Procession from virtue

I was daydreaming about empirical problems, though no one in particular… did the lockdowns reduce fatalities? Does sleep training newborns lead to anxiety or separation problems later on? Like anyone I was thinking about them as matters of collecting data and running it through an algorithm. The empirical, in other words, first shows itself as mechanical – facts go in, charts come out. It seems we achieve the Leibnizian ideal: no one argues, we only sit down and calculate.

This account overlooks that the truth of empiricism is downstream from virtue. What if someone’s data conflicts with the company paying for his study? What if his results compromise his ability to get tenure? What if his results are too bland or controversial to get published? The empirical ideal of course demands that none of these things matter to him, and we simply follow the data wherever it leads, but whenever one does this it does not arise from the mechanical nature of empiricism but only from the virtue of the empiricist. Truth will only come out of one of those scenarios if the researcher loves truth more than mere advantage, is willing to suffer for goods greater than himself, has the courage to stand up to powers that can easily crush or destroy him if they don’t get what they want, etc.  So while the allure of the empirical is that we could move beyond moral messiness and disagreement and solve all our problems with systems and algorithms, the allure is false. In seeking to transcend moral disagreement we become the dupes of any con man who knows statistics.

So empiricism only works as an instrument of virtue, and of a particularly robust virtue that loves truth more than self to the point of willing to suffer large losses for it. One critique of empiricism (or just “science”) is its inability to provide this foundation for itself, and of its indifference to this foundation in the structures that it sets up for itself. Who teaches the cardinal virtues in STEM schools? (stop laughing) Empiricism demands extensive habits of temperance, fortitude, and devotion to the common good, which demand a lot more than that a researcher declare his affiliations at the end of a paper.

Unless he has virtue, the respect we have for scientists or their method is no different than the tribal respect for a witch doctor or a sports fan’s trust in his lucky socks and pregame rituals. Science is just as able to be used as a totem as magic dolls, rain dances or lucky socks, and apart from virtue this is, in fact, all the power that a study can have. The fantasy of “pure science” or “following the data” is literally a magic spell, since it is a means of gaining control over others by totem and taboo.

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