Science is a method, or more accurately, a collection of various methods, aimed at systematically investigating observable phenomena in the natural world. Rigorous science is characterized by hypothesis, experiment, testing, interpretation, and ongoing deliberation and debate. Put a group of real scientists in a room together and they will argue endlessly about the salience, significance, and interpretation of data, about the limitations and strengths of various research methodologies, and about the big picture questions.
Science is an enormously complex human enterprise, with each scientific discipline having own refined methods of inquiry and its own competing theories. Science is not an irrefutable body of knowledge. It is always fallible, always open to revision; yet when conducted rigorously and carefully, scientific research is capable of genuine discoveries and important advances.
Scientism is the philosophical claim—which cannot be proven scientifically—that science is the only valid form of knowledge. Anyone who begins a sentence with the phrase, “Science says . . . ” is likely in the grip of scientism. Genuine scientists don’t talk like this. They begin sentences with phrases like, “The findings of this study suggest,” or “This meta-analysis concluded. . . .” Scientism, by contrast, is a religious and often a political ideology. “It has been evident for quite a while that science has become our time’s religion,” the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben observed, “the thing which people believe that they believe in.” When science becomes a religion—a closed and exclusionary belief system—we are dealing with scientism.
The characteristic feature of science is warranted uncertainty, which leads to intellectual humility.
The characteristic feature of scientism is unwarranted certainty, which leads to intellectual hubris.
Del Noce realized that scientism is intrinsically totalitarian, a profound insight of enormous importance for our time. “Many people do not realize that scientism and the technological society are totalitarian in nature,” he wrote fifty years ago. To understand why, consider that scientism and totalitarianism both claim a monopoly on knowledge. The advocate of scientism and the true believer in a totalitarian system both assert that many common-sense notions are simply irrational, unverifiable, unscientific, and therefore outside the scope of what can be said publicly. Antigone’s claim, “I have a duty, inscribed indelibly on the human heart, to bury my dead brother” is not a scientific statement; therefore, according to the ideology of scientism, it is pure nonsense. All moral or metaphysical claims are specifically excluded because they cannot be verified by the methods of science or established by the reigning pseudo-scientific totalitarian ideology.
Of course, the forced exclusion of moral, metaphysical, or religious claims is not a conclusion of science, but an unprovable philosophical premise of scientism. The assertion that science is the only valid form of knowledge is itself a metaphysical (not a scientific) claim, smuggled in quietly through the backdoor. Scientism needs to hide this self-refuting fact from itself, so it is necessarily mendacious: dishonesty is baked into the system, and various forms of irrationalism follow.
The 20th-century totalitarian ideologies all claimed to be “scientific,” but were in fact unfalsifiable by their own circular logic. Because scientism cannot establish itself through rational argument, it relies instead on three tools to advance: brute force, defamation of critics, and the promise of future happiness. These are the same tools deployed by all totalitarian systems.
To hide its own internal contradiction from view, the self-refuting premise of scientism is rarely stated explicitly. Scientism is instead implicitly assumed, its conclusions repeatedly asserted, until this ideology simply becomes the air we breathe. Careful policing of public discourse admits only evidence supposedly supported by “science,” and this atmosphere is rigorously enforced. As we will see in the next chapter, during the pandemic, qualitative (e.g., familial, spiritual) goods were repeatedly sacrificed to quantitative (e.g., biological, medical) goods, even when the former were real and the latter only theoretical. This is the fruit of scientism, which turns our scale of values and priorities upside-down.
It would be hard to find a more effective ideological tool to impose a totalitarian system than by appealing to “science” or “experts” and thereby claiming a monopoly on knowledge and rationality. Those in power can readily choose which scientific experts they endorse and which they silence. This allows politicians to defer inescapably political judgments to “experts,” thus abdicating their own responsibility. One’s ideological opponents are hamstrung, their opinions excluded as “unscientific,” and their public voice silenced—all without the trouble of maintaining a regime of brute force and physical violence.
Defamation and exclusion from public discourse works just as effectively. Those in power maintain a monopoly on what counts as Rationality (or Science); they do not bother talking to or debating the [fill-in-the-blank stigmatized group] “bourgeois,” “Jew,” “unvaccinated,” “unmasked,” “anti-science,” “Covid-denier,” etc.
Repressive social conformity is thus achieved without resorting to concentration camps, gulags, Gestapo, KGB, or openly despotic tyrants. Instead, dissenters are confined to a moral ghetto through censorship and slander. Recalcitrant individuals are placed outside the purview of polite society and excluded from enlightened conversation.
The political theorist Eric Voegelin observed the essence of totalitarianism is simply that certain questions are forbidden. The prohibition against asking questions is a deliberately and skillfully elaborated obstruction of reason in a totalitarian system. If one asks certain questions—“Do we really need to continue locking down?” or “Are school closures doing more harm than good?” or “Are we sure these vaccines are safe and effective?” or “Why has the promised utopia not yet arrived?”—one will be accused of being a pandemic denier, wanting to kill grandma, being anti-science, or of placing oneself on the “wrong side of history.”