Science, like nature, must also be tamed. —Neil Peart, Natural Science1
I Am the Science
“Attacks on me, quite frankly, are attacks on science.” So argues Dr. Antony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to U.S. President Joe Biden and, for the past 37 years, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), one of 27 institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Here, in June of 2021, he is responding to growing public criticisms that he continuously contradicts himself, constantly changes narratives and moves public health goalposts in ways that create confusion and erode public confidence.
Fauci has, in fact, spent his entire medical career working in government. He is a rare career bureaucrat who has also, particularly with the onset of COVID-19, become a global household name. In the United States, he has been showered with official prizes and accolades. You can even find a listing of some of his many honors right on the NIAID website, one-stop shopping for his most fervent acolytes. His flock of followers can even buy St. Fauci prayer candles on Amazon. Incredibly, he was recently named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by The Guardian.
Besides his status as a pop star icon, Fauci is also a government official with a tremendous amount of power to directly and indirectly influence how the tens of billions of dollars that the U.S. Government invests annually in medical research, and specifically on COVID-19, are allocated. This potent combination—a cultural influencer, a presidential advisor, and a key decision-maker on funding allocations for medical research in and outside of government—has made Fauci a formidable force. In the public debate, and more importantly, in the government’s response to the pandemic, his power is virtually unmatched, and for all intents and purposes, what he says, goes.
So when Fauci absurdly claims that questions about his veracity are really questions about the legitimacy of science itself, he’s really referring to his privileged stranglehold on the scientific deliberations surrounding COVID-19. He, and an elite group of other policy-influencers like him, effectively determine what is considered science, and what is not.
For purposes of this short paper, consider Dr. Fauci an archetype of countless other scientists and “public health” officials like him scattered inside and out of government across the globe. Similarly, know that the NIH, the NIAID and the many other alphabet agencies in the U.S. dealing with issues related to human health have countless national and international counterparts. Regardless of the individual, agency or nation, this elevation of government scientists to an almost unquestionable level of influence and authority seems extraordinary, if not unimagined.
Of course, this vast network of government science advisors, and the even bigger network of NGOs that support them and are often funded by them, have decision-making powers far beyond questions of virus mitigation. “Trust the Science” has become the quasi-religious mantra justifying an unprecedented expansion of government authority during the COVID-19 pandemic. Politicians and bureaucrats have embraced a sweeping, technocratic approach to suppressing the virus, employing seemingly scientific methods of modeling, contact tracing, testing, and data analysis to justify everything from restrictive stay-at-home orders, sweeping directives that have shut down entire sectors of the economy, mandatory vaccination and electronic vaccination passports, and even the construction of quarantine camps to intern the infected and unvaccinated. In the process, individual civil liberties, the free market process, and property rights have given way to what can only characterized as “Pandemic Socialism,” where administrative state bureaucrats like Fauci, and the politicians who have embraced them, have taken what amounts to a blank check to reorganize civil society from the top, down.
Is this an unprecedented expansion and abuse of power in the name of public health and science? Perhaps it is, but it not unanticipated. The quasi-religious fetishization of “the science” and its self-proclaimed leaders; the seemingly limitless power of government science advisors to command policies; and, the sweeping replacement of personal choice and local decision-making with centralized planning—all of this was foreshadowed in F.A. Hayek’s seminal critique of scientism in The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason. Hayek’s devastating takedown of Henri de Saint-Simon, the French aristocrat turned social engineer often considered the “Founding Father” of socialism, also takes on new relevance.
The Abuse of Science
The articles that comprise the chapters of The Counter-Revolution of Science were mostly written between 1941 and 1944, originally published in the academic journal Economica. This work was part of a broader effort by Hayek to explain the unplanned nature of economic coordination through the market process in such seminal essays as “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” published in 1945 in the American Economic Review. And that, of course, was part of his comprehensive critique of the failures of central planning under socialism, a project that dominates his work in the 1930s and 40s. Although less appreciated, The Counter-Revolution is an essential part of this Hayekian project, looking at the pretenses and misapplications of the scientific method in misguided, and ultimately dangerous, efforts to redesign and manipulate social organization and human action from the top, down.
Some important historical context: at that time, the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is palling around with “Uncle Joe” Stalin, the brutal Soviet dictator and intellectual heir to the great socialist experiment of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Together, in 1945, Stalin and FDR almost unilaterally sliced up and rearranged the post war world . The pseudoscience of eugenics, all the rage among American progressives and the scientific community itself in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century, had morphed into something even uglier under the murderous racialist delusions of Adolph Hitler. To put it mildly, Hayek is writing while surrounded on all sides, both geographically and ideologically, by various Deadly Isms cloaked in the reassuring language of objective social science.
In The Counter-Revolution, Hayek goes to great lengths to distinguish between the scientific method, properly understood, and its many accomplishments, versus the misappropriation and abuse of that method when applied to complex social phenomenon involving people making choices. “It need scarcely be emphasized,” he writes, “that nothing we shall have to say is aimed against the methods of Science in their proper sphere or is intended to throw the slightest doubt on their value.”2
The scientific process is just that: an endlessly iterative process of testing and revising hypotheses in an attempt to discover patterns that might tell us important things about objective reality. Science seeks “to revise and reconstruct the concepts formed from ordinary experience on the basis of a systematic testing of the phenomena, so as to be better able to recognize the particular as an instance of a general rule.”3
Hayek uses the word “objective” to describe this process with some hesitation, because, in the parlance of our time, the science is never settled. But it is the best word he can come up with for his purposes. For Hayek, as distinguished from the methodological subjectivism of economics properly understood, “when the scientist stresses that he studies objective facts he means that he tries to study things independently of what men think or do about them.”4
Richard Hahn, a professor of statistics at Arizona State University, brings all this into modern context:
A professional humility and a willingness to question scientific findings is precisely what allows scientific knowledge to advance.5
For Hayek, the tremendous advances in our scientific understanding of the world in the Nineteenth Century created an inevitable sense of hubris, and a methodological backlash against the “moral” or “social” sciences. What emerged was a caricature of the scientific process when misapplied to our understanding of complex social phenomenon. The problem, for Hayek, is fundamental, because “most of the objects of social or human action are not ‘objective facts’ in the special narrow sense in which this term is used by the Sciences and contrasted to opinions, and they cannot at all be defined in physical terms. So far as human actions are concerned the things are what the acting people think they are.”6
To avoid confusion, Hayek proposes the terms “scientism,” and “scientistic” be used “…wherever we are concerned, not with the general spirit of disinterested inquiry but with slavish imitation of the method and language of Science… In the sense in which we shall use these terms, they describe, of course, an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from the scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it.”7
When it comes to the government responses to COVID-19, it’s virtually impossible to clearly delineate between the scientific, the scientistic, the purely political, and unshackled power-mongering tyranny. But one particularly clownish, and incredibly consequential, attempt at “scientific” modeling of the pandemic is Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College model. More than anyone else, Ferguson is responsible for the global panic that lead to governments embracing unprecedented lockdowns—measures like stay-at-home orders, the shuttering of large sectors of the economy, the political determination of who, exactly, is an “essential worker,” and countless other economic interventions, unprecedented in previous policy responses to pandemics. And all of this was based on highly speculative econometric modeling publically presented as an incredibly complex (lots of “parameterizing” by Dr. Ferguson himself was required to get the data exactly right),8 but unquestionable representation of the science.
Phil Magness at The American Institute for Economic Research has done thorough work debunking the wildly wrong predictions of the Imperial College model, and the many flaws in the model itself. There are too many to dig into here, but it should go without saying that any modeling of a virus or human behavior is completely dependent on the data and assumptions made. As for data available at the beginning of the pandemic, Stanford University epidemiologist John Ioannidis, according to Magness, “issued a strong warning for disease modelers to recognize the severe deficiencies in reliable data about COVID-19, including assumptions about its transmission and its essentially unknown fatality rates.” More interesting, in the context of Hayek’s critique of scientism, was a core assumption of the Imperial College model: namely, that humans would not act, and would not in any way adapt their behavior in the face of a dangerous virus under conditions of radical uncertainty. Magness cites an April 2020 working paper published by National Bureau of Economic Research:
I’m hardly one who obsesses about academic credentials, but a core tenet of the “Trust the Science” civic religion is an unquestioning faith in formal scientific training. So it is interesting to note that Ferguson is not, in fact, an epidemiologist, as his own Wikipedia page claims. He is a theoretical physicist with a PhD from Oxford—a physicist who consistently applies his analytical worldview to complex social phenomenon not particularly suited to his tools. He is also, it turns out, a serial fear-monger, who consistently make headlines with his dire predictions. His mathematical models of previous virus outbreaks have consistently predicted pandemic catastrophe. His models have also been consistently, catastrophically, wrong. All of this reinforces the importance of Hayek’s warning against slavish imitation of the scientific method when applied to complex social phenomenon. But it is also an abuse of science itself, in the sense that these models assumed substantial scientific knowledge about a novel virus that simply did not exist at the time. Ludwig von Mises, the eminent Austrian economist and an important intellectual mentor of Hayek’s, puts it this way:
This gets to the core of Hayek’s project, famously summarized in The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”10
That Old Time Religion
We’ve taken care of everything—the words you read, the songs you sing, the pictures that give pleasure to your eyes. —Neil Peart, The Temples of Syrinx
I must admit that I have never before fully appreciated Hayek’s tone of distain as he attempts to describe Saint-Simon’s doctrines in the second part of The Counter-Revolution. It was uncharacteristic, I thought, of Hayek’s careful analytical style. But it all came rushing back to me as I observed the growing religiosity swirling about the debate on COVID-19 and the proper public policy responses. Mitigation measures proposed in March of 2020 soon became government-mandated security theater, and those eventually became religious rituals that only the blasphemous refused to comply with. The science was settled. This was no longer a scientific debate between competing paradigms and testable hypothesis. There was, suddenly, One True Science; and against it, those apostates to be shunned from society itself.
And it all started with Henri de Saint Simon, the patron saint of scientism. He is a fascinating character, a French aristocrat who renounced his title in hopes of avoiding Robespierre’s Reign of Terror.”12 He did many things in a chaotic career, but his real mission was his passion, and faith, in science born out of the French enlightenment. He dreamed of creating a new science of politics. Saint-Simon is also, not coincidentally, widely considered to be the “founding father” of socialism, although it would be his loyal acolytes who would first coin the term soon after his death.
Intrigued by my recollection, I went back and reread The Counter-Revolution. And then I read some of Saint-Simon’s writings, at least the ones available in English. And that’s where I found the passages above, taken from his first published work, from 1803: “Letters From an Inhabitant of Geneva to his Contemporaries.” “Was it an apparition?” he asks about that conversation with God. “Was it only a dream? I don’t know, but I’m certain that I felt the sensations that I will share with you.” “It is,” Hayek writes, “the outpouring of a megalomaniac visionary who sprouts half-digested ideas, who all the time is trying to attract the attention of the world to his unappreciated genius and to the necessity of financing his works, and who does not forget to provide for himself as the founder of the new religion great power and the chairmanship of all the Councils for life.”13
Much of Saint-Simon’s work is every bit as muddled and bizarre as Hayek warns. And then some. But his core vision of replacing “Liberty of Conscience,” with a positive science of politics, and the conflating of natural science with various flavors of mystical theology, remain constant themes in Saint-Simon’s work.
What’s most interesting here, for our purposes, is the fetishization of the natural sciences as an infallible religion. Sir Isaac Newton was no longer just a celebrated physicist. Now, in Saint-Simon’s mind at least, he was seated in the heavens next to God. Eventually, Saint-Simon imagined that “Physicism” would altogether replace deism as the rational basis for religion.
Thanks in large part to talented young apprentices like Auguste Comte, Saint-Simon’s utopian vision took on a more comprehensible form. But he kept returning to that original idea, one of a centrally-planned society governed by a supreme council dominated by mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and “physiologists,” typically supplemented by representatives of the arts. In one of Saint-Simon’s many failed publishing startups, the aptly-named Organisateur, Hayek identifies the most succinct expression of Saint-Simonian ideology: “…[D]ecisions,” writes Saint-Simon,” must be the result of scientific demonstrations totally independent of human will, and they will be subject to discussion by all those sufficiently educated to understand them… Just as every question of social importance will necessarily be solved as well as the existing state of knowledge permits, so will all social functions necessarily be entrusted to those men who are most capable of exercising them in conformity with the general aims of the community. Under such an order we shall then see the disappearance of the three main disadvantages of the present political system, that is, arbitrariness, incapacity and intrigue.”14
This all sounds eerily modern to me.
Trust science. —Tweet from @NYGovCuomo, January 23, 2021
If the idea of an all-powerful technocratic state objectively governed by the science sounds eerily familiar, it is because politicians, right along with their favored epidemiologists, public health officials, and econometric modelers, did embrace this mantra with the onset of the COVID pandemic. In practice, of course, the pure theory of scientism imagined by Saint-Simon and his intellectual heirs also ran headlong into a healthy dose of self-serving politics. Now-disgraced Governor Andrew Cuomo is an excellent case study, although he was hardly alone. With the onset of COVID, he readily commanded almost complete control of social organization and the New York state economy, all in the name of trusting the science.
One of his most notorious decisions, ostensibly based on data and science, was his order on March 25, 2020 to move recovering COVID patients into nursing homes, part of a much broader political takeover of hospital capacity management in the U.S., and globally. But this directive is particularly striking because it was so obviously wrong. Deadly wrong. Nursing home health professionals in New York, with the best knowledge and on-the-ground vantage to assess the situation, objected to placing seniors, already struggling with a multitude of health issues, directly into the virus’s deadly grasp. Beyond common sense, the policy had already proven disastrous in practice. President Attilio Fontana of Lombardy, the epicenter of early COVID-19 deaths in Italy, had ordered something similar on March 3rd. There, the government offered nursing homes €150 Euros to take on infected patients, effectively sentencing hundreds of seniors to death.
Facing mounting criticism from health care professionals, Cuomo pushed back. “They don’t have the right to object,” he bellowed on April 23rd. “That is the rule, and that is the regulation, and they have to comply with it.” Instead of taking any responsibility, the Cuomo Administration launched an investigation into the health practices at the same nursing homes he forced to comply with an obviously dangerous mandate. This blame-the-victim strategy played out in a similar way in Italy, with government officials pointing the finger of blame at private senior’s care providers. Cuomo finally reversed the order on May 10th, saying “We’re just not going to send a person who is positive to a nursing home after hospital visit. Period.” His Administration was eventually caught covering up health data—the very data that Cuomo had so frequently lionized in his daily press briefings—exposing the shocking number of seniors he had killed with his dictates.
There are too many examples, known and unknown, of the fatal consequences of political and scientific conceit in government responses to the pandemic to document here. But unlike early 2020, we now have access to some reliable date, so I’ll mention some particularly tragic ones:
In a June 24th report, the World Bank estimates that the number of people living in extreme poverty globally—“measured as the number of people living on less than $1.90 per day”—increased by 97 million in 2020. “When the pandemic broke out, many developing countries responded in ways similar to high-income countries; by locking down major parts of their economy. These lockdowns decreased incomes and employment, causing an increase in extreme poverty,” the report concludes.
There is a functional relationship between wealth and health that has been well documented by scholars like Johan Norberg and countless others. Prior to COVID lockdowns, there was a consistent decline in global poverty, year over year. Conversely, according to the World Bank, the 2020 spike represents “a historically unprecedented increase in global poverty.”
On the question of public health specifically, the almost singular focus of the government’s declared war on COVID, supported by the scientific and public health interests that governments fund, had catastrophic consequences far beyond New York State and Lombardy, Italy. Consider the almost universal commandeering of health care systems and infrastructure by governments. Central planning led to neglect and downright prohibition of treatments for other types of health problems. The most notable victims have been patients suffering from cardiovascular disease and cancer, which remain the number one and two causes of death globally. Common sense tells us that forgoing diagnosis and treatment for these and myriad other deadly conditions will lead to unnecessary deaths. The United Kingdom, with one of the most aggressive lockdown approaches in the world (largely engineered by Neil Ferguson based on his dire Imperial College predications), is a useful case study for both excess cancer and cardiovascular disease deaths.
We may not know the real costs of lockdowns for quite some time, if ever. But that’s the point. The real unseen consequences of government scientism run amok over the past 19 months are beyond the imagination of any single mind, even the well-trained minds of the most credentialed experts.
In March of 2020, as all of this began to happen, and politicians of all stripes were tossing off evermore dire pandemic scenarios on social media, my first thoughts went, not to Hayek’s critique of Saint-Simon, but to the work of another French social philosopher, Frederic Bastiat. In Economic Sophisms, he asks the question: How is Paris fed? Bastiat is a great storyteller, and the question is an attempt to explain the unknown complexity of the distribution of labor and production, completely unplanned. And, he points out, unappreciated by Parisians sleeping peacefully, knowing that when they wake up, everything they need will be readily available. Facing the radical uncertainty of an unknown pathogen, I applied Bastiat’s lesson to the situation I found myself confronted with in the very first days of COVID lockdowns. During a pandemic, I wondered, who will keep us fed?
Why did we replace local knowledge (at hospitals, for instance) with one-size-fits-all political decisions based on the unquestioned authority of “scientists” like Anthony Fauci and Neil Ferguson? What have we leaned from this Humanitarian calamity? Has the free market finally been replaced by Technocratic Socialism fueled by a media-stoked panic over a virus? Or will our modern council of experts, as anticipated by Saint-Simone—the all-powerful science bureaucrats that have attempted to shut down the world—be held accountable for the immeasurable damage they have wrought?
Global planners, great believers in the rational, scientific reorganization of society, have many new plans for us, just waiting in the wings. They are all the intellectual progeny of Henri de Saint-Simon and his fantastical pretentions, and they now imagine, post COVID lockdowns, “A Great Reset.” Joe Biden is only slightly less ambitious in his political pretentions, promising Americans that government will “Build Back Better.” These powerfully-situated central planners all imagine that their new tools, and their sweeping new powers, first employed during the pandemic can now be unleashed in a total reimaging of civil society.
None other than Anthony Fauci has written the manifesto for this Counter-Revolution of Science, published in August, 2020. It is utterly chilling in its ambitions:
Does Fauci, the consummate “Man of System” described by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, possess the scientific knowledge required to reimagine the entire world order? Do any of his colleagues in the now massive global public health complex possess such knowledge? Even if that knowledge could exist, does Fauci have the authority to “bend modernity,” as he hopes to?
I can imagine his response: Attacks on this dangerous Saint-Simonian fantasy, he might protest, are, “quite frankly, attacks on science.”
I feel obligated to give F.A. Hayek the last word here:
That Hayek describes this scientistic mindset as “fatal conceit” takes on new weight in the face of our current predicament. Consider this a call to action.
Author’s Note: This paper was originally presented at the Tenth International Conference, “The Austrian School of Economics in the 21st Century,” hosted by the Austrian Economics Center based in Vienna, Austria.
I want to acknowledge the inspiration, ideas, comments, and editorial assistance from Terry Kibbe, my boss and CEO of Free the People, during this writing project. She has shown great tolerance for my penchant for quoting dead economists for many years. She, and all of my colleagues at Free the People, have spent much of the last 19 months debunking the dangerously authoritarian ideology of “Lockdownism.” I highly recommend all of their hard work on this subject, which can be found at freethepeople.org.