Trying to make decisions in an ever-changing, perpetually uncertain situation, leaders of all stripes have invoked the prestige of science in efforts to rally support for their bandied interventions. The NBA, the first of the major sports leagues to cancel games, based their decision on science. Higher education administrators are following the science—though often in different directions. Actual scientists are following the science, though, again, it seems to be taking them to different destinations. And politicians are most definitely—if you take their word for it—following the science.
For all the talk of science—what with its systematic, rigorous, unbiased approach to asking questions and proffering answers—things on the ground are about, umm, clear as mud. For the average Joe trying to make heads or tails of it, a pretty simple question emerges: how is it that everyone, from the President on down, is following the science, and yet winding up at dramatically different conclusions?
The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare our society’s problematic relationship with scientific knowledge.Patrick Pierson, ““Following the Science” in a Polarized Age” at Front Porch Republic
Indeed. When church services are cancelled but angry political gatherings are not, you have to know that science isn’t driving the process anyway. So our moral and intellectual superiors are not really looking to science for rescue. Thus, “science” may increasingly mean only the authority to force people to do things, irrelevant to outcome.
Alternatively, it may become possible to have a discussion about what, exactly, science is.
For example, in the case of the ATP turbine, “Natural selection did it” has the same explicit explanatory value as “God did it.” But natural selection is somehow science and God is not. Why? How?
In the ruins, some conversations may become possible that were not possible before.