From the Editor—Friday Reflections

No Oracular Science

The Friday Reflection by James M. Kushiner

February 19th, 2021

Michelangelo's Delphic Sibyl, Sistine Chapel


hen we started Salvo in 2006, I was convinced that no source of authority in western civilization in the 21st century infallibly trumped that of "science." Every day in the news we heard results of a new study or recent research, telling us what foods to eat more (or less) of, the kinds of exercise to do or to avoid, the neurology of depression or the genetic cause of a disease, how to improve fuel efficiency or air quality, or the benefits of a new treatment or new device.

Science brought us the nuclear bomb, lunar landings, microchips, Wi-Fi networks, gene therapy, and, especially, increased longevity. While the human species does not actually have longer life spans than it did in 1800, average life-expectancy has climbed dramatically; many more of us reach our 80s, 90s, and beyond—but not very far.

For human mortality has not been erased. All must cross that finish line. But for the man or woman entering adulthood today, it seems so far away because the average distance from them is so much greater now. Experience confirms the impression that we can take many decades of life for granted: few of our peers cross the line early, unlike so many in previous generations.

Science has secured this longer life expectancy and longer retirements. We like what science has done, and we trust it. Jeremy Beers makes an interesting point about the authority of "science" in an essay in Local Culture, "Limits, Risk Aversion, and Technocracy":

Let's begin by considering the sentence "We must follow the science." It is one we have heard, in various forms, repeatedly since about the middle of March 2020 via the various propaganda platforms that saturate our lives... No sentence better captures the core convictions and commitments of our well-educated, well-heeled, and well-regarded.

Think of the parallel commands never heard. No one who is today in a position of cultural authority ever says, "We must follow our guts." No one says, "We must follow tradition." No one says, "We must follow our religious leaders." No one says, "We must follow the poets." No one says, "We must follow what the majority decides." No one says, "We must follow those who have displayed wisdom."

...No, the widely held, seemingly unchallengeable cultural belief is: We must follow the science.

There is much meaning packed inside this simple command. Note that it has a comprehensive application: the "we" to which its utterer refers—during a pandemic and at virtually all other times—is global in scope. It excludes no one. Then there is the imperative mood. This is not a mere suggestion: we must do it. There is the charge to bow to the one source of instruction, Science, that looms above all others as if a god. And there is the implicit reminder that we who are not this god's high priests have a moral obligation to bend our wills and ways to the dictates of those blessed persons who are able to hear and interpret the god's sayings.

But there is no pure science that speaks like an oracle. "Science" is mute and never speaks or commands anything. Only its interpreters do, either scientists themselves or leaders who wrap themselves in the lab-coats of science as a warrant for their agendas and a shield against their critics.

What did those who appealed to "Science" do when they knew at the outset of the 2020 pandemic that the ones most at risk were the elderly—living now in greater numbers than ever before because of Science? What priority was given to the protection of so many residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities? What provisions were made for their much-needed access to family members? What did "Science" tell Gov. Cuomo of New York and other governors?

Scientists are fallible, and politicians even more so, wind-driven skiffs that they often are. Conclusions do not spring out of a pool of facts like life supposedly emerged out of a "warm little pond," as still imagined by some.

Want a good society? Any knowledge gained from science must be processed by virtuous minds and hearts and in dialogue with the wise. Science has no compassion. Only the merciful do.

Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,

James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James

—James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.