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Published · 4-minute read

What Would Popper Have Said about Covid Scientism?

Imagine some distinguished scientists from a prestigious university. They publish a peer-reviewed study concluding that computers are bad for children and that screen times should be limited to one hour per day. Parents then enforce this recommendation at home. Whenever children protest, their parents point to the scientists’ authority. Would that be right?

In pop neuroscience, it is often claimed that the brain doesn’t fully mature until age 24. Political pundits sometimes refer to this ‘finding’ to justify coercing young adults and not letting them make certain decisions until they’re as old as 24. Would that be right?

Wearing a seatbelt surely keeps you safe while driving. But does that mean people should be forced to wear seatbelts? If wearing them is such a good idea, shouldn’t it be easy to convince people of that, in which case there’s no need for force anyway?

In the first example, the one about screen times, I believe the premise to be completely false. I don’t believe that computers are bad for children – on the contrary. In the second example, the one about brain maturity, it may well be true that the brain doesn’t physically mature until age 24, but I think it’s a grossly misleading fudge to equate physical maturity – a matter of biology – with personal maturity – a matter of knowledge one can have or lack at any age. In the third example, I consider it uncontroversial that wearing a seatbelt increases one’s safety while driving. Yet I do not believe anyone should be forced to wear one. People should get to make the mistake of not wearing seatbelts; they should be free to learn or not to learn from that mistake. And, of course, I could be wrong that not wearing a seatbelt is a mistake in the first place!

Note that in all three cases – with scientific premises ranging from false to irrelevant to correct, as far as I know – these premises alone can, at most, be pointers, considerations, in terms of what to do morally speaking. Whether computers are bad for you or not, if someone were to force you not to use them, that would be immoral. Same with the other examples.

This brings me to the issue of public policy and ‘public health’, in particular. The philosopher Karl Popper was a staunch critic of scientism. In Popper’s words (translated freely):

[S]cientism [is] the theory that knowledge and the knower, science and the scientist, should be viewed as authorities.

This often manifests as some perversion of science masquerading as the arbiter of truth in non-scientific fields, particularly morals. To cite ‘scientific’ studies justifying the coercion of children by enforcing screen times is an example of scientism because it’s to steamroll over relevant philosophical issues such as liberty and epistemology in the name of ‘science’.

Covid policies have, perhaps, been the most violent display of scientism in recent years. Surely they caused Popper to turn in his grave. What was done to children and the elderly was particularly demoralizing – children forced into masks, forced to separate from their friends; the elderly forced to die alone, confused. Those promoting the empty slogan ‘follow the science’ clearly had no idea what science even is; that even scientific theories are always conjectural and subject to revision, as Popper found. We were all told to listen to ‘the experts’, and these experts directly shaped public policy that then steamrolled over moral considerations such as whether it is right to distinguish between ‘essential’ businesses and ‘non-essential’ ones; whether it is right to forcefully shut the latter down, to force people to stay at home in a lockdown to ‘slow the spread’; whether it is right to lie to them about how long such lockdowns would take.

There’s a role for actual science in informing public-policy decisions, but not for the kind of ‘science’ that scientism advocates. Proponents of these measures thought they knew the truth, both scientific and, therefore, they thought, moral. But in reality, they had the truth in neither realm; all they had were the unquestioned intellectual fashions of scientism and collectivism. They were largely blind followers of governmental and pseudoscientific ‘authorities’ such as Fauci and the pharmaceutical companies. They shared the tacit assumption that the government should care for (and enforce!) the health of its subjects. Their appeal to authority united them – ‘we’re all in this together’ – and they used threats of branding people as ‘grandma killers’ to create enormous social pressure. Then, suddenly, everyone had to learn again how to wash their hands.

On the topic of intellectual fashions and ‘experts’, Popper writes (bold emphasis added, italics in the original):1

For many years I have argued against intellectual fashions in the sciences, and even more against intellectual fashions in philosophy. The fashionable thinker is, in the main, a prisoner of his fashion, and I regard freedom, political freedom as well as a free and open mind, as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, value that our life can offer us.
Today it has become fashionable in the sciences to appeal to the specialized knowledge and authority of experts, and fashionable in philosophy to denigrate science and rationality. Oftentimes, this denigration of science and rationality is due to a mistaken theory of science and rationality – a theory which speaks of science and rationality in terms of specializations, experts, and authority. But science and rationality have really very little to do with specialization and the appeal to expert authority. On the contrary, these intellectual fashions are actually an obstacle to both. For just as the fashionable thinker is a prisoner of his fashion, the expert is a prisoner of his specialization. And it is the freedom from intellectual fashions and specializations that makes science and rationality possible.
[…] [I]n my view, the appeal to the authority of experts should be neither excused nor defended. It should, on the contrary, be recognized for what it is – an intellectual fashion – and it should be attacked by a frank acknowledgement of how little we know, and how much that little is due to people who have worked in many fields at the same time. And it should also be attacked by the recognition that the orthodoxy produced by intellectual fashions, specialization, and the appeal to authorities is the death of knowledge, and that the growth of knowledge depends entirely upon disagreement.

A crucial test of one’s integrity, I think, is whether you choose to live by your values even when violating them would, at least temporarily, seem to benefit you. Popper died in 1994, so one can only speculate, but I believe that, had he been alive during Covid, he would have upheld his criticism of scientism. I think he would have identified Covid policies as an instance thereof, and he would have levied the same devastating criticism against both the policies and Fauci et al – even if Popper himself had been scared of Covid and thought he might gain from scientistic policies in the short term.

I say “short term” because intellectual fashions often don’t last, nor does peer pressure around a particular issue. Future generations won’t feel the same pressure and will come to their own moral conclusions. Cowardice doesn’t age well.

Covidians are likewise prisoners of their intellectual fashion, as Popper calls it, and we should be mindful of that in our moral evaluation. But there have been some who, even though they follow and explicitly share Popper’s rejection of scientism, were afraid enough of Covid to openly promote Covid scientism regardless.

Maybe you have been afraid of Covid, too, like so many. Maybe you have been seeking refuge in the Covid religion. That’s somewhat understandable – the ‘experts’ did everything they could to scare you. But note that, on the whole, they made matters worse for you, not better. You were willing to trade freedom for safety, which, as usual, has resulted in you having less of both.

I know nothing, but I think Popper was right in his criticism of scientism. It provides a timeless message against tyranny, and against politicians and ‘experts’ who think they know everything when, in reality, they know very little. Socrates asked that political leaders be wise in the sense that they are aware of just how little they know, and of how fallible they are. Our leaders today have failed Socrates’s request miserably.

  1. Popper, Karl. The Myth of the Framework (p. ix f.). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 


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