two -isms shaping the pandemic: scientism

Things are weird. Last week, while on vacation with my family, we ate lunch at a burger restaurant in rural Wyoming. After ordering, I handed my credit card to the girl who was checking us out. She stared for a moment at my card, and then looking at me she said, “I need your verbal consent that it is okay for me to handle your card.” “Excuse me,” I said. “Yes, because of COVID we can’t take a customer’s card without them explicitly giving us permission.” I didn’t ask her whether or not a human handing something to another human still satisfactorily implied permission or if that social assumption had also been banished by the madness of 2020. No, she was just following the instructions she’d been given. What was more surprising to me is that in this interaction, I was wearing a mask while every employee at this too-careful-to-even-touch-your-germ-infested-credit-card restaurant was unmasked. Things are weird.

I don’t know if that anecdote has anything specific to do with this post other than to illustrate the two competing realities that we have all been living with since March. The first reality is the pandemic itself. Yes, people are getting sick. Yes, people are dying. The second reality, however, is the response to the pandemic. The pandemic is scary. The response has been maddening. I’m not saying our responses have all been wrong. I’m saying that our responses have been maddening for their inconsistency, their mixed messages, and their arbitrariness. Mix into this the rampant politicization of literally everything from masks to medical treatments, and, well, there’s a reason why we are all feeling a bit insane. It’s not just the pandemic. It’s the response.

My next two posts are dedicated to two -isms that I believe are shaping our response to the pandemic and making it more difficult and more maddening. I’m obviously not claiming that these are the only contributing factors, but these two particular -isms should be exposed because they predated the pandemic and we will continue to live with them once the pandemic is over.


J.P. Moreland defines scientism as “the view that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality.” Critically, scientism is not the same thing as science. Scientism is a theory of knowledge. Science is an academic discipline aimed at understanding the world. To be against scientism is not to be against science. In fact, most stand against scientism because it is a distortion and bastardization of science.

Scientism claims that the only knowledge that really counts for anything is empirical, scientific knowledge. Other branches of knowledge, if they are acknowledged at all, are banished to the lifeless realm of opinions. They are, therefore, irrelevant. Scientism is especially pervasive in western cultures where science has come to occupy the space once taken by traditional religious belief.

For instance, read the tweet below and substitute “God” for “science.”

Some of you might say, “Well, that’s ridiculous. Science deals with facts and data! Should we not listen to science and listen to theology instead?!” If you, even as a Christian, catch yourself saying something along these lines, you have already succumbed to the assumptions of a competing worldview. Again, let me be clear. It is foolish to dismiss science and data. Many of you reading this know my personal affinity for science. It is one of my favorite rants to my Christian college students that as Christians they should love science MORE and not less. But that is a far cry from scientism. Scientism says that science and data is all that really matters for life and flourishing. Everything else is garnish. Scientism says that the only questions worth asking are scientific ones and the only answers worth considering are scientific ones. It is a flattened worldview with a limited vocabulary and a limited imagination which creates limited people and stunted societies.

There are so many problems with scientism as a worldview, but I’ll mention just three here.

Science is never settled

The version of “thus saith the Lord” among true believers in scientism is “the science is settled.” This rhetorical trick is designed to end all argument by assigning certainty to one side and stiff-necked buffoonery to the other. The problem, as any real scientist will tell you, is that the science is never settled. That’s not to say that science doesn’t know anything. Far from it. But science is also insatiable in its curiosity. The minute that a scientist says “the science is settled” she moves from being a scientist to being a propagandist. Even something as certain as gravity continues to be challenged and old theories are replaced with new.

This is part of the frustration with our response to COVID. Just a few months ago here is a short list of what we thought we knew according to science: many experts were saying the mortality rate was likely close to 4 percent, the virus was transmitted on contaminated surfaces requiring obsessive hand-washing, we were facing a critical ventilator shortage, and the use of masks by the public was dismissed. Now, what do we know? We know the mortality rate is far below 4 percent. The actual fatality rate is estimated to be between .2 and 1 percent. The CDC’s best estimate at this point is .65 percent. We also have learned that the virus isn’t transmitted particularly well on contaminated surfaces – especially outdoors. We’ve also learned that a ventilator shortage is unlikely principally because ventilators are a particularly bad way to treat the disease. And what about masks? Well, that’s tricky isn’t it?

The air was thick with stories, op-eds, and interviews with medical experts dismissing public masking up until very recently like here, and here, and famously here. It is in this last clip (from March) where Anthony Fauci said, “When you’re in the middle of an outbreak wearing a mask might make people feel a little better, and it might even block a droplet, but it is not providing the perfect protection people think it is.”

Indeed, in March, some were announcing that the science on masks was settled. According to NBC News, “While the science behind whether masks can prevent a person from catching the coronavirus hasn’t changed (a mask does not help a healthy person avoid infection), public guidance may be shifting.” By June 30, NBC News was calling for a national mask mandate, you know, because of science. Wired Magazine offers an extremely good summary of where the science has been and currently is regarding masks. (Hint: You should probably wear a mask, but you also shouldn’t assume the science is settled.)

The problem is that we are consuming scientific information in a very unnatural way. Science, and specifically medical science, normally proceeds slowly and with care. Scientific knowledge is regularly edited and changed based on new information. This is definitely to be expected when studying a novel virus. What is new is the perceived need for rapid, on-the-fly construction of sweeping public policy based on scientific data that is changing by the day. This is where scientism rears its head. A politician can’t set public policy on science without setting that science in concrete. Science must not move. It must maintain at least the illusion that the science is settled. In this way, science becomes scientism. We must not acknowledge the fact that what we know today contradicts what we knew yesterday. We certainly must not acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that what we know today will likely be out of date tomorrow. So scientism, always living in the present, announces that the science is settled. There is no more need for debate.

A cynical public will have a hard time swallowing this. Again, consider masks. If you really wanted to convince people to wear masks, rather than breathlessly labeling them science-deniers it would be a better strategy to admit the fact that in March and April we were all simply ignorant. But when you smugly shame people, your scientism is actually being counter-productive to our recovery. People will dispute your assertions with a simple google search. They will pour cold water all over your arrogant certainty. Are they being “anti-science?” Perhaps. But so is the scienticist who claims that the science has been settled.

Science is never complete

One of the most persistent claims of scientism is that science provides us with all the information that we really need. This has been decidedly the case during the pandemic. The only data that matters are numbers like infection, mortality, and transmission rates, demographic breakdowns, and hospital capacity. COVID has turned many of us into armchair statisticians. Heck, how many of you regularly check COVID dashboard numbers on various websites? We compare county to county, state to state, country to country. In the absence of professional sports, some of us have turned to obsessing over the daily COVID stats.

I have been bothered by something since the beginning of the pandemic, however. It seems that for some the only thing that is allowed to matter is the scientific data. This is a calling card of scientism. Scientism puts us in binders and says, “The only thing that matters, the only thing to concern yourself with, is what you can measure and count.” Science, applied to the world, can give us a greater understanding and appreciation of it. Scientism, applied to the human condition, strips us of some of those things that necessarily make us human. To put it another way, there are truths that are beyond the scope of science. Scientism tells us these truths don’t matter, when in reality, these are the very truths that make surviving a pandemic worthwhile.

Some of us were sounding the alarm very early. COVID can’t be the only thing that matters. There is a human cost to this pandemic that isn’t going to show up on that COVID dashboard. Early on there were warnings about mental health, societal breakdown, economic devastation, educational atrophy. Some listened to these warnings. Many still are not. The only thing that we are really allowed to care about is the data, you see. If the “numbers” are going up, nothing else matters. It is a consequence of scientism pervading our thinking and shaping our response.

It’s possible the person who tells you they have stopped caring about the virus is just fatigued and weary. In that case, maybe offer them some compassion. But it’s also possible that rather than being narrow-minded, science-deniers, they actually are much more open minded than you are. It could be, perhaps, that they’ve got much more on their mind than just the “data.”

Science never speaks

In the tweet from Bernie Sanders above, he praised New Zealand for, among other things, listening to science and thus dealing with COVID more effectively than the United States. Apparently, New Zealand stands alone in the critical area of “listening to science.” This must certainly come as a great surprise to scientists the world over – especially those in places like England and California who are developing a COVID vaccine. New Zealand doesn’t need a vaccine because they already whooped the virus by “listening to science.”*

What does it really mean to “listen to science?” Science doesn’t talk. It has no voice. This has become a common refrain especially among politicians, eager to not have to defend their policies. “Hey, I’m just doing what science told me.” Education is also now consulting the oracle of science. The Boston Globe says that we must listen to science and send our children back to school in the fall. The Los Angeles Teacher’s Union, on the other hand, has recently said that science has told them it is irresponsible to send children back to school. What gives? Why is science telling us different things?

Well, there are two reasons. First, science doesn’t speak, but scientists do. And those scientists don’t always agree with each other. In fact, they often contradict each other. With this being the case, confirmation bias becomes a constant problem. It becomes possible to pick the expert who already agrees with what you have come to assume. Second, science doesn’t self-interpret. Science gives numbers, data, and observations, but it doesn’t set policy. Science doesn’t tell us what we should or shouldn’t do. Science will not tell you to send your child to school in the fall or keep her home. Those decisions are left to us. Scientism, however, ignores these truths and presents science as a monolithic entity speaking to us from on high. If we demand a justification from our leaders for what they are or are not doing, if we make them explain why it is necessary to put police tape around playgrounds or why it is safe to go to Chili’s but not to church, we simply are told to take their word for it because they’ve ascended to the peak, consulted with “science,” and they know what is best.

If the whole thing sounds a bit like faith, it’s not an accident. Scientism is a faith that doesn’t recognize that it’s a faith. I have personally witnessed the scorn of scientism towards religious faith in the midst of this pandemic – sometimes coming from those who call themselves Christian. The not-so-subtle message to people of faith is that now is the time to be “serious.” Faith is fine during normal times, but this is a moment of crisis! This is a moment to listen to science. Sometimes the scorn turns to mockery. “You really think God is gonna save you from a virus? No! But science might, if you would only listen!” It’s not a surprise. Competing systems of faith will often do battle in the public square. But as a person of deep faith, a person for whom faith is the most important thing, I should warn the scienticist. Lazy appeals to authority like “listen to science” may create some true believers. But it will also create a ton of cynics, skeptics, and rebels.

To be continued…

* When you really look at their policies, its hard to see how they are radically different from those of other countries including our own. It seems just as likely that New Zealand was helped by their unique geography and by the fact that the virus was not already seeded in their country when they entered into lock down the way it was in New York.

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