Patrick Deneen has become one of my favorite online writers, and his recent post “Following the Science” is an excellent example of why that is.1
Deneen begins by reminding us of how “In 2008, Sens. Obama and Clinton fell over each other with promises to ‘follow the science’. They were speaking particularly in criticism of President Bush’s ban on stem-cell research and Republican resistance to the widespread findings regarding anthropogenic climate change. By ‘following the science,’ they promised, policy would not be the prisoner of ‘political’ considerations—it would be decided based upon scientific findings.”
It’s almost too easy for Deneen to skewer the obviously political slogan, oversimplified as all political slogans are, “follow the science”. First Deneen points out the host of questions that are raised by the notion of science-based public policy:
“Should moral and ethical considerations guide decisions in the application of scientific research?” “Should scientific research itself be subject to ethical and moral limitations?” “Isn’t there a reason that public policy decisions are made by elected leaders who represent a variety of constituencies, and not scientists who may have a blinkered view of what their findings entail?”
Deneen then offers some specific quandaries that science, for all of its authority, can’t resolve:
“Does the fact that some sick people could benefit from kidney transplants justify opening a market in kidney purchases? What of signing up poor people to engage in risky medical research for significant compensation? What of using clones for organ harvesting? How does one, in such instances, ‘follow the science’?”
Alright, responds a hypothetical interlocutor: science doesn’t dictate policy, but it certainly gives us facts on which our policy should be based. Or does it? Deneen discusses scientific findings—facts, if you will—about oral contraception (“the Pill”) and notes the absolute lack of any interest in using those findings to alter public policy:
“An article this summer in The Atlantic—hardly a publication of the conservative religious right—highlighted a recent study that confirmed again what many previous studies have shown—a link between the estrogen that is ingested in the Pill, and an increased incidence of breast cancer, among other cancers. Yet, unsurprisingly, there was no cry from President Obama or President Clinton to ‘follow the science!’”
Deneen quotes Olga Khazan, the author of the Atlantic article: “The pill is essential; not getting cancer is too. How do you choose what’s more important—a lifetime of easy reproductive autonomy, or ratcheting down your risk of deadly disease by marginal amounts?”
Deneen’s response: “Based on ‘what the science says, the answer is presumably easy: stop taking the Pill. But based on what people actually want—indicated in the admission that ‘science’ needs to be considered alongside the benefits of a ‘lifetime of easy reproductive autonomy’—then we should not be surprised that it’s not so very easy to ‘follow the science’.”
So far, so good: Patrick Deneen has revealed the essential emptiness of a popular political slogan, and has also shown the hypocrisy of liberals who exalt science in cases where it supports their agenda while disregarding science, or at least minimizing it, in cases where it does not. If that were all he was up to, his article would still be of interest; but Deneen, as usual, is after bigger game.
He makes it clear that it’s not just liberals who use science selectively when it suits their purposes. He puts Olga Khazan’s question (“How do you choose what’s more important…?”) into the mouth of an imagined conservative on the topic of global warming: “How do you choose what’s more important—a lifetime of easy energy-assisted autonomy, or ratcheting down your risk of climate change by marginal amounts?” And this: “For the vast majority, the usefulness of fossil fuels outweighs the risk [of climate change] by a huge margin.”
Again, the point isn’t just that both sides do it; what Deneen wants us to see is why both sides do it; he wants us to see what’s behind our selective use of science, besides our respective partisan agendas. It’s about modernity, stupid; more specifically, it’s about modernity’s belief in human autonomy and in science as being instrumental on behalf of that autonomy. “Here is my prediction,” writes Deneen; “we are as likely to cut back on fossil fuels in order to stop climate change as women are to cut back on their consumption of oral contraceptives to avoid certain cancers and to cease the pollution of the environment. This is because when ‘following the science’ runs squarely against ‘a lifetime of easy autonomy’ of any form, ‘what the science says’ will lose.”
Since science is instrumental and not an end in itself, we will use it only insofar as we see it making our lives easier; just as soon as science tells us some inconvenient truth, however--some truth that might require sacrifice on our part--we will either deny it, dismiss it, or find ways to ignore it.
Deneen might have titled this article, “What is science for?” Because, as he explains it, modern science is discontinuous with what came before it. “When we moderns speak of science,” Deneen claims, “we are speaking of a specific kind of activity aimed at a specific end.” Whereas, going back to Aristotle, the ancients conceived of “science” as “a form of inquiry aimed at understanding phenomena—whether ‘natural’ or human…’political science’ was the effort to understand human nature, just as natural science was an effort to understand plants or animals or the movement of the stars. To the extent that there was a practical implication of these studies, it was generally to understand how humans could conform to that natural order—including our own nature.”
Our word “science” comes from the Latin scientia meaning “to know”. As Deneen says, science formerly meant “knowledge”. That has changed. Modern science is not merely more accurate, more complete, or more predictive than was ancient science; it is an entirely different endeavor. “The moderns altered the meaning of the word science, particularly through the work of Francis Bacon. Bacon fiercely criticized the Aristotelian and scholastic understanding of science, instead arguing that science should not only seek to ‘understand’ nature, but when possible, to command, alter, and master it. ‘Knowledge is power,’ he wrote in his landmark work, The Advancement of Learning…”
Deneen quotes American philosopher John Dewey, linked to both the Progressive movement and to Pragmatism: “Scientific principles and laws do not lie on the surface of nature. They are hidden, and must be wrested from nature by an active and elaborate technique of inquiry…[which forces the facts of nature to] tell the truth about themselves, as torture may compel an unwilling witness to reveal what he has been concealing.” 2
Liberal or conservative, writes Deneen, we are all Baconians now: “Both the employment of fossil fuels to power industrial and mobile modernity, and the discovery and widespread use of the Pill are legacies of this project of modern science—to extend human mastery over nature, even, when necessary, to ‘torture’ nature. The right and the left might engage in many battles, but they agree in essence over the nature of the project of modern science: their disagreement about that project mainly lies in what constitutes the ‘nature’ that should be conquered.”
Deneen goes on to claim that while conservatives focus on the conquest of “external nature, the natural world, for the benefit of humankind,” contemporary liberals are more focused on “the overcoming of human ‘nature’,” believing as they do that “the natural world is regarded as inviolable, a space that should bear no imprint of human exploitation.” Nonetheless, “In both cases, the aim is what Bacon described as ‘the relief of the human estate,’ which has become tantamount to the securing of the greatest expansion of human autonomy. While the left and the right appear to fight titanic battles over issues such as the size of the national deficit,” insists Deneen, “both engage in a deeper fundamental shared project of expanding the scope of human autonomy with the assistance of applied science, or ‘technology’.”
Where, then, does this lead, this project of expanded human autonomy? For one thing, points out Deneen, in spite of conservative objections the modern project “in fact requires the architecture of massive government for its achievement.” You can’t make modernity’s Faustian omelet without breaking a lot of human-scale eggs. Ultimately, he continues, “down this path lies finally the mastery of ourselves, which is also our ultimately complete subjugation.” We have met our Master and it is us? “Living autonomously”—and, Deneen implies, “inhumanly”—through technology on a ravaged planet might not have been Bacon’s hope, but it is our destiny if we continue to ‘follow the science’.”
Now, a number of Deneen's assertions can be questioned. Is modern science truly a Faustian bargain? If ancient science was more about adapting to the natural world than about re-shaping it for our use, was that out of philosophical principle or simply out of a lack of alternatives? 3 Is an increasingly "ravaged planet" really inevitable? Is the project of human autonomy a dead end or misguided to begin with?
Opinions on all of these questions will differ. You don't, however, have to agree with Patrick Deneen's analysis to appreciate that he offers a thoughtful and largely countercultural perspective on contemporary social and political issues; and that in itself, in these days of invective, sloganeering, and soundbites, is something to applaud.
2 Deneen could also have quoted, to the same effect, “We murder to dissect” (William Wordsworth) or “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” (Karl Marx). Modernity worships power--human power, that is, over the rest of nature--and science is merely its most effective lever.
3 Philosphizing about how to "conform to [the] natural order" when one has no tools at one's disposal to do otherwise may be a sort of wisdom, but it may also be nothing other than making a virtue out of necessity. I'm betting that if Aristotle had been born after the Industrial Revolution, he'd have jumped on the same instrumentalist bandwagon as most everybody else, just as Patrick Deneen most likely drives his car to work where he composes denunciations of the Faustian bargain that is modernity. As Deneen says, we are all Baconians now, and I'm sure he includes himself in that.