Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

COVID-19 and the limits of contemporary science

September 17 2020

“In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”

— Galileo Galilei

I was recently arguing with a longtime friend about current events and got a stark example of how polarized and incapable of discourse our society has become. We had only been in touch every so often over the years, but many years ago we were good friends and had enjoyed lengthy friendly philosophical and political discussions together.

I’ve never considered myself a conservative nor a liberal (truth has no “right” or “left” bias), but as I observe the world since 2016 veer to the left of crazy (particularly regarding insidious censorship by platforms, something I regard as extremely dangerous to society), then I find myself becoming a conservative by default. Somehow, my friend, who would also have said he was neither conservative nor liberal, has become a liberal by default. And as it turned out, he now refuses to speak to me any longer (which only adds to my impression that it’s the leftists who are shutting down discourse not those on the right).

We had tangled for some weeks on a variety of topics, but the one which caused him to flounce was actually an abstract philosophy of science issue. We had been discussing the politicization of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and its scientific evidence of efficacy.

My position was that it was appalling how (1) politicians and journalists have anointed themselves as more expert than doctors (since they are now deciding which doctors’ opinions should count); (2) social media platforms were censoring counter-establishment views, and; (3) this new anti-science paradigm was very dangerous, likely killing people now and would definitely kill people in the future.

His position was while he didn’t approve of censorship in principle, that these non-establishment views on HCQ and so on are tantamount to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater (I found this last a rather shocking take given that he had formerly been a self-styled libertarian). He had an abiding faith in establishment science, its alleged “consensus”, and peer review. He went on at length to sing its praises.

On his view, the heroism of Galileo was something humanity needed in the past, but we’ve long since outgrown the need for this kind of heroism. The true heroes today, according to him, are the establishment, whereas those being ostracized by the establishment are only crackpots – cynical, bitter, angry, and paranoid losers nobody should care about. In short, we each think of ourselves as being very pro-science, but I’d view his version of “science” as being very political, and he’d view mine as being for crackpots.

The specific issue that sent him over the edge with me was what I thought of as an uncontroversial technical point, namely the widely recognized is-ought problem. This is a philosophy 101 topic, which (in my words) concludes that we cannot access moral truth using rational means. Now, not everyone agrees with this (I don’t), but at best, it is very much an unsettled issue for the establishment, and more likely, the average establishment scientist would fully embrace the dilemma as being the final word on the matter.

In any case, establishment science, qua science, has nothing official or consensus-driven to say regarding what we ought to do (i.e. “recommendations”); they have no scientific basis for this. They cannot do objective value-oriented trade-offs; they simply lack the tools for this sort of analysis. So when they “recommend”, and then pass the recommendation off as “science”, that’s a clear-cut fraud. To the extent of their competence and honesty, they may rightly claim that their data and analysis leads to certain causal understanding; they may not say that their “recommendations” have a similar basis, for such recommendation requires a whole analysis of all relevant aspects: ethical, economic, legal, political. And in these topics their is-ought constrained “science” is essentially useless.

Here’s the actual letter that left my former friend speechless:

There is a very substantial qualifier we need to recognize underlying all of your claims about our modern era’s science. Note that this isn’t a qualifier I’d put on how science should or could be, but it is a qualifier on how it really is at present.

It is very well recognized and admitted by most philosophers of science (and those who understand the philosophy of science) that, even if we could trust that the generally-accepted and practiced scientific method was wholly legitimate for making fact-based claims, it is completely without foundation for making value-based claims. At best, it can tell us what “is”, not what we “ought” to do about it. Now, if you disagree, then please point me to the peer-reviewed, data-based evidence to the contrary.

This is no minor quibble or arcane point. Our era’s science cannot, qua science, recommend anything. At most it might say “If you want to achieve this end, then here is the best known means to do that.” So any authority of science in situations such as covid-19 is illusory. The only real authority in play here is political in nature, which, Machiavellian as it is, likes to dress itself in the robes of Science and thereby play at being well-founded in its exhortations. It’s all a game, and a joke, and this is clear to anyone who knows the basis of how science really does work.

Conservatives get this intuitively, because for their “ought” claims they already only recognized otherworldly moral authority; liberals are delusional in the arguably worse sense of being completely fooled by a secular sham that puts up real roadblocks for the rational alternative. Why go looking for a rational solution when you’ve been fooled into thinking you already have it?


The corollary of the foregoing is that science of our era, qua not being able to recommend (as in not having any scientific basis for recommending), cannot even recommend that a scientist follow a scientific method. It can’t recommend any virtue, including the ones you attribute to scientists. It can’t recommend against bias, perverse incentives, fraud, and so on. And indeed, there are movements against science as we’ve classically known and loved it; they argue that it is rooted in “white male privilege”. And indeed, we’ve seen that crowd sweeping through the Universities, corrupting the science. Against this attack it really has no defense.