Terror, Utopianism and the Politicization of Science

The abilities to instill fear (terrorism) and to exploit fear (mobilizing for wars on terror) have always been recognized as marks of political power. People submit out of fear for their rulers or because they are led to believe that their rulers will be able to eliminate the causes of their fears. In modern Western societies the culture of fear is the background for the rise and expansion of the military, police and information gathering powers of the regulatory state, also known as the warfare-welfare state, the Nanny State, the Therapeutic State, the New Paternalism or simply Big Government. Arguably, the culture of fear is not a relatively inconsequential intellectual fashion. It may be an inevitable consequence of the unraveling of the alliance between knowledge (science) and faith that is the historical foundation of Western civilization. What this implies for the future of science itself is anybody's guess. However, it is clear already that the esteem in which faithful science once was held does not extend to the fearful science that feeds one scare-mongering campaign after another.

Faith and science

Nearly one hundred years ago, C.K. Chesterton wrote that the problem with people who have lost faith is not that they believe nothing but that they believe anything. Paraphrasing him, we might say as well that the problem with people who have lost faith is not that they fear nothing but that they fear everything. It makes sense. Faith comprises at least these three basic attitudes:

  • We cannot have and therefore should not aspire to superhuman knowledge and power.
  • There are certain things – reality, truth, freedom, justice and other intellectual and moral values – which we have to accept even if their respectability cannot be proven scientifically.
  • Despite our obvious limitations we are capable of dealing with the problems of existence in this world.

Arguably, science was born of that faith. However, to appreciate the argument it is important to distinguish between faith and belief. "Belief," in this context, stands for the stories or myths by means of which people learn (or learn not) to have faith. There are, of course, many systems of belief that inspire faith – different mythological packages may contain the same basic truths – although some undoubtedly are more effective than others in this respect.

Unfortunately, some people are unable or unwilling to deal with the mythologies that constitute either their own or others' beliefs. They cannot handle myths. They will not be bothered with the effort to separate the truths the myths contain from the events they relate. Hence, their only option is, either to believe the stories as literal reports, or to reject their truths on no other ground than that all or some of the facts in the stories never happened. 

Whichever side they choose, they are bound to disparage the notion that myths may have objective truth value even if they are wholly or in part works of imagination rather than historical records. The time-honored way of educating children by means of stories and mythologies that provide an intergenerational frame of meaning and reference becomes overburdened with efforts to instill belief or disbelief. This is unfortunate because building faith has to start in childhood, long before an introduction to science begins to make sense. Without an already established moral framework, could an education in science produce anything but monsters?

The unraveling of the alliance between science and faith stems from this inability to tell faith from belief and science from belief in science. Believers on both sides came to accept the notion that faith and science were deadly enemies. Rather than a vital support in a world full of uncertainties, science worshippers imagined that faith was the cause of our uncertainties. By promoting that view as the essence of enlightenment they insinuated a far more radical message: We shall not be able to cope with the problems of life unless we dare to raise ourselves to the position formerly occupied by no man (or, as their opponents prefer to say, by God). Then and only then shall we be masters of the universe, possessing the knowledge we need to control everything and to achieve full emancipation from every source of frustration and fear. The zealots could not contribute much to the advance of science, but they certainly felt up to jeering what they saw as its enemy.

There was a tiny little problem with their position: the control over everything includes the control over people, and that makes it rather interesting to know whether we shall be among the controllers or among the controlled. However, they told us that Science would solve that problem as well: through social engineering and eugenics it should be able to create a new breed of men that would accept unquestioningly the prescriptions of Science. (A strange thought: science without questions, blind devotion to science! But then it was an expression of scientism – that is, science worship – not of science itself.)

In retrospect, it turned out to be easy to discredit faith, especially when our first attempts to govern ourselves by the light of our own genius led us into a period of devastating world wars and the most brutal dictatorships in history.

Could science fill the void, now that it was supposed to have made faith redundant? It soon became clear that it could not offer anything beyond the evolutionary truism that the judgment of history is written by the victors, in science no less than in politics. It is therefore more u2018rational' to side with the strong than with the weak. Just make sure you guess correctly which side will win – that is to say, make sure to guess correctly the side that most of the others guess will win. Run with the pack! What else could a scientistic surrogate for morality advise?

For the first time in history, science found itself in a world without faith, and scientists were supposed to sail without a moral compass. Respect for reality? There is no reality except what we say it is. Truth? There is no truth, only the remorseless competition of partisan interests. Consequently, science is militant or it is irrelevant – and to be militant it has to strike terror in the hearts of men to arouse them from complacency and mobilize them for the cause it serves.

For the rest of us, what did the destruction of faith mean? We were supposed to forsake the superstitions of the past: the idea that we could cope with our own lives and the idea that others would share with us at least those universal notions of moral conduct and right thinking that faith-based civilizations had tried to instill in the young. If faith has no scientific basis then it has no basis at all.

Thus, we found ourselves in a world in which it was deemed irrational not to live in fear of everything and everybody, including ourselves, and irrational not to seek therapy, expert guidance and the protection of the mighty – whom we fear most of all and try to placate with daily demonstrations of submission. The signs are everywhere: There are more dangers between heaven and earth than your common sense can imagine; therefore surrender your common sense even if it is the only sense you have. You are what you eat, so eat what we tell you to eat lest you die with no one else to blame but yourself. Left to yourself you are a menace to yourself, society, and the planet: your only salvation lies in doing what you are told. Submit to our terrorism lest you fall victim to theirs. After all, we have the expertise and the science to deliver on our promises; who are you to argue with that?

Fear and power: the precautionary principle

Of course, the expertise and the science are not always what they are cracked up to be. However, it seems we are not permitted to see that as an opening for taking our chances on faith. On the contrary, the culture of fear admonishes us that inadequate expertise and insufficient science make it all the more imperative that we submit. This is called the precautionary principle:

Where there is uncertainty as to the existence or extent of risks of serious or irreversible damage to the environment, or injury to human health, adequate protective measures must be taken without having to wait until the reality and seriousness of those risks become fully apparent.

In short, it is better to prevent some hypothetical danger than to be sorry if someday it should occur. A problem is what would be a problem if it were a problem – regardless of the lack of evidence that it is a problem. Thou shalt live in fear! …at least, vote and spend as if you do.

We all know from experience that the costs of prevention often are not worth the trouble. Rather than stay at home as a precaution against all that may happen on the road or in the workplace, we consider buying accident and liability insurance – or just take our chances. However, the precautionary principle has become a political shibboleth of the religion of fear. It is not really about taking precautions. Rather it is about setting enforceable priorities. Chlorinating drinking water may seem like an efficient precaution against water-borne diseases such as cholera, but it should not be tolerated if our concern is preventing chemical pollution of the environment.

The precautionary principle now is included in laws, policies, and treaties, and in the constitutional documents of international bureaucracies and supranational authorities. It has been adopted in the process of empowering the European Union. However, as it is not a genuine principle that applies in every case, there always has to be an authority that will decide where it applies and where it does not apply. In the context of the EU, the European Commission has announced that it will use the principle with the widest possible discretion:

The precautionary principle is not defined in the Treaty, which prescribes it only once – to protect the environment. But in practice, its scope is much wider, and specifically where preliminary objective scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen for the Community.

What lies outside the range of this concern (whose concern?) that is based on preliminary evaluations about potentially dangerous effects that may be inconsistent with a chosen (by whom?) high level of protection (against what?) of the environment, humans, animals and plants? And those are only the criteria that will be applied specifically!

As the Commission interprets the precautionary principle, it is a free pass for the arbitrary political and administrative use of statistical data about everything and everybody – a pretext for laying claim to a totalitarian authority (as if that were not the first danger against which precaution is in order).

Utopian salvation

Appeal to the precautionary principle is not the only technique for staking such totalitarian claims. Perhaps the most scandalous argument for totalitarian power is the u2018definition' of health that was written into the preamble of the Constitution of the World Health Organization:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.

WHO's definition of health includes not only absence of disease and infirmity but also happiness, wealth, social esteem, intelligence, absence of frustration and fear from any cause whatsoever, and who knows what else. That is not a definition of u2018health' but of u2018whatever you like'. The major function of the constitution of an organization is to limit its powers in view of the purpose it is supposed to serve. WHO's constitution does the opposite: it stipulates a goal for the attainment of which no amount of funds and no range of powers will ever be enough. It is the constitution of an organization aspiring to totalitarian powers.

The rest of the text merely serves to remove any remaining doubts about that aspiration. What on earth is the highest attainable standard of complete well-being? Would the lowest attainable standard of complete well-being not be more than enough? Who but WHO would proclaim the enjoyment of complete well-being a fundamental human right? Such a right could be guaranteed only in Utopia. To invoke it in a constitutional text of an organization is to suggest that the organization is capable of lifting mankind out of the real world and into the realm of utopian fantasy. Obviously, WHO is not capable of doing that. It is not even capable of eliminating disease and infirmity, that is to say, securing health in the common down-to-earth sense of the word.

The mere fact that such shameless nonsense as the EC's interpretation of the precautionary principle or WHO's definition of health can survive in the public sphere is an indication of the low standards of moral and intellectual integrity that prevail in it. It is folly to make such nonsense the arbiter of correct science.

Those who set out to make legislation and politics scientific will only succeed in politicizing science. There is a pattern here. When the modern state made its appearance on the world stage some five hundred years ago, many thought it would be a means for enforcing justice; instead it ended up justifying force and in the process destroyed the common understanding of justice. According to present prevalent views, justice is no more than a personal opinion. To the extent that it has meaning in public life it is the ruling opinion, propagated by its control of education and enforced by its control of the state's police powers. Is that the fate that awaits science?

August 25, 2005