“I’m Just Following the Science”
For the past few years, I have devoted my sermons between Epiphany and Lent to addressing questions of faith from our congregation. These can range from vexing passages of Scripture to topics dominating the news to quite personal questions about death and suffering and the silence of God. I’m regularly encouraged by how thoughtful the congregation I serve is. These sermons are often among the hardest and most engaging sermons I preach each year.
Not surprisingly, this year I received a lot of questions about Covid. Among them was a question about the role that science plays in our collective discourse, in the messaging we receive, in the directives and restrictions that we must navigate, in the ways in which we make decisions about our own health. Specifically, one question was about what to make of locutions like “I trust science” or “I’m just following the science.”
Well, where to begin. Often, these phrases seem to be at least as much about the wearisome and never-ending task of political/ideological/social sorting as anything else. “I believe in science” is often shorthand for “I’m not one of those idiots who believe/do all the things that I don’t agree with.” Scientists have, in many ways, become the priests of the secular age. They are (we think) the final authority, the mediators of objective, unbiased truth. The word “science” is often invoked to lend legitimacy to our preferred perspectives. Science looms large in the heated rhetoric that has dominated these last two years.
But the role of science is often badly misunderstood. The discipline of science is about observing and describing the world around us. By definition, science is unqualified to determine questions of ethics and morality and how this ought to shape public policy, about Covid or anything else. Science can and should play a role in our thinking, certainly. But the idea that a public health directive or a political decision about restrictions could be “scientific” or the one and only logical outcome of “the science” is absurd.
Indeed, it would not even be remotely difficult to construct a scientific argument for simply letting this disease run its course. Why not just let this virus take out all the weak, aged, frail, asthmatic, diabetic, and otherwise vulnerable among us? As a race we would emerge stronger. Many have argued that our current climate crisis is due in no small part to human overpopulation. Well, here’s a ready-made solution! If all of this sounds horrible to you—like something straight out of the Nazi playbook—that’s because it is. But it is horrible for moral (and, I would say, theological) reasons, not scientific ones.
Science can tell us what is the case. It cannot tell us what we should do in light of what is the case. “You cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is,'” as one of my philosophy professors used to say. And, from a Christian perspective, science can never tell us what Jesus can: that the weak should be cared for, that pragmatism should not trump compassion, that love is a higher principle than anything that can be measured and proved in a laboratory.
At any rate, whenever you hear someone saying something like, “Well, I just trust science,” big red flags should be waving in your brain. Nobody “just trusts science.” It’s always something more like, “I believe in science with a whole set of moral assumptions operating in the background.” And more often than not, these moral assumptions are profoundly Christian in nature, even if this is not acknowledged or understood (I’ve written more about this here). Even the most secular and irreligious among us often have thoroughly Christian assumptions about the value of every human life operating in how they interpret the deliverances of science.
Science does many things incredibly well. The existence of vaccines is proof of this. We should be enormously grateful for all that science has done and is doing to save lives around the world, even as we acknowledge that science evolves and changes as new discoveries come to light. But science cannot tell us what we ought to do in the midst of moral complexity. It can’t tell us how to weigh risks, how to prioritize among various vulnerable populations. It can’t tell us what it means to love our neighbours or how to locate the threat of this virus within the many other very real health concerns (physical, mental, social, spiritual) that people are facing. This is not the job of science. The wisest scientists have always acknowledged this.