Published November 28, 2022
Any worthwhile postmortem of our COVID-19 response must account for two things: first, the scientistic fallacy that motivated the response itself. Second, the reasons why so many people fell in line en masse.
As Aaron Kheriaty explains, unlike the practice of science, the ideology of scientism “is the philosophical claim . . . that science is the only valid form of knowledge.” Scientism claims knowledge that cannot be supported by science itself. As Kheriaty illustrates, it is totalitarian in nature.
In the past few years, examples of scientism in action are legion. Its mantra is the oft-repeated imperative to just “follow the science!” In November of 2020, Anthony Fauci, the pope of scientism, complained that “science” had become politically divisive—as if debate and dissent are somehow antithetical to the scientific or political processes rather than inherent in both. Fauci reprimanded the public that in spite of their independent spirit, “now is the time to do what you’re told.”
Crafting broad public policy necessarily involves a whole host of various prudential and political judgments outside the realm of science. Ethical concerns must be weighed, and various goods ordered. Smuggling such prudential and political judgments under the cloak of science effectively condemns reasonable dissent as anti-science, as a heresy worthy of censorship and ridicule.
This should have alarmed us all. Freedom of thought and speech are fundamental to a truth-seeking society. Censorship and collective shaming are essential to the perpetuation of a fraud. Yet half the country shrugged, and more than half played along.
In his book, The Captive Mind, Polish poet and political dissident Czeslaw Milosz wrote of the various ways in which people come to accept totalitarian narratives. His own break from Communism he describes as attributable less to the reasoning of his mind than to the revolt of his stomach: “A man may persuade himself, by the most logical reasoning, that he will greatly benefit his health by swallowing live frogs; and, thus rationally convinced, he may swallow a first frog, then the second; but at the third his stomach will revolt. In the same way, the growing influence of the doctrine on my way of thinking came up against the resistance of my whole nature.”
The list of live frogs forced down our throats under the name of “The Science” is long. Liquor stores and strip clubs are essential for humanity, but churches are expendable, according to “The Science.” “The Science” also calculated that the entirely predictable catastrophe of school closures on kids’ emotional, physical, academic, and psychological health was worthwhile. Disagree and you’re a grandma killer.
For many, the third frog came in the summer of 2020, when cities across America exploded in protests and riots, masks barely on or entirely missing from protestors’ faces, bodies jostling together by the thousands for hours and days and weeks on end. Meanwhile, others watched their loved ones die over FaceTime, deprived of one of the most important and deeply human experiences in life. Was it “The Science” that allowed one, but not the other, sort of gathering?
Having recently lost my father, the idea that such a clearly politicized edict could have prevented us from being physically present with him stirs in me a combination of revulsion and rage. Holding his hand, kissing his forehead, cupping his face and looking into each other’s eyes when he could no longer form words—these are not matters of scientific measure.
How did every American’s stomach not revolt against this grotesque injustice?
People grow compliant for many reasons. Certainly, there is a certain fear of public shame that always accompanies deviation from the norm. There is a deeply-rooted human hunger to belong, even if it is just to the tribalism of a political movement. With family life increasingly destabilized, that hunger is more acute than ever, rendering political tribalism more ferocious.
A more disheartening explanation is that contempt for others can be pleasurable and feels like a shortcut to actual virtue.
But perhaps the most fundamental reason is that a society shut off from the transcendent is bound to comply with a totalizing regime like scientism. Obedience is the inevitable result of a society long blinded to the terrible, wonderful mystery of the supernatural. Death is far too imbued with meaning and mystery to categorize, so we anesthetize ourselves to it. Avoidance becomes not just a matter of averting our eyes but an obsessive project of prolonging our lives. In this context, the calculations of scientism carry a satisfying force of moral clarity, while lacking any of the moral complexity that a truly human account requires. This is the ideological sleight of hand: we think our eyes are opened, when really our ability to think has simply been circumscribed within the narrow limits of scientism’s domain.
A truly human account grants the limits of science and so makes room to revere the hidden and higher things before which every knee must bend. Paradoxically, it is in that veneration of the things we can’t measure that we grow resistant to the dehumanizing demands of authoritarianism.
Authority vs. Authoritarianism
Over the past couple of years I’ve often heard people muse about how the “Question authority” generation of the 1960s became the compliant generation, imploring tech companies to silence anyone who, well . . . questioned authority.
But this behavior makes perfect sense if we understand that there is a chasm of difference between authority and authoritarianism, just as there is between science and scientism. The call to question authority, popularized by countercultural icon Timothy Leary, was not an effort to root out corruption in order to preserve proper authority. Rather, it was an injunction to undermine the understanding that there is any such thing as authority at all.
Authority, as the etymology indicates, is generative. Its absence leads to degeneracy. Cultural revolution is not a rejection of a particular as much as it is a rejection of a whole. It isn’t this old book we destroy but the reverence for old books generally. It is not that saint whose statue and memory is reviled; the concept of sanctity in its entirety is destroyed. Iconoclasm is not only directed at marble and bronze, paper and text, but at authority itself—most effectively through the role of fatherhood both human and divine.
And what will fill the void when we have broken down the statues, villainized the heroes, sneered at tradition, deconstructed father and mother, and divorced ourselves from our Author? It won’t be the freedom that comes from a fear of God but the perpetual fear of everything else.
The atheism of scientism is inextricably tied to the psychology of compliance. But as Milosz explains, the cure for this oppression is natural revulsion. At some point your body, your nature, your very being will feel disgusted at the thought of swallowing one more lie. Welcome that revulsion like a window in a dark room: it beckons us to things beyond this stultifying cage of ideology, to see anew what is here and now.
Noelle Mering is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center where she co-directs EPPC’s Theology of Home Project. She is the author of the book Awake, Not Woke: A Christian Response to the Cult of Progressive Ideology (TAN Books, May 2021).