U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi chastised the Republican Party on Wednesday for being “delinquent in embracing the science that people need be vaccinated.” Answering a follow-up question of whether Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, is a “moron,” she added, “I said in my earlier comments, ‘science, science, science, and science.’ On almost any subject you can name, science is the answer.”
While the speaker’s second answer failed to exactly answer the question asked, her comments are troubling on a couple of levels. One of them is the absence of specific scientific data, derived from substantive research, to back up her pronouncements. Of course, her lack of data does not mean there necessarily is none available, but it’s troubling the speaker didn’t feel any apparent need to include data in order to speak authoritatively about “the Science.”
This is the second — and more important — way her comments are troubling. “The Science,” regardless of the fact that it is so vaguely defined, apparently speaks with such universal authority (“on almost any subject you can name”) that we can deduce all manner of national policy from its ineffable pronouncements.
The Religion of Following ‘the Science’
In making moral pronouncements that derive from “the Science,” Pelosi’s language is not scientific language. It is religious language. Republicans, in the speaker’s view, have committed what is essentially a religious sin.
If that seems overstated, examine once again the exact wording of Pelosi’s indictment and consider carefully what her words mean. The Republican Party “has been delinquent in embracing the Science that people need to be vaccinated.” Delinquent how? Delinquent in believing “the Science.” The Republicans have been slow to believe what amounts to the dogma of “the Science.”
The definite article is important here as well, and “the” almost invariably accompanies “Science” in these pronouncements. It identifies “the Science” as a univocal entity that speaks with a voice of compelling authority. That sort of authoritative language used to be reserved in the West for the one holy and apostolic church.
This use of religious language with reference to “the Science” is not unique to Pelosi, and I am certainly not the first person to draw attention to it. We have been urged to “believe the Science,” “listen to the Science,” “trust the Science,” and “follow the Science” almost since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, and we were harangued with similar exhortations about climate change before that.
It is worth noting that all of these verbs — believe, listen, trust, and follow — are words heavily laden with religious connotations in the English language. Those of the Judeo-Christian faith believe their religious texts. We trust God. (That verb, incidentally, is used no fewer than 134 times in the King James Bible.) Jesus called his disciples to follow him.
One might dismiss this religious diction with reference to “the Science” as merely a rhetoric of convenience, employed by policymakers and pundits who don’t have time to go into all the statistical details of actual science. To some extent, a dismissal of their sloppy usage on such grounds is warranted. But there may be something more pernicious involved in their language, and it may be more pernicious exactly to the extent that the usage is simply a rhetoric of convenience, used without much thought or intent.
‘The Science’ Demands Sacrifices
The mid-twentieth-century rhetorician Richard Weaver drew attention to society’s tendency to ascribe quasi-divine authority to certain terms in public discourse, which he called “ultimate terms” or “god terms,” in the last chapter of his 1953 book, “The Ethics of Rhetoric.” Ultimate terms, Weaver says, are the verbal expressions “about which all other expressions are ranked as subordinate.”
That is to say, they are the words that organize a society’s value concepts. Essentially, they form the dogma of a given age, terms that wield authority and dictate proper belief, much like the term “Trinity” has done throughout the history of the Christian West. Hence the name “god terms.”
In a secular age, Weaver notes, these terms stand in the place of God himself, granting members of society guidance in living their lives. As with God, the terms are bigger than we are, and they are demanding.
“The capacity to demand sacrifice,” Weaver says, “is probably the surest indicator of the ‘god term,’ for when the term is so sacrosanct that the material goods of this life must be mysteriously rendered up for it, then we feel justified in saying that it is in some sense ultimate.”
Weaver’s definition, when applied to “the Science,” is eerily prescient. We need not think back far to recall the material goods we have repeatedly been asked to forego in the name of “the Science” and its subaltern “Public Health.”
We need not guess about whether or not “the Science” would qualify as one of Weaver’s “god-terms,” because he — equally presciently — lists it among his catalog. The word “science,” Weaver argues, along with its companion word “fact,” provides the modern person with the only touchstone for truth he will acknowledge, i.e. truth of objective empiricism.
When the State Appoints Itself Regent of ‘The Science’
“There has to be a creature called ‘science’,” Weaver argues, “and its creation has as a matter of practice been easy, because modern man has been conditioned to believe that the powers and processes which have transformed his material world represent a very sure form of knowledge, and that there must be a way of identifying that knowledge.”
That knowledge is identified as “the Science,” and its linguistic creation is, as Weaver notes, a matter of rhetorical convenience. Its creation, a sort of parody of the Genesis narrative where the creature now speaks his god into existence, is both necessary (it “has to be”) and “easy.”
The obvious problem is that “the Science” is not in fact, a god, and its creation as what Weaver calls a “hypostatized … conceptual existence” is an abuse of language that does not comport with reality. Weaver gives several examples of authoritative pronouncements beginning with “Science says,” before going on to point out:
Science is not, as here would seem to be, a single concrete entity speaking with one authoritative voice. Behind these large abstractions … there are many scientists holding many different theories and employing many different methods of investigation. The whole force of the word nevertheless depends upon a bland assumption that all scientists meet periodically in synod and there decide and publish what science believes. Yet anyone with the slightest scientific training knows this is very far from a possibility.
“The Science,” in the deified sense in which it is used, is thus a nonentity. And its attendant moral pronouncements, handed down from the state through the media, are thus not just convenient, but illegitimate rhetorical constructions. Science doesn’t speak ex cathedra.
There is perhaps more at stake here than just sloppy rhetoric. Even in the middle of the last century, Weaver advised that the state’s construction and employment of abstract terms that accrue society-organizing authority probably have impure motives at heart.
“When the ultimate terms become a series of bare abstractions,” he warns, “the understanding of power is supplanted by a worship of power, and in our condition this can only mean state worship” (emphasis added). Furthermore, Weaver adds, “This process can nearly always be observed in a time of crisis.”
Although almost 70 years old, Weaver’s observations are very sobering to consider in the time of pandemic, where “following the Science” is used to warrant a vast array of state emergency powers — the Science notwithstanding.