Ivan Illich makes an excellent observation on the ways in which science as a tool (remember he defines tools as “rationally designed devices”) has passed through the two watersheds. As a reminder, Illich says that tools can pass through two stages of growth. Tools which remain in the first stage are those that extend human capabilities without constraining human autonomy. Tools that pass into the second stage take on a life of their own and enslave their users:
There are two ranges in the growth of tools: the range within which machines are used to extend human capability and the range in which they are used to contract, eliminate, or replace human functions. In the first, man as an individual can exercise authority on his own behalf and therefore assume responsibility. In the second, the machine takes over—first reducing the range of choice and motivation in both the operator and the client, and second imposing its own logic and demand on both. Survival depends on establishing procedures which permit ordinary people to recognize these ranges and to opt for survival in freedom, to evaluate the structure built into tools and institutions so they can exclude those which by their structure are destructive, and control those which are useful.
Science, Illich says,
has come to mean an institutional enterprise rather than a personal activity, the solving of puzzles rather than the unpredictably creative activity of individual people. Science is now used to label a spectral production agency which turns out better knowledge … The institutionalization of knowledge leads to a more general and degrading delusion. It makes people dependent on having their knowledge produced for them. It leads to a paralysis of the moral and political imagination.
This is related to what I’ve said before about the problem with the “trust/believe the science” catchphrase: science is a method, not an authority. The scientific method is an amazing tool that can be used by anyone to discover knowledge. It extends humanity’s capabilities.
But eventually people want science to think on their behalf and science becomes an authority figure—this is the point at which science passes into the second, dangerous stage of growth. It now becomes the property of the scientific priesthood, who dictate to the rest of us what “science says” and we’re meant to “believe the science” and thus abandon our own autonomy.
I hear someone asking: does this mean we’re supposed to “do our own research” and start believing internet anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists? Well that’s a loaded way of asking the question, isn’t it? Here we see the bind the second stage growth of science has put us in. Because the scientific method (stage one) has transmogrified into the scientific authority (stage two), we are faced with the false dichotomy of 1. believe the authorities or 2. give yourself over to hucksters and fanatics.
This is a genuine conundrum. We must simultaneously respect the findings of genuine scientific inquiry while also maintaining our own personal autonomy, which often requires questioning authority. I don’t know how to solve this problem. All I can do is ask questions, always being wary of self-deception and dogmatic thinking.