The Bureaucratic and Authoritarian Implications of “The Science”

One of the victims of covid and the reactions to the pandemic, has been the reputation of science. This is best summed up in the slogan which emerged during the pandemic, the admonition to “FOLLOW THE SCIENCE!”, which was parroted by scientifically semi-literate pundits whenever anyone had the temerity to question the official version on causes, treatments or responses to the virus. That this originated with Dr Anthony Fauci, the head of the American NIH, also indicates that this expression was part of a misinformation strategy to direct attention away from Fauci’s own role in helping transfer Americans’ work on viral gain-of-function from the US to the Wuhan Institute, once it was made illegal in America. A group of scientists with clear conflicts of interest also signed a letter decrying the ‘lab leak’ hypothesis, which was published in The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world. This is just a couple of the many ways in which individual scientists and scientific institutions have been corrupted by politics and political partisanship. Social media platforms exacerbated this by suppressing open debate on the causes and responses to the pandemic, an indication of the authoritarian tendency of the present political culture.

The purpose of this article, however, is not to unravel the trail of corruption, lying, cover-up, political propaganda and control, suppression of dissent and censorship that has occurred before and during the pandemic years – this can be left to honest journalism and the verdict of historians – but to deconstruct the very notion of “The Science” which we were and, presumably, still are all being encouraged to follow.

Science has authoritative structures built into it, by the very fact that it is in its essence the pursuit of truth, in theory built upon sound evidence, and is responsible for the remarkable changes in our societies over the past two hundred years, many (though not all) to the permanent betterment of the human condition. This, as everyone acknowledges, is an impressive record of achievement. In the process the various sciences have become institutionalised through their embedding in universities, latter-day co-option by business and government and transmission through various channels into both specialised and popular society and culture, which sustains their ongoing activity and development. It also imposes a quid pro quo in terms of science meeting various societal expectations, but also lending it a status which can be hard to distinguish from an incipient authoritarianism. As the historian and philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, has noted, “normal science” becomes locked into orthodoxies that persist even when countervailing theories and evidence pile up, with fundamental revolutions in understanding waiting in the wings to become a new orthodoxy as the old guard die off.

But while the roots of scientific authoritarianism are implicit in its own structures, the deeper problem is its institutional co-option by the powerful, a problem which goes back further than the past two hundred years of its supremacy in our culture. In the West at least, the most powerful institution for a millennium was the Christian church. As well as institutionalising its own dogmas, leading Christian theologians adopted the revered philosophical and scientific theories of antiquity, giving them the patina of Christian orthodoxy and extending their lifespan, even beyond the point of commensurability with the facts. Aristotle was considered ‘the science’ and his writings read uncritically well into the modern period, even being the basis of the classification of living things until the development of modern taxonomy by Carl Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Adoption by the Church is the reason that the Ptolemaic geocentric cosmology persisted for so long, so that Copernicus would only publish his heliocentric theory posthumously and Galileo was forced to recant even the evidence that came from his own observations. Other more recent greats have also been considered unimpeachable. Newton’s mechanical view of the universe inspired the Anglican priest William Paley to conjure up the popular image of nature as the creation of a divine watchmaker, an idea so ubiquitous in Victorian England, that Charles Darwin delayed the publication of his theory of evolution by twenty years.

So, the powerful have, in a sense, always admonished the populus to “follow the science”, meaning the orthodoxies of the day, and have always ensured that new ideas – certainly once they gain any traction – meet a hostile reaction. Part of this may be a Darwinian-type selective pressure to ensure that only the most resilient ideas survive and thrive. The orthodoxies of the day were, after all, not always so, and they have sometimes lasted precisely because of the absence of worthy replacements. But it is more often the case that they have survived because the mechanism for the free exchange of ideas has been stymied by powerful entrenched interests, so new ideas have struggled to gain a foothold. Today, these interests in the domain of scientific orthodoxy perpetuate their influence through various bureaucratic mechanisms: editorial control of journals; application for and approval of research grants; staff appointments and promotions; and, of course, cancel culture!

It is perhaps inevitable to some extent that orthodoxies exist, in science as in other areas of human culture, for reasons of cultural stability, in order that (in the state Kuhn describes as normal science) scientists, like the rest of us, can go about the business of daily life, engage in meaningful conversation with their peers, and set priorities in their work. Intrinsically, though, at its heart, the scientific enterprise is highly disruptive. It is implicit in the nature of science that it is driven by a sense of wonder and a curiosity about the nature of reality. Curiosity implies a fundamental dissatisfaction with the received explanation – or lack of explanation – for phenomena. This reveals the fundamental difference between an Einstein and a lab worker. The lab worker is doing a routine, even if important, job, but is part of an institutionally-mandated technical process; Einstein was one of those visionaries who defined the paradigm within which scientists would work for the next 100 years, and continue to work.

However, the contrast between an Einstein and a lab worker, or even highly proficient researchers who work within a paradigm, perhaps obscures a more significant difference between even normal science and the orthodox and supposedly settled state of knowledge (which is entirely fictitious) implied in the admonition to “follow the science”. This goes back to Francis Bacon’s outlining of the method for the conduct of scientific inquiry in the seventeenth century, which, with some modifications, remains essentially the basis of scientific inquiry today. Bacon proposed that the method for the ascertaining of true knowledge was through an iterative process of multiple observation of a phenomenon and recording of data, the discernment of regularities in the data, close observation of the same phenomenon under controlled conditions (experiment), leading to the discovery of universal explanatory laws. Notwithstanding the criticism of Bacon’s empiricism by Hume and more recently by Popper and Quine, the importance of Bacon’s method is that it is grounded in evidence. Science, therefore, should follow the evidence and should present the evidence, and a culture that valued science should impartially allow the presentation of evidence. Those today telling us to “follow the science”, have not merely been censoring opinion, but have unequivocally been censoring the publicising of evidence and even colluding in making it disappear.

Already in the nineteenth century, Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, was warning of the dead hand of bureaucracy, in the memorable metaphor of the “iron cage”. The bureaucratisation of science, necessary though it might be for the funding and administration of scientific careers, risks, in becoming overbearing and the main priority of scientific institutions, destroying the soul of the scientific enterprise. Scientific curiosity struggles to survive the stultifying embrace of the bureaucratic mind with its interest in power politics. The situation has become unimaginably worse since Weber’s day and has just taken a quantum leap (no pun intended, but happily employed) in institutional ‘caging’ with the deployment of equity, diversity and inclusion directives across all academic and professional institutions that has arrived, incredibly but inevitably, at the door of the STEM subjects. So now mathematicians and glaciologists must be employed and promoted, and research projects funded, according to EDI requirements rather than on merit.

In the great scheme of things, irritating as this is, it probably hardly matters. Truly great minds – the ones that give rise to true scientific insights and shift the paradigms, so to speak – are so rare that the dilution of institutional effectiveness by the implementation of EDI, to employ a homeopathic analogy, only enhances their genius above the resultant mass mediocrity. Scientific genius (like genius in other fields) is anarchic and anti-authority (Feynman), requires bold and imaginative conjecture (Popper), and conjures serendipitous discovery through immersion in the problematic nature of the field. It also requires freedom of thought, inquiry and debate, which are the prerequisites for scientific advance, as they allow the contesting of ideas, the elimination of unsubstantiated claims, and the exposure of even the most promising and elegant ideas to falsification – through reason and evidence, not suppression by the powerful advocates of orthodoxy. As rare and elusive as it is, we should be pursuing the truth through science, not following the science.

About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

2 Comments on "The Bureaucratic and Authoritarian Implications of “The Science”"

  1. Stephen Stacey | 6th May 2022 at 9:32 am | Reply

    Authoritarian political forces will use any method they can to extend their ability to control. Typically, authoritarianism is needed precisely because the power is founded upon lies. The followers of Einstein didn’t need to use cancel culture to force the acceptance of his theories. Moreover, the progressives discard science that does not support their will to power. Science says that children do best, on average, when they are raised by their two, married, biological parents. Thus, social leaders ideally should be working to create policies, educational interventions, and laws that lead to more people being able to marry and stay married. Thus, future well-being will be assured. However, to say such a statement in today’s PC world will get you labelled as far right-wing. The progressives leading this power grab don’t just want power. they want the West destroyed. Unless one fights back, the future for our grandchildren looks bleak.

  2. Perhaps understanding the novel is better practice than following the science. I’d recommend reading Prof Dave Snowden and looking at the Cynefin model

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