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Corona Hermeneutics 1: Follow the Science?

Follow the Science has become the standard phrase among politicians and administrators for justifying ever stricter measures to fight the corona pandemic. Most people readily admit that these measures infringe on human rights and severely restrict the social interaction we require for human flourishing. With the phrase “follow the science” leaders across the globe, guided mostly by virologists, backed by mathematical modelers and compliant news media, rationalize harsh emergency measures. We are forced to endure increasingly severe penalties for non-compliance to lock-downs, policing of and incursions into citizens’ private sphere, fundamental changes in social behaviour, accompanied by mounting economic and collateral damage from postponed surgeries, rising suicides, along with growing civil unrest from protests in many countries.  

The central problem with following the science is that this sentiment revives a model of science inherited from an earlier time of our cultural history when scientists, fighting against superstitions and the confines of religious dogma, claimed their work to be entirely free from any belief, subjective involvement, or personal bias. Unlike religion or philosophy, scientists then believed that empirical data require no interpretation but are plain for everyone to see who cares to look at things objectively. This undisputable givenness of fact was based on faith in the scientific method. Scientific facts were established by empirical experimentation under ideal laboratory conditions and results established as facts through repeat verification. It should have been obvious that this method is of rather limited use in all those areas of human life not susceptible to mathematical equations or quantification. There is no guaranteed method for the art of living a good life, even though techno chauvinists (those who think every challenge in the journey of life amounts to a problem to be solved by technology) have never quite relinquished this illusion. Nevertheless, the success of the scientific method for technological development ensured that this model of truth was emulated everywhere and deeply ingrained the opposition of belief and knowledge in modern culture. It became common sense to hold that scientists know facts, while all others merely believe in unproven opinion. Unsurprisingly, scientists came to consider themselves, to use Terry Eagleton’s apt phrase “white coated custodians of absolute truth,”[i] [1] daring all other supposedly lesser forms of knowledge to measure up.  

Much of the 20th century debates among scholars in the humanities and natural sciences was precisely about overcoming the mistaken assumption that scientific facts are detached from theory or interpretation. As the physicist John Polkinghorne put it, “there are no scientifically interesting facts that are not already interpreted facts. No doubt all could agree what the reading was on the dial of some piece of measuring apparatus, but for that reading tool have meaning one would need to know what the instrument is actually capable of measuring. For that one needs a theoretical understanding of the nature and operation of the apparatus.”[ii] [2] In other words, even empirical science does not arrive at its truths without the context of an acquired framework of assumed plausible meanings. In short, scientific discovery is theory laden. Moreover, the empirical scientific method of repeat verification under ideal laboratory conditions is of very limited applicability to human existence as a whole. Scientific analysis, although rooted in the stuff of reality, is always an abstraction from the whole of life in order to examine a tiny part. For this reason, every scientific finding deemed relevant for public policy making requires careful integration, evaluation, and calibration within the complex totality of human existence. 

Unfortunately, this hard-won understanding of science and its limitations is at present utterly neglected in dealing with the corona virus. Where are the sociologists who should tell us about the long-term implications of such measures or of mass hysteria? Why are psychologists ignored when they warn against the effects of a masked society, especially in children? Where are ethics committees balancing the need to curb virus spread against the importance of maintaining human dignity and human freedoms? Instead of an integrated approach to the “pandemic,” we are reverting to the absolute truth claims of the science. We have virologists venture far beyond their competence and pronounce on how much the economy can take; or we have politicians tell us, in the name of science, how to socialize, or, to quote the German chancellor, “that every contact that does not take place is a good contact.” Citizens are asked to follow disproportionate and arbitrary measures to prevent the spread of COVID, all in the name of “following the science.” Science, however, cannot tell us how to live. Science, to quote Martin Heidegger “cannot think” because real thought is existential reflection. Do we really need a reminder that virologists playing at politics or politics instrumentalizing science is a bad idea?  It is imperative for the health of our societies to recall the limitations of natural science and implement a more integrated approach to this pandemic. We need such an approach especially now that the infection fatality rate of 0.23% (possibly “substantially lower”), suggested by a recent WHO research bulletin, puts the threat of COVID, for all its differences, near that of seasonal influenza waves (https://www.who.int/bulletin/online_first/BLT.20.265892.pdf?ua=1 [3]). The current scientistic fetishism of politics is not only unhelpful, it is dehumanizing and destructive. We should not blindly follow the science but engage the full spectrum of human knowledge offered by an interdisciplinary approach. Moreover, scientific theories and findings should be brought into conversation with the collective inter-generational wisdom of what makes for human flourishing in a world ever rife with risk.

[i] [4] After Theory (Basic Books 2003), 18.

[ii] [5] Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, (Yale University Press, 2011), 1.