Science between Socrates and Gorgias

The change in the Italian government’s approach to the  management of Covid-19 has revived buzzwords such as ‘believing in Science’ and ‘trusting Scientists’ in the public debate. Like any (highly respectable) religious belief, ‘Science’ is elevated to the status of a deity to be worshipped uncritically through a host of saints and preachers. In Her name, beatifications, excommunications, auto-da-fé and (cultural) trials are promoted, reminiscent of those that condemned Guglielmo Piazza and Gian Giacomo Mora as untori —infecters. There has been no shortage, on the other hand, of charlatans, heirs of Alexander of Abonuteichos, and a myriad of individual ‘cults’ resulting from the arrogance, a sign of our times, of ‘knowing what they do not tell us’ in pure Napalm 51 style by Andrea Monti – Initially published in Italian on Strategikon – an Italian Tech blog.

Perhaps, pragmatically, this choice (if it was a choice and not the result of unscrupulous necessity) was the only one possible in the state of permanent emergency in which Italy finds itself. There was no time to bring the entire nation to a proper grasping  what it was necessary to do and why it was necessary to take a risk —that of vaccination— which could not actually be calculated but was necessary to bear against all odds.

Now is the time of the energy crisis, and after the Russian-Ukrainian one, the script is repeated: nuclear power, fracking, the long-term sustainability of a battery-based system… complex issues that, once again, are celebrated with public rites by the new host of saints, preachers and charlatans who have taken the place of those who were there before.

On the one hand, as mentioned, this phenomenon is facilitated by the personal arrogance of claiming to know without understanding. On the other, it is justified by the factual observation that when faced with complex problems, no one can know everything they need to make informed decisions, not even the various ‘expert committees’. However, this does not legitimise turning Science into its opposite, i.e., an essentially unverifiable belief system, to be accepted because ipse dixit.

This would not happen if we abandoned the idealist paradigm that turns people into evanescent ghosts to whom we attribute sapiential virtues and divinatory powers. There are, in other words, ‘politicians’ not ‘politics’, ‘rulers’ not ‘government’, ‘scientists’ not, indeed, ‘Science’, written in lowercase.

Stripped of the sacral veil that gives them a transcendent appearance, these celebrants remain ‘only’ people, and as such, the message they convey must be evaluated. As Francesco Carrara wrote in his Programme of the Criminal Law Course published in 1867 on the subject of ‘experts’ in criminal proceedings: ‘… their credibility depends not so much on the person or the saying, as on the greater or lesser criteria of truth that the science or art professed by them sets’.

Carrara’s words echo those of Plato when in the Gorgias, he has Socrates say:

… when one disagrees on some point, and when one does not recognise that the other speaks well and clearly, one becomes furious, and each thinks that the other is speaking out of envy of himself, competing for the upper hand and giving up research on the subject proposed in the discussion. And some even end up separating in the most dishonourable manner, after having insulted each other and having said and heard such things about themselves that even those present regret having believed that it would be worth coming to hear such people.

So, a possible solution to the dilemma between ‘believing’ and ‘knowing’ lies not only in increasing one’s knowledge in terms of information quantity. What is also needed is to master a method of interpreting reality that enables one to understand it by being able to cross the smoke screens raised by ignorance, political necessity and individual partisan interest.

The scientific method — a critical approach to problems — is not the only one that offers this possibility and does not necessarily have to be applied all the time. However, it constitutes an indispensable tool in the toolbox of thought. It helps to build reasoning that can withstand the blows of superstition and bad faith, helping to keep us free, not only in mind.

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