Scientific Authority in the Age of Ebola

American liberals are cultivating an interesting rhetoric that demands subservience to scientific authority. This rhetoric is most prominent regarding global warming and teaching of evolution. But it has now spread to compulsory vaccination and Ebola quarantines.

I suspect liberals cultivated this rhetoric as a reactionary strategy for achieving policy successes for global warming and evolution. This rhetoric serves to make any debate unreasonable and, therefore, making any intellectual response unnecessary. In other words, it is a strategy for forcing acceptance of particular policies.

This rhetoric brings to mind the debate between Bill Maher and Reza Aslan. Aslan called out Maher for his ignorance about religion and religious people.  He said that the first day of a religious studies course, you learn that people don’t get their morals and values from religion; they bring their morals and values to their religion. Surely this is an oversimplification. Christianity, for example, radically transformed (created) the West. But I suspect both are true at the same time, but just at different time scales. While we bring our values to religion, our religion, or at least the religious culture we’re raised in, limits what values, politics, and questions we can even imagine.

The same is true of science. We don’t take our politics from science; we bring our politics to science. And this too is an oversimplification. Certainly science has reshaped the beliefs and values of the West. But again, both are true.

Both conservatives and liberals are selective in their acceptance and rejection of scientific authority. While conservatives are more likely than liberals to reject scientific authority when it comes to global warming, they are more likely than liberals to support it when it comes to even a belief in the validity of IQ, let alone claims about racial differences in IQ. Meanwhile, liberals, rightfully so, question the way scientists even frame questions about IQ. On the other hand, you’re hard-pressed to find a liberal who won’t call for unquestioning acceptance of scientists’ authority regarding global warming.

We use science as a rhetorical weapon. This, however, can be dangerous in two ways.

  1. If we demand subservience to scientific authority, we can allow scientists to define the terms of a debate. But they are poorly equipped to handle the politics of their knowledge. Moreover, we will tend towards technocratic solutions, which will make us less free, perhaps create more problems than they solve, or at least lead us to miss non-technical solutions that are better and easier.
  2. If we reject out of hand scientific authority or especially scientific knowledge, then we lose powerful tools for understanding our problems.

Reason has always been a part of Western thought. But until the eighteenth-century, we understood it as a tool that was subordinated to higher forms of understanding. We recognized its limits. Its time to recognize those limits once more.

Meanwhile, is it getting hot in here? Or is it just me?

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