Follow the Science!

Today, the command to “follow the science” is the perfect tool to speed the centralization of governmental power all in the name of combatting COVID-19.

“Follow the science.” How often do we hear those three words today? More than that, how often are those few words delivered as a command—and as an argument-ending command to boot?

That would be a command and not a commandment. And yes, more often than not, the issuer of this command is someone on the secular Left. And why not? After all, commands, as opposed to commandments, come naturally to many on the secular Left.

Such commanders have a tendency to forget something that G.K. Chesterton understood very well. Science, Chesterton reminded us better than a century ago, was never intended to be an argument ender. It was never supposed to be the be-all and end-all of anything. For that matter, one doubts that Chesterton could have imagined that science, all by itself, would ever dictate public policy.

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For G.K. Chesterton, science was simply nothing more than either a tool or a toy. Actually, he thought that science should only be either a tool or a toy.

Science as tool or science as toy? Did Chesterton prefer one to the other? Of course he did. And of course you’d be right if you guessed toy. For Chesterton, science as a toy was science at its “highest and noblest.” A toy, after all, was something of “far greater philosophical grandeur” than a mere tool. Why? Because, for Chesterton and his sense of joyful wonder, a toy had value in and of itself, while a tool had value only for some other purpose.

In other words, a toy is an end, while a tool is only a means to an end, and not necessarily a good end at that. Chesterton once asked his readers to think of a hammer and a doll house, or a tool and a toy. To be sure, science had something to do with both the hammer and the doll house. But science could never be the craftsman who used the tools that made the doll house. Nor could science ever be the child playing with the doll house.

What Chesterton was trying to suggest was that science ought not to have “natural authority” over the tool—or over the situation. Only man should have that kind of authority.

Writing early in the 20th century, Chesterton was well aware—and very worried—that man was “abdicating” this authority. On the eve of the Great War, he was quite concerned that “modern man” was becoming quite willing to stand aside and permit the tool that was science to dictate what should be done simply because it could be done, scientifically speaking.

Chesterton was no Luddite. He was not about to deny the importance and value of any number of scientific achievements from the telephone to the “motor car.” Well, perhaps he did have his doubts about various scientific advances, including both the telephone and the “motor car.” Ultimately, it didn’t matter to him whether people talked via the telephone or through a hole in the wall, so long as people talked “sense.”  

He did concede that the automobile could be a very useful, even “splendid” thing. Actually, he thought that such a machine could well be both a tool and a toy. His real concern was that the individual behind the wheel might not be a splendid man and perhaps even a “terrible man.” And that was his point about tools or toys, but especially tools.

The same thing might be said of the passenger train. The train itself was not necessarily an “awful thing,” but the conductor might well be an “awful man.”

Chesterton saw nothing wrong with steel rods and iron wheels, so long as the steel didn’t “blind the eyes” and so long as iron didn’t “enter the soul.”

And the passenger? Once again, there was nothing wrong with traveling by rail, so long as one’s mind didn’t “travel in ruts”—and so long as those ruts had not led everyone to being “lulled to sleep by the promises of science.”  

Writing early in the 20th century, Chesterton confined his concerns about the promises—and primacy—of science to what science, the tool, might build or create. But his thoughts and concerns might well be applied to other uses to which the tool that is science might someday be put.

This brings us back to today’s repeated command that we “follow the science.” What we have here is science as a tool of a very different sort. And, once again, the problem isn’t science itself but those who are using science for their own—and very different—purpose. That would be a state-building, rather than machine-building, purpose.

Therefore, like G.K. Chesterton long ago, we need to worry about those who are doing much more than toy with using science as a tool. If Chesterton found reasons to worry about the use and potential abuse of tools to speed communication and travel, we have ample reason to worry about the use and actual abuse of science to enhance the power of the state, both nationally and internationally.

Today, the command to “follow the science” is the perfect tool to speed the centralization of governmental power all in the name of combatting COVID-19. Today and tomorrow we will be commanded to follow the science to conquer what is now called climate change. 

If Chesterton thought he had grounds for worrying about “modern men” of his day bowing to science, we have more than ample grounds for worrying about the consequences of following commands to “follow the science” today. So, what should be done instead? As it was the case in Chesterton’s day, so it should be the case today. It is always better to follow the commandments than to follow the command to “follow the science.”  

[Photo Credit: Public Domain]

  • John C. Chalberg

    John “Chuck” Chalberg is a retired academic, having taught American history for years at Normandale Community College in the suburban Twin Cities. He graduated from Regis College, Denver and has a doctorate in history from the U of Minnesota. He performs as Chesterton, H.L. Mencken, Theodore Roosevelt and a few others, and has written for the print version of Crisis, the now departed Weekly Standard, National Review, and regular reviews for Gilbert! magazine.

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