Science can be Hard to Live With

by Guy Elgat

Undoubtedly many insights and lessons can be drawn and will be drawn for a long time to come from the current worldwide covid19 epidemic; insights, for example, about the responsibility of politicians in the managing of health crises, about the importance of human cooperation both locally and internationally, about the vulnerability of the global economy to disturbances in the regular flow of people and commodities, about the crucial yet contentious role of the various media in the dissemination of information, etc. But here I am interested in focusing briefly on related issues regarding the problematic relationship of science and the general public. Specifically, I want to offer some reflections on why I think science in trying times can be hard to live with.

What I have in mind is this. During times of normalcy (whether on the individual or collective level) our engagement or concern with the institutions and practices of science is rather limited. Of course, we constantly rely on the technological applications of science, but these almost magical apparatuses which pervade our lives do not for the most part raise any questions for us about the role of science in their emergence, as these technologies are typically taken for granted as the natural medium in which we exist. Specifically, we remain oblivious of the long and arduous process that made them possible in the first place: the years of research, the fits and starts, the difficult births, the contingent nature of discovery, etc. – all these remain for us far behind the scenes, deep under the hood. The various devices that we enjoy seem to descend unheeded from the sky – as if bestowed upon us by some benevolent god – and we embrace them (or not) depending on our desires or whims.

Almost the exact opposite is the case in moments of crisis and distress. Here there is a reversal: we, the public, are no longer the passive recipients of technological dispensations, but actively demand that science provide answers and solutions to our urgent, life-and-death, needs. Science is called to account from the bottom up. Additionally, as part of this transformation, we become, to various degrees, more interested in and concerned about the practice of science itself.

For example, in the case of the current epidemic, we come to learn about the manner in which data is collected, the various models that are constructed to make sense of it, the time it can take to develop a vaccine, and, for those of us who are really into the nitty-gritty, the latest findings regarding the inner structure of the virus and the specific biochemical tricks it employs to assail our various cells. To some extent or other, in our demand for answers, in our struggle to make sense of the situation, in our sharing with others of the latest discoveries, we become, so to speak, subsidiary members of the scientific community at large.

But things are not that simple. At least two interrelated difficulties beset the manner in which we interface with science (there are more). First, as practical beings, we need to know as soon as possible what the situation is in order to act: the great majority of us cannot, after the manner of an ancient Pyrrhonian skeptic, suspend our judgment, reach ataraxy or epistemic equanimity, crawl into a corner and wither away (despite the fact that during the first lockdown many of us came very close to that state). We need to know as soon as possible how dangerous it is to congregate with others in a closed space or walk outside with the dog, what risks are involved in sending our children back to school, to what extent different kinds of masks are effective in preventing the spread of the virus or protecting us from getting infected, etc.: as practical beings the innumerable pulses of everyday life presuppose at almost every turn our believing that this and not that is the case. The problem, however, is that science cannot always deliver such on-the-spot answers to our questions. The scientific churning out of answers and solutions takes time: it arises out of an extremely complex and messy process where institutional, technological, political, and personal factors play a role in not only aiding but also hindering the attainment of sound conclusions and assessments. This applies all the more in situations such as the current one, where the assailant is relatively unfamiliar and where a lot is at stake.

This is immediately related to the second issue I want to raise: science is fallible. Good scientific practice necessarily involves being open to revision of theories and views in light of new information or analyses as well as in response to debate and the negotiation of different perspectives. It necessarily means never being in a position of absolute certainty and always being ready to admit having been wrong. This too applies all the more to an evolving situation such as the current one where new data constantly keeps pouring in, and where new ideas, analyses and recommendations continuously arise. And here, for the general public, the problem is not merely practical but psychological-epistemological. The seemingly interminable fluctuation in the views of the scientists of the various institutions, the influx of numbers and charts, and the sometimes contradictory opinions, can be psychologically taxing, for their cognitive incorporation requires an alertness and mental plasticity that might be overly demanding for many of us. We must be cognitively limber enough to switch from “masks are ineffective” on one day to “masks are absolutely crucial” on another day.

A humorous but all-too prescient dramatization of the sense of bewilderment and the difficulty of the public to keep up with the views of scientists is to be found in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, where the gaseous eruption stemming from a chemical disaster is referred to, first, as a feathery plume, then as a dark billowing cloud, and finally as an airborne toxic event, and where the corresponding symptoms of being exposed to the toxins are communicated first as including skin irritation and sweaty palms, then nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath, later as palpitations and a sense of déjà vu, and finally as convulsions, coma and miscarriage. The children of the family at the center of the narrative, in their apparent exhibition of already outdated symptoms, illustrate the challenges we face in our attempts not to lag behind science’s pronouncements.

But it is especially at times of disaster or crisis that we crave stability, certainty and uniformity, not tentativeness, openness, and pluralism. Our impatience and anxiety find it hard to tolerate the slow-moving, hesitant, and sometimes fickle and creaking operations of the scientific machine. Indeed, we seem at times to misunderstand fundamentally the nature of the scientific project as such, and in a manner reminiscent of the views of some 17th or 18th century philosopher, expect knowledge to be certain and definitive or be nothing at all.  For some of us, merely labeling a scientific view a “theory” is enough to discredit it. On the background of such expectations it is precisely the frequent change in the scientists’ views – motivated at times by extra-scientific considerations[1] – that can generate disappointment and distrust. Consequently, one should not be surprised if people find appealing the uncompromising assuredness of a president who seldom (if at all) openly and explicitly admits of having been wrong[2]; an unscientific president par excellence.

In times of crisis, then, the demands that we are inclined to pose to science are at odds with the nature of science itself. And yet we must try to live with it. We must try, to quote Nietzsche, ‘to take leave of all faith and every wish for certainty’ and practice maintaining ourselves ‘on insubstantial ropes and possibilities and dancing ever near abysses’ (The Gay Science, 347). This is what Nietzsche expects of his ideal “free spirit”. But are we strong enough for such a nerve-wracking and mentally exhausting task? It is our only rational option.