibiting their consumption.
What’s happening here is not a blanket ban against the consumption of wild animals. You’re still free to eat fish for example. What’s happening instead, is that scientific research is going to decide which animals are tolerable for you to eat. You can’t eat octopus because octopus cultivation is inhumane. You can’t eat herring because their numbers have dwindled too much. Cows damage our ecosystem and pigs produce too much manure. The state ends up burdened with deciding what a man might eat.
This is not a new development of course, as the transition from eating food, to eating ingredients, led to a situation where the government became tasked with deciding the chemical composition of what we consume. Transfats in margarine were killing thousands of people, despite the initial insistence of scientific research that this would be an improvement over butter. Governments thus got together with big corporations and instructed them to remove transfats from our diet. At this point, we have reached a situation where the European Union has created a list of ingredients that are allowed to enter our food supply.
As scientific research progresses, we increasingly begin to understand how every action an individual takes affects those around him. And as our level of understanding increases, issues that were once seen solely as a matter of individual choice are revealed to have an impact on others, occasionally positive but typically negative. Consider the recent discovery, that one in fifty smokers will end up killing someone through exposure to secondary smoke. Once we discover this reality of life, our government is tasked with a decision: Should human beings be allowed to smoke? Or, framed differently: Should smokers be allowed to kill people? To most of you the answer will seem obvious, yet few of you will ask yourselves whether we are genuinely better off now that we have to make a decision on this subject.
The end result of this constant acquisition of new forms of scientific knowledge, would be readily recognizable as a form of modern day totalitarianism, to those who had not gradually grown accustomed to this Brave New World. Consider an issue, that Europeans now consider the self-evident domain for epidemiologists to decide: Who should be allowed to leave his home tomorrow? There are epidemiologists who suggest that children should continue going to school, because children are not very vulnerable to coronavirus and would thus help us build herd immunity. There are others, who suggest they might spread the virus and should thus stay inside. The only thing that is self-evident at this point, is that parents and children themselves will come to have no say in the matter.
Epidemics, are nothing new. What is new, is the level of insight we have into how disease spreads. A Victorian Englishman was entirely justified in fearing based on the knowledge of his era, that his lung infection was caused by miasma. Today we consider infectious disease to be spread between individuals by microscopic germs. When outbreaks of disease happen, government officials are thus offered reports, created for them by scientists who have spent their whole lives studying infectious disease.
One type of curtailment of civil liberty leads to 50,000 deaths, the other leads to half a million. There is of course no genuine choice under such circumstances, the government now inevitably finds itself obliged to lock everyone inside their homes for months. Human beings find themselves forced to ask permission to visit the supermarket. For most of human history, this degree of government control over our lives would have been unthinkable. But now it is unquestionable, because the government has found itself endowed through science with the power to prevent death itself. If you leave your house, the scientific consensus now tells you, you are sentencing a white-haired grandmother somewhere to death. How much worse off was the Victorian gentleman, who simply found himself perplexed that this year’s flu season is more deadly than the previous?
Long ago, the promise of science was that it would eliminate disease. Today, as nations around the industrialized world witness life expectancies start to decline on a regular basis, it is clear that no such thing is going to happen. Instead, we will live out our lives haunted by the prospect of disease. Eat too much white flour and you will develop diabetes, eat an insufficient amount of white button mushrooms and you set yourself up for breast cancer. Disease itself doesn’t go away, instead the aeroplane now simply guarantees that whatever pest now burdens a man in Wuhan or Congo will end up burdening a man on the other side of the world as well.
Generations of people live out their lives, with diseases that are not cured, but managed. Science now manages to save the life of a child with phenylketonuria, but he must spend every day of his life following a special diet, or else he will suffer brain damage. Then, once such a child becomes an adult, they are burdened with an unenviable question: Is it morally justifiable for me to have a biological child of my own?
It can be argued that from the perspective of the affected individual, science has been a blessing. You can now live out a life without succumbing to brain damage that ends up leading to death. This man now owes his life to science, so how could he possibly dare to speak ill of it? But what happens at a societal scale, is that autonomous individuals who could once take care of themselves and their families become increasingly dependent on overarching systems of control.
With every new life the scientist saves, he creates another man indebted to him, dependent on him to live out his life. He saves the child with type one diabetes through his discovery of insulin, so now this child becomes a man who spends his entire life dependent on the product of his labor.
A new citizenry now develops, but it is more fragile and dependent than any before it. They are dependent, for their physical and mental health, on scientists who deliver them a steady supply of medication throughout their lives. In Italy, 99% of deaths from Coronavirus are people who suffered pre-existing conditions. That is another way of saying that they are members of this new citizenry, dependent upon modern medicine for their day to day survival.
To live out their lives, they are dependent on medication. Medicine keeps their diabetes under control, reduces their cholesterol and lowers their blood pressure. They survive, but they are vulnerable. And through the birth of this new fragile citizenry, a role emerges for the epidemiologist, the man of science who is tasked with dictating the kind of social interactions and behavior that enables this brave new citizenry to withstand the spread of whatever new disease might threaten them.
In all of this, the scientist himself as an individual is left out of the equation. If anything, he is treated as a saint. His sole motive is to help people, his service is to humanity as a whole. And yet, in most other circumstances, we look with distrust and suspicion at people who wish to take care of us from the cradle to the grave. But can we trust the scientist on his blue eyes? What might his motives be, if not pure altruism?
In the days of Darwin, what we knew as biology was an attempt to understand nature. But as our knowledge of nature increased, the lure of controlling nature inevitably resulted. The scientist too, like any other human being, is motivated by human instincts. One of these instincts is to gain respect of his peers. Another is to gain control over other people.
Consider, when you turn on your TV tonight and find yourself faced with the image of an epidemiologist who informs you whether or not you are allowed to leave your house tomorrow, what drives this man to spend a decade of his life, to earn the right to call himself an epidemiologist? Is he really so passionate about preventing suffering? Then we would expect that he quietly donates his salary, perhaps to some charity that eradicates parasite infections in children. Or, is this his moment to shine, his moment of glory? All the eyes are now upon him, government officials plead with him for advice. His motive is the pursuit of status.
Many scientists, are motivated by a pursuit of power and control. They become scientists, because only through the scientific method do your dictates become impossible to dispute. A priest’s control over your life requires you to at least belief in his creed, but the scientific method is indisputable. Whatever it is that you claim based on the scientific method, is something that can only still be disputed by others in your field. Does an economist dislike your insistence that an entire nation should be locked up behind closed doors? Well, he is an economist, not an epidemiologist. If he wants to challenge your decree, his only option is to seek an argument based on economics. If he happens to be specialized in no particular field of science, his opinion might as well be void.
There is a certain narcissism required, to make some of the decisions that scientists in our society now regularly make on our behalf. Many ultraconservative Jewish communities use genetic testing, before matching couples. A geneticist who studies these couples’ genes informs them whether or not it is safe for them to have children together, if the geneticist greenlights them they marry. If not, the man and woman are married off to other people. What kind of person could possibly feel comfortable having such power over other people’s lives?
My suspicion is that such a person is not that different from the kind of specialist who practices IVF. It’s a recurring discovery, that many male IVF practitioners secretly use their own seed to give women children. Dutch IVF specialist Jan Karbaat secretly used his own seed without the consent of the women involved, to conceive 71 children. This was only discovered after his death. It’s when we think we act in secret, when we reveal our true motives. Human beings, are guided by human instincts and motives. And thus, when we treat the scientific method as a way to pursue absolute truth, we bestow those we deem capable of practicing the scientific method with the ability to make choices on our behalf that would make any tyrant start to salivate.
In a society governed by science, all of us are burdened with the experience on a daily basis that our lives are micromanaged, that decisions that were once ours to make are now taken by an invisible cabal of experts. The dimensions of your office chair, the ingredients in your food, the age at which you retire from your job, all of these decisions are made for you on your behalf, by someone who knows better what is good for you than you yourself do.
As our own autonomy declines, as decisions that govern our lives are taken by others, we feel threatened in our dignity. To maintain a semblance of dignity, we thus decide to become experts ourselves. Although our lives might be micromanaged, we can now at least participate in inflicting this indignity upon other people as well. We pick a scientific discipline that we convinced ourselves fascinates us to the exclusion of everything else, then we spend our twenties striving to become highly esteemed specialists in that particular field. If you wish to witness the seething rage of a scientist, dispute his judgement when he speaks of his own field. You are encroaching on his territory, the only place in the world where he alone is allowed to make the rules to the exclusion of everyone else.
Today in Europe however, we are reaching the natural conclusion of this mentality. Government officials might be elected by the people, but for their most important decisions they are entirely dependent upon scientists. The French and the Italians held no referendum, to decide whether they should be locked up inside their homes. Those decisions are ultimately made by a cabal of epidemiologists who personally know each other and fly around the world to visit the same conferences.
An outbreak of disease becomes their time to shine. Should children be allowed to go to school? How many people can be together in the same room? When can we go back to work? These decisions are made on our behalf by modern day soothsayers, except instead of consulting tealeaves or crystal balls to gain insight into the workings of nature, they base themselves on an expert consensus, derived from their interpretation of the scientific evidence, which ultimately can not be credibly disputed by those outside their field.
The only difference there is from totalitarianism, is that we can reject totalitarianism as being arbitrary. There is no heavenly mandate or divine right of kings, that allows a dictator to decide who gets to live and die. But the scientist, he bases his dictates on knowledge we are not qualified to dispute. If your daughter comes up to you one day and proclaims that she wants to be a boy instead, who are you to say she is mistaken? All you have to go by is a gut feeling, that this is a phase, or part of a societal trend, or a psychological problem. But someone out there, is qualified to decide whether she should have irreversible life-altering surgery.
One thing you are not supposed to notice, in a technocracy like ours, is that whatever the scientific method spits out as the latest indisputable truth is ultimately still going to be colored by the dominant ideology of our era. We never wake up and discover in the newspaper that the scientific method has now unveiled a new indisputable truth that fails to fit inside our pre-existing cultural context. There is not going to be a new discovery that endorses the ideas found among the fringes of our culture. Rather, every new scientific discovery simply serves to further refine what our higher social strata already believe to be true.
A man who lived two centuries ago and magically awake today, would see our society as a dystopia, marching blindly under the indisputable dictates of science towards totalitarianism. Jules Verne wrote a dystopian novel about our era, Paris in the Twentieth Century. It describes a society devoid of art and beauty, one where only science and economics are treated with respect. Even Jules Verne however, could not anticipate the kind of indignities that people would gradually find themselves forced to accept, because they happen to be based in the indisputable truths produced by the scientific method. Michel Dufrénoy is still free to aimlessly wander through the streets of Paris, a right now denied to today’s citizens of France. In a world where an expert more qualified than you exists for every decision you will have to take, what freedom could you possibly still have?