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When COVID-19 invited itself into our lives, it did not arrive alone. In its wake came a global flood of knowledge on respiratory viruses and their prevention and treatment. It has been pointed out that, in recent history, far more serious epidemics have swept through society, particularly the Spanish flu of 1918. Then, the press had kept silent about the illness, which risked dampening spirits at a decisive moment in the war. The absence of any means of treatment meant that attitudes were fatalistic. This was also the case with the Hong Kong flu in 1968. At the time, people saw little point in discussing something that very little could be done about. The contrast with today could hardly be greater.
Differences in the perceptions of pandemics have much to do with trust in science. In 1918, belief in progress had been undermined by a war in which technology had been put to destructive ends. But it was only after an even deadlier conflict that doubts about the benefits of scientific progress spread beyond a small circle of anti-modernist intellectuals.
In 2020, with the human causes of climate change at the center of public debate, the virus has certainly not caught society at the height of its love affair with the scientific ideal. But that does not explain why, in the space of a year, science – and particularly medicine – has become the focus of such controversy.
The relationship between science and belief is too often characterized as one of opposition. As soon as science starts telling us what we can and cannot do, we inevitably take positions towards its pronouncements. This is what has been happening throughout the pandemic. But rather than revisiting the old Enlightenment conflict between faith and knowledge, we need to reflect on what it means to believe in science – and how belief can easily turn into distrust.
Methods and anathemas
Until recently, medicine has been relatively well protected from postmodernist doubts about scientific method. For the last fifty years, medicine has increased life expectancy, an unprecedented achievement. But, irrespective of COVID, that trend has now come to an end in the West. In some places, life expectancy is even declining, due in part to the medical madness responsible for the opioid crisis in the United States.
The speed with which expectations of medicine have given way to distrust, not to say resentment, may be explained by their quasi-religious nature. We know the routine: a journalist interviews an epidemiologist demanding that they not only report on what they know, but that they promise salvation – the sooner the better. When forced to acknowledge that medicine is still powerless to provide a cure, the scientist falls back on the mantra of protection: social distancing, masks, curfews and lockdowns. If another scientist comes forward denouncing the measures, that’s heresy. Excommunications – made all the more spectacular by social media – abound.
In the fifteenth century, Christian Europe had as many as three Popes; but this did not make it any easier for the faithful to keep the faith. Today, the pontiffs of academic medicine tear into each other with anathemas backed by statistics and double-blind studies. But this does nothing to alleviate public confusion.
Belief, wrote Hume, is ‘a lively idea related to or associated with a present impression’.1 This definition is as valid for religious faith as it is for ordinary beliefs (e.g. that the sun will rise tomorrow). The difference between the two is, at most, one of intensity. A ‘lively idea’ is held all the more firmly when accompanied by a very real impression. To weaken a belief, it is not enough to put forward countervailing knowledge: the impression to which it is attached must be changed or negated.
How can people not have a passionate relationship with medical discourse during an epidemic? Locked down, most of us experience many unpleasant ‘impressions’, tempting us to believe scientific promises that all will all soon be over. A few people, on the other hand, experience lockdown as a pleasure. Their impressions sometimes lead them to follow the most alarmist medical pronouncements.
It is worrying to see the emergence of medical factionalism in a population that until recently hardly knew the difference between a virus and a bacteria. People can afford the luxury of ignorance so long their movements, their bank accounts and their desires do not depend on prevailing wisdom about a novel coronavirus.
In the clash between opposing empirical methodologies, there are not only different routes to the truth (something that under different circumstances most people would accept); there are also different routes to an exit from a situation that increasingly seems like a nightmare. It is hard to see how specialist knowledge could not have entered the public realm in the form of beliefs so contentious as to be able to spoil friendships.
Why we are no longer pious
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche wonders ‘in what way we, too, are still pious’. Science can provide a reason for everything, he argued, with the exception of the ‘will to truth’. The scientific mind seeks ‘the truth at any price’ – in other words, whatever the cost. But where, asked Nietzsche, does the will to truth come from if its source cannot be found in the form of disinterested knowledge?
His answer is worth recalling. In claiming that the truth is unitary and that to strive for it is worthy of the greatest sacrifice, Enlightenment science was kindled by ‘the flame lit by the thousand-year-old faith, the Christian faith which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth; that truth is divine.2 Far from marking a break with religion, the rise of scientific knowledge was akin to the ‘shadow of God’, an attempt – perhaps the last – to subordinate life to a greater principle.
The piety that Nietzsche was denouncing was nineteenth-century faith in Progress – a faith we no longer have. But his critique still rings true in assurances that the only path to salvation lies with science. Even when scientists press for nationwide lockdown, they claim not to be engaging in politics. Politics is indeed not a science, especially in a democracy. Yet, in an epidemic, other people’s freedoms are apparently worth sacrificing for the truth.
But the key issue is not so much scientists’ faith in science as the public reaction. According to Nietzsche, a scientist wishes not to be deceived because they wish not to deceive. In other words, science is ultimately founded in morality. The wish not to deceive others is a sign of the grandeur and fragility of belief in science. For Nietzsche, life was the realm of appearances; science for him was directed against ‘semblance, i.e. error, deception, simulation, blinding, self-blinding’.
Conspiracy theories around scientific issues do not emerge because of disappointed faith, but because faith is living beyond its means. Nietzsche says that we believe in scientists’ desire not to deceive for as long as we retain a vestige of religious belief. It took all the strength of Christianity to persuade us that priests rule our lives for our own good. Today, the scientist who dons the priest’s surplice may be right to want to save us, but it is rather too late for him to be taken at his word.
But the question is not whether science’s quasi-religious ‘will to truth’ undermines its claims. Rather, it is whether the conflicting passions aroused by medicine during the pandemic are caused by the perception that, as Nietzsche says, ‘the “true world” has finally become a fable’. In the absence of strong belief in the truth, a single mistake by scientists is proof for many that scientists are always mistaken – and even that they desire to deceive us.
The view that the world is governed by private interests has led many to conclude that such interests also govern medical research. To reverse this trend, it is not enough to mimic religious discourse. Instead, scientists must declare conflicts of interest. But even this will not reconcile many laypersons to scientific justifications for limitations on their freedom.
Early in the pandemic, Jürgen Habermas commented that ‘in this crisis, we must act with explicit awareness of our lack of knowledge.3 Habermas could never be accused of Nietzscheanism. Nevertheless, his words express a notion of what can be reasonably be expected of science. It is not easy, either for scientists or for laypeople, to explicitly acknowledge what they do not know.
Scientists must recognize that where they do not have secure knowledge, the precautionary principle does not require privileging worst-case scenarios. Doing so is a way of saying that one knows (what must be done), even when one does not know (what is). The controversial French microbiologist Didier Raoult (advocate of the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID) claimed that he ‘really knew’ while others were merely prophesizing. Faced with what he saw as an oligarchy of the mediocre, he played the ‘enlightened despotism’ card.
But it is not clear that this fully explains Raoult’s popularity. If a scientist states that a virus cannot dictate the political and behavioral agenda, they negate their own position. They are admitting that they do not know what tomorrow will bring and that, until they do, the rest of us need not act as if imminent catastrophe can be avoided only if we follow their advice.
But the layperson whose belief in science is determined by the impact it has on their life can also draw a lesson from Habermas. To recognize that one does not know, and to act accordingly, is to remind oneself that one can only have opinions on the virus, not beliefs. Kant described opinion as subjectively and objectively insufficient knowledge; belief, on the other hand, is objectively insufficient but subjectively sufficient. This explains why the ‘subject’ finds it so hard to abandon. Scientific knowledge, by contrast, is subjectively and objectively sufficient.4
To believe in science – or that the aim of science is to deceive us – is to confuse opinion with belief. To admit that we do not know, and to seek to understand our continuing lack of knowledge, would help to de-escalate conflicts around scientific truths. Assuming that we will have to live with COVID for a long time, it is a safe bet that passions will swing between support and rejection as the state of knowledge evolves. That is a further reason to reserve belief for things that do not seem to take a cruel pleasure in deceiving us.
Michaël Fœssel is Professor of philosophy at the École Polytechnique and author of Nach dem Ende der Welt. Kritik der apokalyptischen Vernunft (Turia/Kant Verlag, 2019).
This essay was originally published in Eurozine.
1 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1896 (1739), Book I, Part 3, Section 7, 96.
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff, Cambridge 2001, 201.
3 Interview with Jürgen Habermas, Le Monde, 10 April 2020.
4 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Marcus Weigelt, London 2007 (1787).