A Look at Science and Authoritarianism – What Place Does It Now Have in Society?

In this video, Freddie Sayers interviews Matthew B Crawford regarding science and how it could have headed down a potentially dark path. At the very least this conversation is highlighting some of the discussions we are generally not having at this current time. This is a refreshing perspective beyond individuals holding polarised positions and adolescent name-calling.

Science and Authoritarianism

A transcript of this video has also been provided below for easy text reference. You can read Matthew’s article How science has been corrupted on the Unheard website.


You can’t really follow the science because science doesn’t lead anywhere. It can illuminate various courses of action. For example, by quantifying the risks that attend to each, it can help to specify the trade offs. But it can’t make the choices for us.

Philosopher Matthew B. Crawford

(start transcript)

Hello and welcome.

This is Lockdown TV from UnHerd.

So following the science is a phrase we’ve had a lot of in the past year, we’ve also had a lot of the phrase anti-science.

And something seems to have happened or at least it seems to have been revealed over the past year, which is that science has changed from being a mode of inquiry to some sort of form of authority that you are not allowed to question.

And in order to try to understand what exactly has happened, we have a great thinker with us today called Matthew B. Crawford.

Hi, Matt.

Hey, Freddie, good to see you.

So you are a writer, a philosopher, and academic, and also a mechanic as we can see behind you, we are actually in your famous garage at the moment.

Some of your previous books included ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft‘, ‘The Case for Working With Your Hands’, which is the UK title, ‘The World Beyond Your Head’, and most recently, ‘Why We Drive’ and the Volkswagen that you talk about in that book, it looks like is sitting right behind you.

Yep, it’s almost done after about a 10 year project.

Political Legitimacy in A Pandemic

So what have you seen happen over the past year? Or what is it that you have noticed that may have been happening for some time before that?

Well, I think with the pandemic, the question of political legitimacy that hangs over rule by experts, which is a longstanding question has come to mass awareness, it’s kind of on everyone’s minds.

So we have seen this extraordinary extension of expert jurisdiction over every domain of life really.

So of course this entails a transfer of sovereignty from democratic to technocratic institutions.

I think it also involves something deeper which is a delegitimising of common sense as a guide to action.

And we’ve have now quite a prominent pattern of government by emergency that I think extends beyond the pandemic.

And resistance to this is often characterised as anti science.

And I think the basic difficulty is that you can’t really follow the science because science doesn’t lead anywhere.

It can illuminate various courses of action.

For example, by quantifying the risks that attend to each, it can help to specify the trade offs, avoid responsibility for the choices they make on our behalf.

So it’s part in a way of this devolving of power, upwards to technocratic or expert bodies, that bypasses having a political discussion about them and actually it delegitimises people’s instincts or people’s natural intuitions on how to behave.

Yeah, I think that sort of the deepest current here is, is experience a inadequate guide to reality? And the answer is yes, and no.

But clearly, there’s a kind of blossoming infatuation, I would say, among sort of institutional players in the West is sort of centrist opinion, an infatuation with Chinese style governance, where, democracy is very much in bad odour these days.

And I think you see people looking to China for a model of social control.

So I definitely want to come back to China.

Science vs Scientism

But just to spell this out, then for a lot of people watching, this has been a weird year because people may have felt they were pro science, in favour of all of the wonderful discoveries that science has given to us and helping with people’s health and all sorts of things.

But they may have felt sceptical of some of the consensus, scientific opinions and they were hard to balance those two impulses and you talk about a distinction between science and scientism.

And I wonder if you could just explain what that means.

Well, one way that you know, it’s the pride of science to be falsifiable, right? This is what distinguishes it from religion.

You can prove it wrong, in other words? Yes, it’s subject to empirical test.

And yes, it exposes itself to being falsified.

There’s a kind of openness there.

So the problem is when science is pressed into duty as authority, and you want to get people to behave a certain way, you have to assert certainty.

I mean, it would be a very strange sort of authority that insists on the provisional character of its own sort of grasp of reality.

So science has to be transformed into something more like religion, in order to serve the function that we’ve assigned it, as authority.

So that’s the basic contradiction, I think that we’re we’re dealing with and I would call that scientism it’s science as aetiology as a quasi religious form of authority.

So it’s science shorn of its natural humility, or openness to being questioned? Something like that.

Science got big really around World War Two, and thereafter, became highly institutionalised and bureaucratized.

And part of the problem is that you simply need a lot of resources and a lot of collaboration to do science at the cutting edge.

But this has had the effect of – So just to expand on that, Matt, so you tell the story of how when you were a kid, your dad used to do science experiments, and they actually became pretty famous.

What was that about? Yeah, so my dad was a physics professor at Berkeley.

He used to do experiments around the house, he called it kitchen physics, just investigating things that you can do with your own, see things with your own eyes and use things around the house to do experiments.

And, in retrospect, I’m impressed that he made time to do this, even while working at the frontiers of particle physics at Lawrence Berkeley Lab.

And I think it was simply for the intellectual refreshment, of doing science in that kind of intimate scale, where things are directly accessible without large instruments.

So it’s a kind of reminder of the individual inquiry component of science, which gets lost if you’re in a team of hundreds and hundreds of people.


And it’s really the image we have of what science is, right? The picture of Galileo going up into the Leaning Tower of Pisa to drop things and see how fast they fall.

And then, of course, later Galileo was brought before the Inquisition, for his establishing that the Earth revolves around the sun.

And, according to the law, he recanted to save his skin.

But then under his breath, he says, but it does move.

So this anecdote sort of crystallises this dichotomy we have; here’s science with his devotion to truth.

And over here is authority, whether ecclesiastical or political, and the two are kind of really opposed.

And so that’s, that’s an image that stands in stark contrast to the present where precisely science is invoked as the authority.

So that just kind of crystallises the basic process.

The Crisis of Scientific Authority

So we’ve moved from the point which you described, your dad was at making experiments, home to science, where, as you mentioned, this CERN for example, the Nuclear Research Institute in Switzerland is miles and miles in size, and it needs huge institutions and governments to even enable experiments to happen and the whole process of funding and group corporate experiments has just changed the nature of science into something quite different.

Yeah, it is inherently social in its practice.

And with that comes certain entailments.

And I think sort of the crisis of scientific authority right now, that is the fact that public opinion has come untethered from scientific expertise and is newly assertive against it.

I think that’s due to this mismatch that’s developed between the idealised picture we have of science as this activity of the solitary mind and the reality of it, which is that it’s institutionalised, bureaucratic, which means that it’s inherently political.

That’s really the point.

There’s no such thing as well, I guess you could say politicised science is the only kind there is in a fairly non pejorative sense here.

So do you think it actually acts in its modern incarnation 21st century science as a magnet to different kinds of people in some way that people who are more prone to bureaucratic thinking or they don’t mind submitting endless funding applications and working to try and secure the approval of big international institutions, whilst the heretic, individual minded scientist is less keen to be part of the game now? Yeah, I think there is a kind of self selection process, someone who has a taste for building a research empire and takes political talent.

And then there’s also I think, in addition to that self selection, there’s a formation, intellectual and character formation, that’s accomplished by spending time in that kind of environment, where the way any profession reproduces itself is by kind of forming people in its image.

And so this kind of political talent is, you could say, it’s orthogonal to the underlying truth motive of science.

So the question is, where do the incentives lie? Well, if you’re in a university, it’s bringing in research support is the metric of your success, career success, not contributing to some fundamentally new understanding.

So the incentive structures are inherently against social and institutional and thereby political.

Commercial Science

So you mentioned research support means money basically doesn’t it? It’s not just scientists, by the way, it’s a lot of academics, these days, half that job is to try and secure funding from various organisations.

And of course, these non governmental organisations such as the Bill Gates Foundation, Soros, the Clinton Foundation, all of these big foundations, as well as here, we have the Wellcome Trust in the UK and many others – they act as the arbiters of what will or won’t go ahead as a scientific endeavour.

And I wonder what your thoughts were on that? Is that a positive development? Well, it’s NGOs act, yet they’re funnelling opinion and resources to scientific bodies that are serving some social purpose or another, because you could say, the function of NGOs is to convert the priorities of various oligarchs into political currency through the alchemy of expertise, plus high moral posturing, which in combination, is sort of the catnip of cosmopolitan opinion.

So that sounds kind of sinister there.

Should we be looking at these NGOs, as cynical bodies that are there, for the furtherance of a worldview of a particular individual who happens to have made a lot of money or gained a lot of power? Should we be worried about them, or do you think it’s all fine? I would think it’s, well so what is the alternative? Commercial science is also subject to distortions.

The bottom line, the commercial bottom line doesn’t – you could say, well, that exercise is a disciplining function on research, but that doesn’t automatically line up with the truth motive.

Pharmaceutical companies famously have distorted the processes of research.

Now, of course, I say that at a moment when we’re all massively indebted to this accomplishment of the pharmaceutical companies, the development of the M RNA vaccines, is hugely consequential – it’s not consequential.

But it’s interesting that this happened in commercial laboratories that were temporarily relieved of the burden to stoke consumer demand or pump their kind of financial analysts assessment of the companies relieved that by massive government support.

So it was an unusual moment, when science could proceed without the pressure, the commercial pressures, or the kind of organised political lobbies that so often channel against NGOs support.


The last example of this, which you mentioned in your UnHerd essay is climate gate where there were various scientific rules that were broken by researchers into climate science, and that then became a big scandal.

And what were your learnings from reading about that? So this was a very famous episode in which climate researchers, their emails were hacked.

And none of us would, I think, with with stand having our private communications, expose it this way, so you have to sort of be charitable in your in your reading of this.

But in fact, one thing that emerged was them really stonewalling against requests for the data.

And this was at a time when a lot of scientific communities were developing a new norm of data sharing, because of the replication crisis that was a big deal in science in the last 20 years.

So the climate gate has a lot of baggage around it.

It was a big political kind of football.

But the interesting thing to emerge from it, I think, is the idea that there’s such a thing as a research cartel, that is highly self protective, and has to assert a monopoly of knowledge and also kind of assert a moratorium on the asking of questions and noticing of patterns if they fall out view outside the established consensus, and also kind of when is challenges issued to the consensus from an outsider who’s presenting facts and arguments, these aren’t met in kind, but are met rather with denunciation in in that way, in at the systemic challenge to the institution is converted into a moral conflict between good people and bad people, because the challenger is said to be trafficking and disinformation for nefarious purposes.

So this is a pattern that you can find in a number of areas, and simply the climate gate thing was is one of the more well documented, and that’s why it serves as an interesting case study for getting at this problem.

So you mentioned the moral aspect there in a way, that’s the final tool in the armoury of research cartel, isn’t it? Because once they’re protected, and once they don’t want dissent, and they don’t want too many questions, if they can achieve a moral superiority over anyone asking questions, it’s case closed.

Scientific and Moral Knowledge Monopoly

I think the Internet has made it very difficult to maintain a sort of knowledge monopoly or, a cartel of expertise because information flows so freely.

And this has led to this kind of crisis of legitimacy because the failures of institutional knowledge, you can no longer keep them secret.

They go viral on the internet, and they’re disseminated with relish by sort of partisans and dissidents – they excite our dissident energies.

And so what has been the response to this problem? Well, it’s been a kind of desperate move, I think, moralism where…

Think about the arrival of Greta Thunberg, in the climate space, she brings this – “How dare you” is her famous phrase, so it’s a moral energy of denunciation, that seems to act to shore up the consensus and of course, celebrities who speak in this way, always speak with certainty.

So you’re now very far from the realm of anything being falsifiable or, or open.

An idea or a concept or statement, graduates suddenly into the realm of things that can’t be questioned.

And at that point, all of the machinery of celebrities and Greta Thunburg-type characters comes into play, and anyone who questions it at that point is then anti science or amoral, bad person in some way.

Morality as A Public Health Problem

So what you see is the victimology, I think joining hands with scientism.

So for example, the summer of 2020, with the George Floyd riots happening, or protests happening at the same time as the pandemic, what you saw was the moral energy of anti racism got harnessed to the scientific authority of public health.

So you had public health.

Oregon’s saying that white supremacism is a public health emergency, so much so that we should suspend social distancing mandates for the sake of protests.

So the question is, how did the description of America as white supremacists get converted into a scientific sounding claim? I mean, it’s a striking thing.

Because while that kind of critique of America, of the West generally has been circulating for decades, it usually hasn’t been attached to strictly technical organs and strictly technical matters.

So that’s new is the joining of technocratic scientism, and victimology.

So that I think needs to be accounted for.

And I think one way to begin thinking about it might be that since 2016, in America, you’ve had really a sorting of the population into good people and bad people.

People who liked Trump versus people who didn’t.

Yes, precisely, so you have Lucifer as the president.

And then you have the resistance.

So that’s the basic sort of Manichaean schema that has been overlaid over everything in the United States.

And so there’s a question mark that hangs over your head.

If you’re someone who works in an institution, especially in the question is the strength and sincerity of your anti racism because that’s what decides which side of this divide you’re on.

And so there’s a kind of precariousness to, especially I think, white professionals who work in institutions, and I think the confluence of the pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter moment, offered an opportunity to convert that moral precarity into moral authority by by making this move were by now speaking as a public health professional I am informing you that white supremacism is a is a public health emergency.

So it’s kind of a neat move whereby I think the what happened is that the, this cloud hanging over one’s head maybe makes one more ready to sign on to demands of activists and sort of sign on to the idea that society needs to be radically transformed.

So it’s actually trying to save yourself, ultimately.

So it takes us back to a kind of elect and the damned situation in sort of Christian Europe, centuries ago.

I mean, one thing I did notice, I wonder what your thoughts are, is earlier in the pandemic, at the start, this Manichaean good or evil dichotomy had flipped the other way.

So, at the beginning, it was talk about this virus was a racist, or it was a xenophobic concept.

And there were moves to go and hug a Chinese person to show that you weren’t taken in by this xenophobic talk virus.

And famously, Trump’s decision to close the borders was talked about as illiberal.

And then it sort of flips didn’t it? And suddenly everyone ran the other way.

Yeah, and just the arbitrariness of it went a long way toward kind of throwing into question the whole, public health apparatus.

And it often seems to be taking its bearings from whatever Trump was in favour of we have to be against so the hydroxychloroquine, whatever the hell it was called, the politics of a molecule – It became an evil molecule.

An evil molecule and the absurdities of this were so patent that the credibility of these pronouncements just became a joke.

So this is actually quite dangerous, isn’t it? Because there should be some authority with established scientific principles.

I think even even people who want a constantly questioned sceptical world would still say that once we know that antibiotics are good for bacterial infections, we don’t want people questioning that every time they get prescribed antibiotics, for example.

So some authority attached to scientific principles is a good thing.

But it’s like it’s been overreached.

And the danger now is that everything will be subject to scepticism and anything goes again.


I would want to insist here on a strong distinction between science and scientism, because that’s precisely the opportunity to invoke science as a cover for decisions that may not be scientific in their basic motivations.

That’s what has this distorting effect where, in fact, you’re not deferring to science, you’re you’re just invoking science to avoid explicitly taking responsibility for making one decision rather than another.

But what’s the bad outcome of this? I mean, what should we be worried about? If the whole society starts agreeing with your analysis? Where does that take us? I would say that it’s precisely if you want to preserve science, the integrity of science, you have to deal limit this reflex of invoking it in a sort of demagogic way for the sake of manipulating the population.

I think politicians have to maybe state that the trade offs and try to lay out for the public the actual logic of the different courses of action.

Once you do so, it becomes political right because one course of action will prefer some part of the population for example, small business owners, right who are anti lockdown versus people who work in those are credentialed professional institutional economy who can zoom in work from work, their interests are opposed full stop.

So in deciding lockdowns, you want to make these things explicit, rather than, say simply follow the science.

Well, if the science here is epidemiologists, they’re going to give you a clear consensus, keep the economy shuttered will slow the spread of the virus.

The science is clear.

But that’s not what we’re doing here.

We’re deciding between two opposed interests.

And I think what statesmanship is, is the ability to not sort of hide these things, but articulate them in a way that clarifies and that allows political contestation to happen, rather than to kind of smother it under abstractions, that doesn’t work anymore, because it’s so obvious that that’s what’s going on.

And that just increases public rage.

Yeah, that kind of statesmanship, as you call it has been in pretty short supply, I’d say over the past year, and I can’t think of many countries that have done that in great abundance.


We said we’d talk again about China when you mentioned it at the start.

So let’s come back to China.

That famous quote, that Professor Neil Ferguson said in an interview with The Times of London, that they never thought they could get away with mandatory stay at home orders for the entire population.

But then once China did it, and once Italy did it, they realised they could get away with it.

What’s your reflection on on that? Well, China did it as we expected they would.

The the really regulatory event was that Italy did it and got away with it.

So as Neil Ferguson said, this is when we realised maybe we could and at this point, lockdowns feel inevitable.

So something that had seemed inconceivable now feels inevitable, and this complete inversion happened in a matter of months.

So why did it seem inconceivable before? Well, Western nations had contingency plans for pandemics in place.

And they were predicated on the idea that you would try to isolate the vulnerable and those already infected, you wouldn’t lock up people who are healthy in their houses.

Why? Well, because of these kinds of principles we have of non coercion and the autonomy of individuals and all that.

But somehow these bedrock Western principles went out the window.

Now, there’s surely some threshold of threat beyond which such liberal principles become an unaffordable luxury.

So the question is, was this threat dire enough? Well, there it becomes interesting, because the public’s perception of the threat is orders of magnitude inflated beyond what it actually is.

When you poll people, like in Britain, they polled – how many people do you think have died at COVID? And people think it’s, 6 to 10% of the population, when in fact, it’s like, a 10th of 1%.

So what does that say? Well, it means there’s been a lot of fear mongering, which is obvious.

And in the West, public opinion really matters in a way that it doesn’t in China.

So if you want to get people to do something, the fear can’t come from the state from outside, it has to come from inside from a mental state in the individual.

And I think that so our means of social control is not brute force.

It’s fear mongering.

And fear mongering clearly is a prominent part of the business model of mass media.

But that seems to be getting integrated with state functions in a sort of symbiosis.

Politics of Fear

Those opinion polls, there’s been a sort of circular logic to them, hasn’t there, because the reason people were in favour of measures against the virus was because they were frightened about the virus.

And the reason they were frightened about the virus was because they had been told that it was frightening.

And so we’re now in a slightly circular world where government has a campaign about something, the population then responds to it with the obvious response, which is fear in this instance, and then the government points to opinion polls saying, look, the population wants this.

Therefore, we must do more of it.

Yeah, that’s a good point.

It increasingly feels like a propaganda state.

With the symbiosis between mass media and government, we’re talking about technocratic organs where again, expertise is invoked.

For the sake of social control, and you guys had Lord Sumption on, you did this interview with him where he really he made a very powerful case, I thought that the government has all kinds of powers as vast powers that it does not normally exercise, and the only thing that stops it from doing so is convention.

And convention is something fragile.

And once you sort of crossed that line, into, going ahead and using these coercive powers, it’s very hard to uncross that line, like the spell was broken.

So the question is, can we go back to being not China? That is the question, isn’t it? And what’s your answer to that question? I mean, now we’re, the restrictions are being lifted, summer is developing, and most people are beginning to feel more cheerful, and the whole thing is beginning to recede into the rearview mirror, a bit like a bad dream.

Society Post-Pandemic

Do you think we should now think of our society and our reality as fundamentally different to how it was before or at least revealed to be fundamentally more fragile than it was before? Or do you think we can go ahead and let the waters close in and just forget all about it?

Well, it does seem like the, the pandemic and our response to it has had an educative effect on people in in a disturbing way.

Where I think there’s a lot of people that live in California, a lot of people in places like here that really don’t want to go back to the way it was before.

There’s some positive attraction to social distancing in the wearing masks, and I don’t think it’s simply virtue signalling or something like that.

It’s a kind of atomization of society, and maybe a relief from the kind of discomforts one has with more social interaction.

It’s a deep question for kind of anthropologists and sociologists over the next few decades to think about what’s been going on.

But one, one idea I had was actually from one of your earlier books from ‘The World Beyond Your Head’, where you make a particular study of people who are addicted to gambling in Las Vegas, and they’re standing there pulling these one armed bandits, as they’re called.

And your inquiry was, what was it about that, that they found attractive? Why did they like that repetitive experience so much? And I think your conclusion was that there was something about the reduction in available choices, that was weirdly compelling to people because it meant that the whole scary world was shut down into something more manageable with fewer available options.

And that became addictive.

Perhaps there’s something of that same mechanism in people’s attraction to lockdown.

I like that suggestion.

I wish I’d thought of it.

The parallel that you mentioned, it’s sort of a narrowing of one’s world to something that is more fully within your control.

I think maybe that’s the appeal.

Protecting yourself from this kind of heteronomy to use Kant’s word of other people they impinge upon your freedoms, your self conception, just your sense of having your world under your own control.

It’s exhausting.

We all have an element of that, that life returns and you sort of remember how exhausting life was before or how, there were so many moments that could be fraught or decisions to make and it all seems,well, maybe we’ll come back to real life next week and stay another week, doing not very much.

So are we an exhausted society? And we’re welcoming this sort of death row? I don’t know.

Sounds bleak, Matt.

Well, you called me you knew you were going to get something bleak.

I will say that, given the social strictures against getting together, there is an added relish to doing so.

Sort of the speakeasy mentality.

Well, here’s a question, will we see a renewed kind of dissident energy of cells of resistance, adds to the feeling of solidarity among people when you’re doing something naughty, simply by getting together? I’ve noticed here in London, that the handshake has become a symbol of dissent.

When you meet someone, and they put out their hand, and if you return with flesh to flesh contact, there is a spark of dissent energy and you both – it’s like a Freemason signals previous centuries that you both say, “Aha, we both are in some way against this.” Right.

So any handshake is like a secret handshake? I like that.

That’s where we’ve got to.

Matt Crawford, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and discussing it with us today.

Yeah, well, it’s been a pleasure, Freddie.

Thank you.

Matt’s essay is up on UnHerd this week.

And do check it out – unherd.com.

That was him joining us from – where are you actually in California, Matt? I am in San Jose, which is in the Bay Area.

From San Jose, California.

That was Matt B Crawford.

Thanks to him and thanks to you for joining.

This was Lockdown TV.