Scientism and COVID-19 – Opting Out


“Listen to the experts” they say, if you have the temerity to question the wisdom in the effective shutdown of the global economy in response to COVID-19. However, the conversation becomes a little bit more difficult than they expected when they hear the follow-up questions, like: Which experts? And, after we’ve listened to them, then what?

When the social distance warriors tell you you should listen to the experts, what they’re really saying is that you should listen only to the experts that they agree with. These by a strange coincidence are the same experts that the government wishes to believe, and take on their policy prescriptions unquestioningly.

This brings us to the first key premise of scientism: The science is settled on one particular theory and there is complete consensus on it. Scientific knowledge, contrary to 200-plus years of accepted wisdom on the topic, is not an imperfect and emergent process constantly subject to adjustment when new information arises, but a dogma impervious to skepticism.

If there does happen to be some dissent, it is only by cranks and “pseudoscientists” out to make money or just deceive people. Never mind the fact that the Imperial College model that was used to justify the lockdown has been roundly criticized for its bad code and inaccurate predictions:

“According to a team at Edinburgh University which ran the model, the same inputs give different outputs, and the program gives different results if it is run on different machines, and even if it is run on the same machine using different numbers of central-processing units.”

Neil Ferguson and his team aren’t cranks; why not? Because their “science” supports the idea of the world that certain people subscribe to.

There’s not much we can do if the proponents of scientism have their way, though. The pro-lockdown position is invincible to data. If you point out that the real infection and death rate is nowhere near as bad as was predicted, and that despite much stress about it, hospitals are largely not being overrun, they’ll just say, “that just shows the lockdown worked!”

This is the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy – the argument that because an event occurred after another event, the first event must have caused the second event. “The lockdown worked” then becomes an unfalsifiable theory based on pure speculation.

There is still no solid evidence that the lockdowns are preferable to some other strategy in protecting lives and our health systems. It’s an assumption, and a risky one at that.

Whenever you point any of this out, the hall monitors will crack out a chart with a curve on it, or reel off a list of death numbers with no other context. What is this supposed to prove, exactly?

Another premise of scientism is that the data is self-interpreting — the data by itself tells us how we should act. “We do what the science tells us” is a concept that proves scientism is profoundly unscientific.

What we do with the information that epidemiologists or any other scientist is still an open question that can be answered by other means: Philosophical, moral, pragmatic. Knowing scientifically how an object moves through space doesn’t tell us whether we should throw a tennis ball at that guy’s face. The bare facts don’t imply an “ought.”

It reminds me of the so-called medical justifications for regulating citizens’ diet by various taxes and decrees. They say they’re responding to what “public health experts” suggest: Such-and-such regulation will curb childhood obesity by 16% over 5 years, etc.

Yet even knowing that fact would still not tell us whether we should pursue that policy. It’s highly questionable that the role of public policy is to do exactly what health experts tell us without question, pretending that there aren’t endless other factors that come into policymaking.

Some might, for instance, bring up the potential cost of such a measure. Perhaps curbing obesity now might cause some economic problem later. Perhaps it’s not even the role of government to effectively put us on a diet.

The proof? It’s in the fact that individuals make these trade-offs every day of their lives. The fact that we even debate about what should be done about obesity indicates that there are individuals that have other ends that they value more than their weight. If the point of public policy is to be a reflection of the general will of the public, then of course trade-offs have to be taken into account. Refusing to do so is simply irrational.

So here’s what I want epidemiologists to do: Give us as much accurate data as possible with less reliance on unproven models. Give us a projection based on the various policies that we might want to pursue. Then the government should absorb and understand the data, then take everything into account before choosing a policy.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.