That which their own hands hath made: Covid and the problems of science

Justin Aukema
15 December 2022

The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563. Public Domain.

For many, Covid was an issue of “science.” “Trust the science” was the common refrain. Logical inconsistencies between trust and science aside, what this reveals is the absolute faith that most people put in science. It is no exaggeration to say that science and money (capitalism), two sides of the same coin, are today's religion. Nowhere was the zeal for this religion better illustrated than the Covid “crisis.”

Regarding “science,” there were two main sides. One was the “Covid regime,” the mainstream side pushed by media and academics etc. They claimed that it was better to put one’s own feelings and better judgements aside in favor of trusting experts. This is of course the definition of technocracy and not science. But the distinction was mostly lost on its adherents who were convinced that titles and blue checks directly equate to knowledge. Such monopolization of knowledge is of course highly undemocratic and submissive-reaffirming of authority. But I will not dwell on these points here.

The other side, what I will call the “anti-regime,” mocked the hypocrisy of trying to reconcile science and belief and instead pointed to the social foundations of science. The science of the Covid regime in other words was in their opinion not true science; it was faux science; it was the Science™. This side importantly stressed these aspects to emphasize how modern knowledge production was beholden to the interests of capital, in this case the pharmaceutical industry.

But in fact, despite the apparent differences between these two sides, they in fact were mostly identical in worldview. This is because they espoused a shared faith in preserving the integrity of a “true” and transcendental science. Their only point of disagreement was over the orientation of this science and how it should be defined and applied. In this regard, they were like arguing brothers, both members of the same family. They made big issues out of small ones, and ended up engaging in what Lenin would have called “eclecticism” as opposed to actual dialectics. Nowhere was this more evident than in their preferred method of argumentation, which essentially equated to "my scientist" versus "yours."

Both sides argued that the other was abusing or ignoring the science. Now, in this regard, the latter was certainly closer to the truth. Any sane person could look at the data and see that Covid does not pose a serious risk to young children, for instance, or understand the arbitrariness of masking when entering a restaurant only to demask seconds later when sitting down. By ignoring such obvious facts and instances of illogic, and thus inflating and elevating the threat level unnecessarily, the Covid regime was committing a fatal blunder, the other side decried.

Yet both were blind to some basic facts about what science is in the first place. The Covid regime, for all they cried “science,” was actually illustrating the subjective nature of science in the first place. By emphasizing what they perceived as social risk over objective data they revealed the socially constructed nature of science itself. Ironically, on the other side, the anti-regime argued the same thing by showing that science was being held hostage by vested interests.

Both revealed the same basic problem, that there is no such thing as a “pure” science. There is always only science and this science is always socially constructed and bent to the will of power. Thus we would better be served by asking, what is this power; and toward what ends do they use science?

Now we are getting somewhere. As Marx famously stated in The German Ideology, the ruling ideas of any age are always those of the ruling class. Science in other words as the ruling ideology directly reflects class interests. And this is not a new phenomenon. As scholars like Federici, Agamben, and Foucault have argued it has always been the case. More often than not science has been the blunt club with which the ruling classes have beaten the heathen “superstitions” out of the peasants and underclasses. Federici demonstrated this with the witch-hunts in Europe, for example. And both she and Agamben have argued that ironically Christianity cooperated with the new ruling class science regime to carry out its purges. Yet in doing so as Agamben has argued Christianity revealed itself as the subservient handmaiden to the new ideology. Theirs was thus a double negation, not only of so-called superstition, but even of God himself.

Thus, considering this history, how can we expect science to be any different today? In fact we cannot. In fact, if anything, things are worse because of the more stratified and extreme nature of class conflict.

The problem therefore is that science is not a good organizing principle for life let alone a good moral compass. Science does not tell us how to live let alone how to live fully. If anything, the pairing of science and the state (the bio-state), as Agamben has shown, leads only to the reduction of life to its barest biological functions, i.e. bare life, devoid of other spiritual, moral, or ethical factors. Indeed, societies oriented only around scientific rationality often lead to some of the most horrible abuses and negation of human rights imaginable. Chattle slavery, scientific racism, imperialism, Auschwitz, and the atomic bomb were all justified by the most ardent supporters of and apologists for the science regime and its infallability. Contemporary historians will of course attempt to justify science and to save it from condemnation by erecting a partition between the ideology and its adherents. Yet they are guilty of the same sins by repeating the same fatal error: perpetuating the myth of a "pure" science that transcends not only human society but also even logos itself.

In this milieu, it is no wonder that so many are deluded by the false idol of science. "They worship the work of their own hands, That which their own fingers have made" (Isaiah 2:8 NKJ). The worst irony though is that, unlike in Isaiah’s age, we have forgotten even the origins of our new gods of science and capitalism. They appear to us as natural and “eternal” as the rising of the sun and moon. It is for this reason especially that it is so difficult for us to conceive of arguments or viewpoints that occur outside this framework.

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