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Science is not democratic

So says Roberto Burioni, and I have to say, I found it refreshing to hear someone say that out loud! Burioni is a pugnacious virologist at a university in Milan who isn’t afraid to attack Italian anti-vaxxers in the aggressive terms in which they attack the scientific establishment. He expands it into a general issue of science vs. populist anti-science. The speed of light is an established fact, he says; it’s not decided by popular vote. He’s become quite a celebrity in Italy, a TV and social-media personality with a huge following. He is hardly “vulgar,” though, as the article in Foreign Policy by an Italian journalist (that brought him to my attention) claims, nor does he descend to “Trumpian” rhetoric (no self-aggrandizement, no gratuitous insults, no lies) — but he doesn’t pull his punches, and his aggressiveness reminds me pleasantly of the Vienna Circle in its heyday. Yes, they went further than they should have, and brought some perfectly respectable ideas into temporary disrepute, but at least they were campaigning for something worth campaigning for; they were letting sympathizers around the world know that someone out there was sticking up for the scientific world view when the hordes of brown-shirted Heideggers and Carl Schmitts and other devotees of authenticity were bent on crushing it underfoot. Burioni is inspiring in the same sort of way. Why don’t we have Burionis in Germany or in the US? Americans I can see; they might not be willing to stick their necks out at the moment since you never know what may turn out to be politically incorrect and unleash a Twitter mob, leading to unemployment. But Germans? I guess there is Christian Drosten, but he’s come across more as a foot soldier for Merkel than as a skeptical voice of reason in the midst of the (very considerable, and deeply traditional) German skepticism about science. Both Fauci in the US and Drosten in Germany are much more narrowly focused, less combative, and more emollient than Burioni. Why?

I really don’t know how best to think about this. I can see the point of all the people quoted in these articles (linked to above) who say that Burioni is counterproductive because he gets people’s backs up. Perhaps it’s something that works in some cultures but not others. My suspicion is that in just about any culture it can be one component of a more comprehensive strategy, which always needs good cops and bad cops; different people respond to different rhetorical approaches. But the more important thing isn’t this tactical question of what works best to convince people; it’s the underlying strategic and moral issue of courage vs. complacency. There are lots of people who are vaguely troubled by the anti-scientific irrationality they see popping up on all sides, but don’t feel the need to weigh in since it might get them in trouble and they complacently assume it will go away eventually. After all, the whole time we were growing up, it was taken for granted that science is a Good Thing, and why would that change all of a sudden? The trouble is, it has changed, and has been changing for a while. Some of the changes aren’t really changes in opinion, they’re changes in the political power of the masses — in the US, anyway — that have held these anti-scientific opinions (creationist, anti-evolution, anti-vaccination. . .) for many decades, perhaps centuries; see Hofstadter’s classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which describes the tip of a very large iceberg that hasn’t got the attention from historians it urgently needs. To shift the metaphor from arctic to bucolic, this is the steaming manure pile on which QAnon thrives.

There are philosophical questions here, especially around the question of expertise. The “death of expertise” is mourned in high-pitched rhetoric that usually, however, fails to address the underlying philosophical problem of how to justify the privileges (including higher incomes) enjoyed in modern democratic societies by experts, especially scientists, when their opinions don’t line up with the majority of citizens in their societies. Philip Kitcher’s very sensible book on this subject has deservedly been widely and (mostly) respectfully discussed. I don’t agree with him on everything (this can be the subject of separate post) but his framework is a good starting point.

But as Kitcher seems to be aware, the fundamental issue, underneath all this, is the residual intellectual (not political) authoritarianism of the Enlightenment, the idea that science is right and the ignorant skeptics about science, the Querdenker, are just wrong. The scientific establishment still adheres to this (as do nearly all scientific philosophers) — Burioni himself very much adheres to this. It’s refreshing to have it asserted so unabashedly, and I approve wholeheartedly, but it’s unnecessary (in principle, at least); as I keep saying, Carnap figured out a way for the Enlightenment tradition to be intellectually as pluralistic as it has always been politically.

Of course the problem is that things have recently moved some distance beyond where anything “intellectual” is even relevant; even if Burioni had internalized Carnap’s pluralism, it wouldn’t in practice make much of a difference any more either to what he’s saying (especially where he sticks to just plain facts) or to the outraged reactions to it by the populist know-nothings. The problem now is rather that the populists have successfully disrupted (or begun to disrupt) the long-established channels of communication in most of our western societies. These “channels of communication” include(d) not only a system of public media but, more essentially, certain conventions of decorum, of goodwill, of civilized interaction (politeness towards opponents and a presumption of innocence), tolerance, adherence to at least the appearance of truthfulness and consistency, willingness to be corrected, and so on. (Without this penumbra of conventions, no channel can convey communication very efficiently.) During the postwar period, these channels and the acceptable terms of discourse within them were admittedly restricted to a fairly narrow range and kept the extremes out. The extremes were unhappy about this, but the know-nothings on the populist right were too ignorant and powerless to change it, the radicals on the left were excluded from the mainstream by a bland social-democratic and anti-communist cold war consensus. Neither exclusion works any more; the know-nothings have found their voice and instead of pushing to broaden the bandwidth of the acceptable channels of communication in the society, they’ve decided it’s more to their advantage to trash them altogether and block communication (the left seem anxious to join in, with their newfound urge to cancel dissent). Under these circumstances, I see no choice other than to insist that the language of existing science — the language on which our entire civilization utterly depends — must be accepted as a minimal condition by anyone wishing to participate in public discourse. And to insist on that minimal condition as the basis for any channel of public communication — to insist on maintaining such channels (they need active care and feeding, or they succumb to entropy just as everything else does). So yes, I’m with Buriani all the way.

2 thoughts on “Science is not democratic

  1. I was recently intrigued by your construal of the historical divide between, at one extreme — naturalists (e.g. Quine, Neurath, and Mark Wilson) — and constructivists (e.g. Kuhn), at the other extreme; interestingly — Helmholtz, Planck, and Carnap are construed as occupying a “middle way”, reconciling both extremes. Michael Friedman’s examination of the relationship between — Kant and Carnap — and what you call their “naturalistic interlocutors” Hume and Quine, provides a supplementary example of this historical divide.

    In the context of your post — “Science is not democratic” — how do you think the naturalists would respond, to these issues, in contrast with those figures who occupy the “middle way”; in particular, how do you think Quine would respond in contrast to Carnap?

    1. As I say, the present politicization of medical and other scientific issues has advanced way beyond the point where “intellectual” stances have much relevance. So I don’t think the differences between the original, mainstream Enlightenment and Carnap’s more pluralistic one would matter all that much. Nor would the differences between naturalists (in Quine’s sense) and constructivists (or those in between like Helmholtz and Carnap). In the present situation, I think the response is dictated much more by personality traits and degree of civic-mindedness than by philosophical viewpoint. I am very glad that there are people like Drosten and Buriani who put themselves on the line like this. There is little upside for them; they get viciously attacked by the know-nothings (to the point of putting their lives in danger), on the one side, and professionally they can only lose, on the other, since in that sort of popular communication one has no choice but to oversimplify — and that can easily get you in trouble with your professional colleagues. So I’m full of admiration for the few people who actually do it, and wish there were more of them.

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