Governments should never be in thrall to scientists
by Sean Walsh
The philosopher of science (and incorrigible mischief maker) Paul Feyerabend once wrote this:
Unanimity of opinion may be fitting for a church, for the frightened or greedy victims of some (ancient, or modern) myth, or for the weak and willing followers of some tyrant. Variety of opinion is necessary for objective knowledge. And a method that encourages variety is also the only method that is comparable with a humanitarian outlook.Against Method
Feyerabend claims in that book that the separation of science and state is at least as important as that of Church and state. The problem with SAGE, he’d argue, is not that it is composed of rubbish scientists (although he’d certainly have thought that), but that it exists at all. When you throw epidemiologists, computer modellers, behavioural ‘nudge’ scientists, immunologists, sociologists and (for all I know) tarot card readers into a Government briefing room and instruct them to find a consensus then you are making the mistake of believing that ‘consensus’ is the friend of knowledge, when in fact it is usually an enemy. Those who would advocate the inclusion of, for example, Sunetra Gupta onto this group miss this point: her best work will be done outside the Lockdown Establishment. Were Professor Gupta to be invited to dance with the SAGE sanhedrin I hope, for our sakes, she would decide to sit this one out. The imperative to be part of the ‘consensus’ would dilute the quality and value of her contribution.
It is always the mavericks who add the most to objective knowledge. In 1905 Einstein published four papers, each of which was a Nobel contender, and he wrote them in his spare time. With all due respect, Chris Whitty is no Einstein.
Things are, though, even worse than that. The Establishment ‘scientists’ have corrupted the worldview of the politicians they are supposed merely to advise. And the political class has passed that corruption of thought onto the people whose interests they are supposed to serve, not to define. In his excellent piece for Lockdown Sceptics, Ben Hawkins discusses Wittgenstein’s thoughts about the nature of certainty, and how it seems that some beliefs are foundational, that they serve as enabling conditions of thought in general. As Ben points out, for the High Priests of SAGE and their Government disciples the belief in lockdown has become cognitively indispensable. It’s not so much that they have rejected any alternatives to the current strategy. It’s that without a belief in the rightness of their approach, they are unable to think about the C19 problem at all.
Wittgenstein’s concern was always with the nature of language and in his later philosophy he claimed that language was intimately connected with what he called forms of life. To understand what someone means when they say something it is necessary to have some sort of handle on their background assumptions and their habits of linguistic and behavioural practice. The “form of life” inhabited by the Whitty/Vallance types is not so much scientific as scientistic. For them there are no truths that cannot be displayed on a government slide, and the approach to the ‘pandemic’ (a usefully elastic concept) must be shaped only according to the requirements of some grubby epidemiological calculus. They cannot see that this current ‘health crisis’ is also – and more importantly – a moral one: that there are significant questions being raised as to our attitudes to freedom, death, and what it means to live a life, rather than merely to be alive. The tragedy for the rest of us, is that this form of life is becoming embedded within the hearts and minds of the country in general.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the issue of the mandated wearing of masks. The arguments here have been largely concerned with cost/benefits, and with the relative plausibility of competing mask studies. But this misses a deeper point concerning what it means to cover your face. In several works, most notably his Sexual Desire and The Soul of the World, the late philosopher Roger Scruton developed what you might call a ‘metaphysics of the face’:
When I confront Mary face-to-face, I am not confronting a physical part of her, as I am when, for example, I look at her shoulder or her knee. I am confronting her, the individual centre of consciousness, the free being who reveals herself in the face as another like me.
For Scruton, the face – the smile, the blush, the frown – discloses the soul. Wearing a mask is not like wearing a shoe, for the face, unlike the foot, is a primary vehicle for normal social interaction. And this is the reason mandated mask wearing is so divisive: it stops us from being what we are. Even if mask wearing could be shown to slow the transmission of this virus, it doesn’t follow that the discussion should come to an end. There are deeper moral questions in play, ones which have been elbowed aside by the vapid utilitarians currently in charge of the Government machine.
A group of scientists have imposed their worldview on the rest of us, and it is not a “form of life” which is capable of any serious moral evaluation of the suspension of our freedoms. They have been allowed to set the terms of reference of the debate with, it has to be said, the general acquiescence of the public, which has come to seem like someone who has developed Stockholm Syndrome having consented to her own initial abduction. I take my primary obligation as a ‘lockdown sceptic’ to be sustained resistance not to the law, but to the terms of the debate.
Boris Johnson, the guy who floats above all this, poses as a classicist. He, more than anyone, should know the lessons of the classics: that they remind us of timeless moral truths which sit outside the assumptions of science.