There have long been scientists who were celebrities in their own time. Galileo, Keppler, Goodall, Linneus, Cousteau, Darwin, Smith, Leeuwenhoek, Da Vinci, Ibn Khaldhun, Curie, and many others in the last 800 years were followed and admired. They in many ways performed their science, as when medics performed autopsies in theaters, astronomers performed their experiments and claims in large observatories in major towns, and geologists and botanists had whole populations bring them samples to put on display. The paleontologists displaying the bones of dinosaurs in Western museums were as much performance artists as Kayne West is today.
And yet, nowadays, the business of performing science has gone a level deeper, both inside the halls of academia and outside. Nicholas Gruen has written many times about how governments and other large organisations “perform expertise”, at the cost of actually having much expertise or valuing its application. Not only do I think he is totally right, but the need to be seen to perform has taken over much of science itself. Like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, whose picture shows the degrading real character of a master of pretense, so has the whole of empirical science been sliding for decades into seeming over being.
I suspect this slide towards “seeming over being” is why empirical science so spectacularly failed us during the covid-19 pandemic. It lead to a loss of independence from group think, a loss of awareness of basic rules of thumb, and it lead to poverty in reasoning.
In this long piece, I want to sketch the content of that slide and the deeper reasons for them. Importantly, I don’t think any individual or group is clearly to blame, making it hard to see how we get out of the trap it has put us in.
Government budget performances
Take government budgets as an example of a science-like modern performance. They once were sober affairs wherein governments would put in some state-run newspaper some general information as to how the state finances were going and which taxes were going up or down.
Nowadays, almost everywhere in the Western world, budgets are annual performances. As Nicholas Gruen termed it nicely, governments engage in accountability theater. Someone official announces budgets in an important place. It is televised and podcast. Lots of dressed-up people talking gravely, getting equally grave “responses to the budget”. Snippets are leaked to the media beforehand to get attention for something or to diffuse attention away from something.
The content of budgets is worse. They are now long documents with graphs, numbers, projections, and other “scientific looking” bits. Policies are announced, explained, given an account of. All on the basis of things that seem science. A narrative is spun wherein the government is cognisant of all major problems in society, allocating resources and drawing up plans to solve those problems. In appearance it is all very rational, thought-out, analytical, and statistical.
And yet, government budgets are made to look much more than they are. They are collections of “official lines” on problems society is worried about, not honest analyses of whether those problems even exist or can be addressed in a meaningful way. Announced new plans are often old plans, and nowhere near as coherent or centrally directed as they are presented. Money is pretended to be allocated in a very precise manner, conjuring an image of a back room in which some pie is divided over projects. But no such backroom exist as no-one even knows the current financial position of a whole government: financial positions of the present are, at best, estimated and remain uncertain until years afterwards. The announced costs of announced plans pretend a certainty that does not exist. Government budgets are just a collection of announcements leading to easily digestible talking points for the public. There is some real content, but a lot of non-content too.
Enormous bureaucratic effort thus goes into presenting a rational front of a government that is in charge and is planning ahead using scientific methods. The performance uses phrases the audience wants to hear, promising things they want to hear, and taking on the burden of seeming in control. The language of budgets are fine-tuned, using focus groups and background “papers”.
This scientific theater is not done out of any evil intent, but because governments that don’t perform in this manner get displayed as incompetent by onlookers and are booted out. They have no choice but to put up such a façade and pretend to adhere to a model of planning and evidence that they couldn’t possibly live up to in real life. The level of eontrol-pretense matches the expectations of the audience.
Empirical science is the clothing-of-choice of this increasingly elaborate façade of governments. The façade is normal business in all government departments too. There is a chief medical officer, a chief engineer, a chief economist, and many other chief scientists. They largely perform empirical science, spinning words and reports, making up stuff to appear in charge, aided by large groups helping them cook up all sorts of pretenses. Very little of it is out of bad intentions, nor is it necessarily all dysfunctional.
Other large organisations too now nearly all have media departments that perform empirical science in this manner on a daily basis. The WHO “brings out” reports, information, and “discoveries”, spun by media managers to suit audiences. So too hundreds of international and national organisations. Its all full of “our scientists have found that, discovered this, warn about that, will study that”.
Frameworks are brought out so that organisations seem to control and understand stuff, whereas in actuality the frameworks replace understanding and control, full of meaningless feel-good phrases. The sustainable development indicators and frameworks are a great example of this genre, 169 underlying variables and counting, many of which tug in totally different directions (including polluting economic development!): the sustainable indicators don’t represent or aid actual policies, but replace them, allowing anything to be dressed up as sustainability policy because every policy will hit several of those 169 indicators.
Yet, if international organisations don’t present themselves like this, their funding is cut pretty quickly as few will notice them. They wouldn’t seem in control and wouldn’t seem to be working towards acceptable solutions. Being unnoticed and not seeming to do the right thing is a deadly sin in our celebrity and media-connected culture. Everyone needs to seem something and be noticed for it. Be noticed and praised, or perish.
Yet, this is but the tip of the iceberg. The above is merely how “non-academics” perform science, twist science, and cloak themselves in what seems to be science.
The modern image of pure science
Worse is that empirical science itself has become obsessed with style over substance, with seeming over being.
The training into seeming goes very deep into the structures around empirical science now. It affects how students are told to think and write, how the reality of research is presented to them, and how they are supposed to communicate their work.
The image of what empirical science is has largely become a monoculture, based on the notion that scientists follow divine inspiration. The quintessential image is of Archimedes sitting in his bathroom having a Eureka moment of inspiration about water levels and things floating on the water, after which he “tests” his “new theory” with experiments, “confirming” that his theory is “correct”. Newton and the apple is another such example: science starts with divine inspiration, preferably followed by a randomised control experiment.
Very little of actual empirical science is like this, but students and academics are now almost universally forced to pretend it is like this. Research grant agencies nearly all want scientists to list their research questions or hypotheses, present the methods for checking those hypotheses, and give dissemination plans for telling the world about whether they were right or wrong.
The broad church of real science
If an astronomer asking for money for a telescope were to say “I am going to gaze through my telescope for years, hoping to find something of interest that then motivates me to think what is going on in the sky’, she would not get a cent of grant money. She has to pretend to be looking for something in particular. And yet “looking for something interesting” and only then “wondering what it might be” is a very old and prevalent scientific activity.
Similarly, there is “combining random data and previous thoughts from lots of differing time-periods, to come at an overall assessment of how things work and what the most important elements in a particular context are”. That kind of reflective armchair activity is pretty much the only thing many economists did for centuries, with their ideas and deductions still dominating the textbooks teaching new students. The market cross taught all students in their first lessons in economics, for instance, is not “tested”, and certainly not “confirmed”. It’s a causal story that fits lots of stuff about what goes on in markets, but is also inconsistent with lots of other information and is thus only useful if you have knowledge of a lot of context and applications.
Then there is “throwing oneself into unfamiliar situations that display the phenomenon I am interested in to see if I can figure out what is going on” which is how whole generations of social scientists made discoveries on the nature of revolutions, dictatorships, markets, etc. They traveled to places in the midst of revolutions, hyperinflation, and other social upheavals, to look around and notice what was of importance, checking causal storylines on the spot, asking others what is going on. Anthropologists still do this, though they now have to pretend they know beforehand what they are going to find, and they are often barred from really interesting field trips that might get them killed, so usually they are confined to a particular village to look at a pre-announced quirky form of behaviour.
Only journalists can still use one of the most powerful scientific methods there is by simply traveling to interesting places and observing humans in action.
These scientific methods used to produce much of the best empirical science we have, including much of economics, biology, history, chemistry, physics, etc.. Alas, very little of this is reflected in the current mandated format by grant agencies, who have the divine inspiration model in mind.
How scientific teaching now outlaws broad science
Teaching is not truly broad anymore, anywhere. Just ask yourself: which university will allow a lecturer to take students on a field to trip to Syria now to see how a civil war affects people? The answer is “none”. It would be illegal to do so. The days of risky participatory field trips and immersion are over, replaced by the simpler view that science consists of the trifecta “hypothesis, test, and result”. Easier to teach, easier to examine. But it neglects the process via which an interesting hypothesis emerges, confining them to divine inspiration in the bathroom.
Yet, most ideas do not come in a bathroom and do not then get “tested”, but occur to scientists when looking at lots of stuff they happen to be interested in, not knowing what they are looking at or what they might find, using their wits and knowledge of many other things. Even the notion of proving something later on is odd when you reflect on it: the proof that there are such things as tiny moving objects like bacteria happens before ones very eyes as one sees them crawling about under a microscope.
The notions of “prior hypotheses”, “appropriate methods”, etc. are thus largely a form of ex-post explanation in many empirical sciences. That’s not how you discover something, but how you pretend you discovered something.
How the pretense has become mandatory
This pretense has deepened further and further in recent decades, particularly in social science and medicine. Ethics rules that empirical scientists now are bound by in many universities demand one pretends that science is divine inspiration: the ethics committee only allows one to gather data (or analyse existing data) if one has “prior hypotheses”, “consent plans”, etc. They thus demand you know beforehand what you are looking for, which means true new knowledge only comes via divine inspiration.
A major reason for this is that is allows for accountability theater: only within the world of divine inspiration can one possibly know beforehand what data one wants to gather and thus what consent or other things one might need of “participants”. The divine inspiration model allows every aspect of research to be controlled, checked, and mandated. Ethics rules thus mandate empirical scientists become producers of a very particular form of scientific theater.
It gets much, much worse. Not only do administrations and granting agencies now demand a kind of “science role-playing” from all and sundry, but scientists themselves are now doing this to each other. The divine inspiration model is what many teach as the “scientific method” to many students, particularly business students and medical students.
The latest in this slide is the notion of “pre-registration plans”, not only on experiments, but on all forms of empirical discovery. In an increasing number of (top) journals, one is frowned upon if one has not pre-registered the planned analysis in a paper. The weird reasoning behind this is that if one didn’t go looking for something in particular, it’s not science if you discover it. That leaves divine inspiration as the only valid form of science: divinity whispered ideas into one’s head, after which one wrote down the tests and the data to go check on that idea, followed by the performance of the appropriate tests and the resulting answer. It makes anything else, like combining observations from different accidental empirical sources, illegal and unethical because one didn’t ask permission of those accidental sources to be probed for knowledge. The science of old wasn’t pre-registered, so its not science. How bizarre can one get? And yet, that is now the supposed pinnacle of empirical science.
Pre-registration plans do not help science, but constrict scholars into play-acting science. It is accountability theater. And it wasn’t ethics committees or evil university managers that cooked them up either: it was other scientists telling themselves and others this was “purer” and a way to “prevent abuse”.
In economics, this has now crystallised into what is known as the randomista culture: if it cannot be presented as a “clean experiment”, you simply have no chance at top journals with your empirical paper, unless it is of innate concern to the country that journal is based in. So young scientists have learned not even to look at important events or big-picture thinking, but to scan the world for what looks like an experiment. This leads to lots of papers showing estimated causal relations in highly specific contexts, often useless, but conforming to the image of science as running experiments based on divinely inspired ideas.
How the pretense has become a habitual self-image
It gets worse still if one considers how scientists now “write up” results. In many disciplines a very particular form of communication has arisen: the scientific article. Many journals and disciplines have developed extremely tight notions of what such an article should look like. In economics, for instance, most journals expect a particular length, an abstract, an intro, a methods section, a results section, conclusions, and reference lists. Other disciplines and journals have other habits, but they are just as proscriptive. There are very particular rules on what to reference, how to reference, what to include in the methods, and how to report results.
The subterfuges involved in writing now taught to students as a matter of course mimic the way budgets are presented: everything is presented as rational and a strength, even if its a weakness. So suppose a scientist trialed a pill on some patients who had low education and spoke an obscure dialect, with little idea as to what was happening to them, merely consenting because that way they hoped to get some medical attention. Those patients will probably not have taken them in the correct dosage at the correct times, and hence its very far away from the ideal group. How would a scientist “inform” the referees of this disadvantage in his study though? He relates the information in a way that makes it look good, and not bad. So he will sell the lack of language and education skills of the patients as an advantage, for instance because those patients have no “prior expectations of the working of these medicines and will thus not realise during the trial whether they got the active pill or the placebo, and hence not be biased in their responses”. Sounds good, no? Not quite untrue, but not the whole truth either, is it? Its just an example of how scholars are now trained to show the shiny side of any coin, not its grubby side. Spin is now a way of life.
Deviations from the norm are punished, even if the deviation is purely in style and actually functional. For instance, if a scientist would send an economics journal a video in which some market phenomenon is much better explained than words ever could, she’d have no chance, certainly not as a stand-alone piece. Videos are not considered “real science”, at least not in economics, even if moving images can be a more powerful explanation than the non-moving images inherent in texts. Smells, artworks, etc., are also deemed non-scientific. A collection of explained pictures is similarly not-done as a stand-alone piece of science. And yes, I have tried it a few times!
Still, scientific museums are full of such artifacts used by scientists past and present to demonstrate scientific truths and explain things to the next generation and their colleagues. But conforming to the quasi-religious strictures that exist around “scientific articles” is the way individual scientists get kudos for their research from the gate-keepers, their peers. So once again, the conformism and monoculturalism is not done by outsiders, but insiders, and not out of evil-intent but out of the heart-felt notion that this is “how it should be”.
How deceitful pretense is now the norm
The perniciousness goes deeper still. Every sentence of what scientists nowadays write in articles is a performance of sorts, with an element of deceit. One for instance has to acknowledge powerful figures in a discipline by mandated forms of flattery, such as by saying “the seminal paper by X showed” where X is someone powerful in that discipline, often the intended editor of the journal a paper is sent to. If one would say “it was probably widely known for centuries, but X got his name on the following piece of common sense knowledge” one might in a strict sense be more scientific, but it would never get passed the refereeing process. Dividing knowledge neatly into packages of “truths” that were each “discovered and proven” by someone in particular is now a pretend-view of the world that one cannot avoid buying into when writing an article. It is a practice that is totally unscientific, but completely fits the ”hypothesis, test, result” mantra.
The same goes for the issue of what counts as a contribution, what is deemed a “significant result”, how much evidence is required depending on whether the audience already believes it, etc. Scientific papers, particularly at the top journals, are now more like a walk through the subconscious prejudices of the editors and referees than that they explain and reflect good science. Only by hitting the subconscious boxes of editors and referees can one get “accepted”.
Junior scientists very actively try to second-guess the subconscious of their judges, down to the font type and the particular Latin phrase they think an intended referee would appreciate, based on an analyses of which school she attended and what she wrote in her last 5 editorials. And no, I am not kidding. That’s not the worst I have seen. There is the “seminar dance”, “the first draft slant”, “the after conference-dinner pitch”, and of course the “hiring of the student of the editor”. It really is a commercial circus now.
This hence goes to the deeper point that scientists nowadays are nearly all degraded into performance monkeys: they no longer own science but have to continuously earn their place by appearing to be the right sort of monkey. They are forced into theater and are honed in the art of deception towards colleagues, grant agencies, themselves, and the general public.
This is the reality of empirical science now. No-one planned it to be this way, but here we are. And it is too easy to blame university managers or research-performance exercises for this slide. Those external pressures sped it up, but much of the change was championed and pushed by scientists themselves, responding both to internal competitive pressures and the evolving notion of what science is supposed to be.
How it came to be thus
How does this “performing monkey” reality of modern science and scientists compare with the scientists of centuries past? Why did the previous model stop functioning?
Well, the performance art of the previous generations of scientists was a somewhat aristocratic pass-time, done by a small layer of privileged people who thought they were better than everyone else. They performed science to their audience largely in a display of their superiority, showing off. The production of science behind the scenes though was whatever practical way there was of finding out about something.
The main merit to the old system was that there was a lot of pragmatism involved in how scientific knowledge was produced. Charles Darwin just packed up and went gallivanting to far-away islands to have a look at exotic animals in a situation no-one would stop him experimenting on them, dissecting them, or whatever else he wanted to do with them. He combined his close observations with knowledge of breeding dogs and cows back home, inspired by economic ideas of social selection. He asked no permission, had no clear idea of what he was looking for, and interfered with any animals he felt he needed to interfere with. He’d never get away with it today.
There was also a larger scope of inquiry because there was less competition, so scientists felt more entitled to wonder through large territories. The lack of much scrutiny meant it was easier for an individual to do “grand science” about the whole political economic system, or how to view a complex problem like covid-19. We no longer train scientists to think grand, and we certainly don’t reward it: cut-throat competition rewards specialisation and “keeping to what you know best”. In some sense hence, part of the current problem is that there are just too many empirical scientists leading to these tiny territories.
The “performing monkey” reality of modern science has then lead to a great impoverishment in scientific teaching and methodology used, essentially losing the benefits of pragmatism and aristocratic grandiosity. The monkeys are now all small-time performers having lots of pretend-Eureka moments. Even if the “winners” among them then start to comment on big things, the problem they face is that they were not trained to do so and in my opinion, usually very bad at it.
The main disadvantage of the old system was that it was inherently not very accountable and openly wasteful as most supposed scientists did very little but rake up a salary whilst pontificating to students. Moreover, it often didn’t seem like science when one looked a bit more closely because of course the aristocrats performing towards the public liked to present a much more pristine face than the reality. They were often sloppy and wrong, inevitably so if they talked about many things at once. It was easy to challenge them.
There is no obvious single person, country, or development to blame for the slide towards mass pretense in empirical science: it is the way it has gone, probably because of the incentives of all organisations to seem scientific, and the ability of particular groups inside academia to force others on the defensive by forcing them to conform to a much more narrow and particular view of science. I think competitive pressures got us here. Too many scientists combined with with the relentless need to have appealing but defensible positions. Exactly the same force that has lead governments into accountability theater.
The costs of all this pretense and deceit
We are only just discovering the areas in which the monocultural reality is costing science and society, but I suspect that the massive failure of science and scientists in the covid-19 crisis is largely due to the transformation of science from an aristocratic but pragmatic endeavour into this “performing monkey” accountability theater.
For one, being in constant monkey-mode themselves, many scientists have lost the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. They think something must be true when a top journal publishes it because it’s a top journal. They think it has authority because it makes the media and is taken over by prestigious international organisations. They do this partly because the high degree of specialisation makes it difficult for them to judge anything outside their field, but also partly because they have been trained to think outside rewards represent the ultimate judgment of whether something is true. They are totally focused on those rewards themselves and they are truth-seeker, aren’t they? How could those journals and organisations then get it wrong? Unimaginable. Their own lives would suddenly make less sense in a world where one couldn’t trust the supposed top outlets.
Relatedly, governments only have these one-trick monkeys to draw upon. They’re the ones who get the grants, are directors of institutes, and play by these rules. They also play along with the performance-needs of the government, so they are naturally the ones in their vicinity. That’s a general problem in our society, but one more visible in an emergency. What makes it more of a problem in an emergency is that the performing monkeys are automatically more “audience oriented”. They really do not like to be seen to disagree with “mainstream science”, nor with what government wants of them. They have been selected to be like that.
Yet, Covid-19 presented an acute problem needing a broad view. The response to Covid-19 needed an overall view of a hundred and one areas involved (many subfields in economics, sociology, psychology, virology, public administration, transport, etc.), and it needed that view to be generated within days, not months or years.
In the kind of complex situation the pandemic represented, the limited number of bits for which one in a hurry can do “hypothesis, test, result” science is far too slow and too detail-oriented to be more than a small piece of the puzzle. What do those trained in very narrow areas do though when they suddenly get responsibility for making judgments on much more complex problems? As we now know, they follow the group for their actual opinions.
Lacking training in coming up with general pictures themselves, the epidemiologists and virologists suddenly thrust in the role of chief scientific advisers to governments just didn’t realise the potential effects of various actions. And how could they? This made them highly susceptible to sacrificial group think: “Something must be done. That dramatic course of action (locking up everyone) is something. So let’s to that”.
Hordes of “scientists” on the outside were egging them on to do just that. It gave them safety in numbers, with some top journal and international organisation pieces to back them up. What else could they have come up with than ridiculous models with ridiculous numbers of projected casualties unless one did something totally unproven? As we now know, the advising scientists in nearly all Western countries gave in to this pressure, except in Sweden.
In what was another across-the-board betrayal of science, the hordes of scientists advocating lock downs and other unproven experiments reversed the onus of proof. They simply turned around and asked those who disagreed with them to prove to their satisfaction that there was a better course of action. And when they learned over time that no country in the world got even a small fraction of the deaths-from-covid that were predicted (even with lock downs), the unproven assertion many of them moved to was that “that was because they implemented our advice”. Two betrayals of science in one short statement. Essentially, the “scientists” covered up. Just like governments presenting their budgets cover up what they don’t know. Seeming is everything.
Accountability theater gone covid-mad
The clearest indication of how poor the training and thinking of most empirical scientists has become is how they are now falling over themselves to analyse and comment upon how governments and countries have “performed” in times of Covid. They take the numbers on those tested for covid-19 or deaths from covid-19 as the key “performance indicators” in this accountability theater, and are discussing in thousands of papers and blogs how this or that country, government, and advising body stacks up relative to others.
Just a year earlier, performance was on totally different indicators, like GDP growth, or perhaps trade-deals and “sustainable development”. Those previous goals have been momentarily forgotten, as if they are of no value at this time.
Worse still, Covid-tests and deaths are not a sustainable or logical way to look at government performance right now. One can quibble over what would be a reasonable indicator, but surely it would include all deaths, some notion of how sustainable current policies are, some notion of changes to our wealth-generating capacity that has to pay for future policies, and some wider notion of changes in how the population is feeling about a whole raft of things. Surely the future of our children and. our businesses still matter, even in times of covid, and hence changes to those futures still matter for judging current performances? And surely, abused women, the wider health of society, our military prowess, and everything else we normally care about is still part of the goal function too?
So how can one possibly fall over oneself to assign blame or praise to governments on the basis of the tiny wobbles in total deaths connected to covid-19 without looking at some notion of how the big things are going? It is a total loss of perspective.
It makes no sense at all, except within the logic of accountability theater. Narrow-minded ignorance of wider questions is exactly how empirical scientists have now been raised to think for a generation or more. It is exactly how grant agencies judge things. It is exactly how the government accountability machinery now works. It is exactly how international organisations now work: they all habitually pretend to have frameworks, plans, and answers to the current specific concerns of the population, judging others and themselves on “performance” in those realms. When those concerns are wide, the pretense is broad and the notion of performance is broad. When those concerns are narrow, the pretense is narrow and the notion of performance is narrow. Scientists are simply joining in.
So the whole circus of performing monkeys now chases the whims of the population, because that is what they have increasingly been doing the last 30 years. We are not watching hordes of scientists losing their minds, but hordes of scientists doing exactly what they have been increasingly trained to do.
What we need.
We need different scientists. To help with a fast-changing situation, we need scientists who are nimble, pragmatic, broadly-informed, immersive. Most of all, they should not be afraid to disagree with supposed top journals, top institutions, or top scientists, but take their own council. That needs a form of confidence that comes from real independence and long training.
We also need the involvement in government of people with a reasonable view of how many things fit together and what various relativities are, able to critically evaluate science. This is the sort of person top civil servants used to be. Nowadays, the advisers closest to government in many countries are media-managers, highly adept at reading what the population wants to hear. Seeming is everything. But, alas, spin-doctors are not all that good at understanding a complex situation they haven’t seen before, with their instincts honed not towards what is best for the population, but towards what that population wants to hear. They manage the audience, not the problem, running rings around those “hypothesis, test, result” scientists who are now in essence chasing seeming over being as well.
To prevent a recurrence of the entirely avoidable economic, social, and health disaster now befalling us and to get us out of this mess will require a radical overhaul of scientific teaching, funding, and its relation with mass-communication. This will take some doing though.