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Of Science and Political Dogmatism

Of Science and Political Dogmatism

What is happening currently in some educational institutions in Austria is highly dangerous and will probably lead to a further demise of science.

For some time now, many people have been convinced to know. To know how others should behave, what is right and wrong, what is true and what is untrue. They know this because science has shown it: this is how the “knowers” justify their crusade against those who do not want to join this crusade voluntarily. In missionary zeal, they introduce numerous constraints and obligations that they defend with some experts demanding them from strictly scientific points of view.

This tendency is by no means new. It is not a result of the pandemic. However, it is experiencing a series of recent inglorious escalations in the pandemic. Some educational institutions in Austria recently set another such apex: They have decided to introduce access restrictions partly due to the vaccine mandate. Only vaccinated and recovered people are now allowed to access these institutions.

All of this is justified – how could it be otherwise – with science: As an institution of science, one is committed to vaccination as an instrument for combating the Covid 19 pandemic, it is said, for example. The answers to detailed questions about the access restrictions are evasive at best: For technical and legal justifications, reference is not made to scientific studies, as one would expect from a scientific institution, but to the websites of the federal government and the legislature.

Now, I do not want to dwell on whether the evidence currently indicates that compulsory vaccination makes sense and those access restrictions are necessary – even though there would be a lot to say about this and some things were already said. The problem with these developments, however, goes much deeper. It is the fundamental hostility to science itself by those who feel committed to science. Or at least claim to be.

Science and scientificity

What is the purpose of science? The purpose of science must be to create knowledge. But what is knowledge? That is not a simple question – numerous epistemological discussions attest to this. Without getting into such a discussion, I want to state in this regard:

  • Knowledge is the totality of models which explain perceptions in the best possible way.
  • Knowledge is always only provisional – it cannot be finally proved, but only falsified.
  • Further knowledge development is done by replacing falsified explanatory models with better models (meaning they have a higher descriptive content).

From this follows: the essential condition of science is openness, the primary requirement of scientificity is skepticism. Or, to speak economically and with Hayek: Science is a discovery process.

What, then, can be thought of people who try to banish such skepticism on a particular question from the “institutions of science”?

The enemies of science

Those who do not allow skepticism end the advancement of knowledge, thus hindering science. Whoever triggers the suspicion that critical questioning belongs to the dirty corner, whoever calls such investigation “babbling” destroys the competition of different explanatory models. If divergent points of view are made disreputable or offensive, fewer and fewer people will express such points of view. But if people do not even dare to reveal some points of view, the probability of research being done in related directions is extremely low – for fear of social ostracism. This development is even more extreme when, in addition to the prospect of social ostracism, one’s future professional existence is also at risk.

Restricting scientific openness through restrictions on universities, among other things, leads via open censorship and self-censorship to a petrification of the state of knowledge – to an end of the further development of knowledge. Apart from that, people with non-conformist traits increasingly get locked out of universities with such access restrictions – precisely those who would be more likely to provide further knowledge development.

Therefore, the educational institutions’ decision is not a scientifically justified initiative, but at best as a disservice to scientific institutions based on uncritical faith in the state of knowledge. In this case, it is not even possible to speak of confidence in the current state of knowledge – given the minimal selection as far as the information taken into account is concerned. Instead, one must talk of subjugation to politics. The motto of the Enlightenment: “Have the courage to use your mind!” is replaced by a simple anti-Enlightenment: “Obey the politicians!” It must be said quite clearly: a scientific institution that subordinates scientific aspects to political aspects is not a scientific institution but a political one.

The worst reproach to scientists is that they sacrificed scientificity to political dogma. And this is precisely the reproach one MUST make to some educational institutions. Even more tragically, at the funeral of scientificity, few mourn.

Author

The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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