May 13, 2020 Reading Time: 10 minutes

A few years ago the University of Vienna mathematician Karl Sigmund published a book under the title Exact Thinking in Demented Times, and his focus was on the rise of the Vienna Circle and positivism as a response to the ideological delusions of the 1920s and 1930s. The book has much to recommend it, but a critical engagement is not my concern here. In my own book on Hayek, I also invoke this phrase, as I think it captures Hayek’s scientific and philosophical quest as well – to strive for exact thinking in demented times. Hayek’s answer is different from those of the Vienna Circle, but the desire is the same.

Science is motivated either by a sense of awe and wonder, or by a sense of urgency and necessity. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it is curiosity that fuels science. Basic scientific knowledge is perhaps the domain of the curious, while applied scientific knowledge and in particular the transformation of scientific knowledge into commercially valuable knowledge may be the domain of the courageous. And, scientific progress may, more often than not, follow more naturally from that sense of awe and wonder than urgency and necessity. This is because, I would argue, that science so pursued unleashes human curiosity and encourages creativity and the back and forth of critical engagement. 

Awe and wonder imposes on us from the start of our inquiry a deep epistemic humility in the face of the amazing, the beautiful and the complexity of the object of our study. We are humbled by this mysterious phenomena that stimulates our thinking in a quest to understand and bring it into sharp relief. We question and we offer tentative answers, and we question some more as we ponder the mysteries of the universe. We are always willing to ask questions, which may not have answers, and we never accept answers that cannot be questioned. The scientific quest continues and progresses as we push back frontiers of knowledge, only to realize that the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. This is how scientific knowledge grows.

Urgency and necessity, on the other hand, often begin with a confidence that any problem posed has a solution that science can provide. As a result, in response to a sense of urgency and necessity we often organize inquiry as if it is a military mission, with a central command, and a common purpose, and scientific energy is mobilized as opposed to being cultivated and unleashed. Not always, but more often than not, these efforts lead us down a dead end as opposed to what the popular caricatures of the Manhattan Project, or the Space Race, would have us believe.

In fact, one of the great defenders of science and the free society – Michael Polanyi – moved from a practicing physical chemist to a philosopher of science precisely because he witnessed his scientific colleagues and friends working in the communist countries of East and Central Europe and the Soviet Union suffer under the yoke of the command and control approach to scientific inquiry. At the same time, there are moments of urgency and necessity where the scientific discovery of new and vital knowledge will determine questions of life and death of people, nations, and civilization itself.

It would be a huge mistake to think this was just a problem for scientific inquiry found in the former totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Even in the Western democracies the scientistic attitude took hold after the Great Depression and WWII, and transformed the scientific and intellectual culture.

President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, in his farewell address famously warned about the “military industrial complex,” but he also warned about the dangers that the transformation of science and scholarship had undergone since WWII and its impact on science in a free and democratic society. As he wrote:

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been over shadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system-ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society. (emphasis added)

Obviously, awe and wonder do not need to ever be at odds with urgency and necessity, but the epistemic humility encouraged by the first runs into the epistemic confidence embodied in the second, and the institutions and organizational practices of inquiry balance the tension. 

Science can bear fruit in the practical – just look around us at all the amazing accomplishments of applied science from engineering to technology to medical advances. Science is amazing. Human ingenuity is amazing. Remember AWE and WONDER, and the ultimate resource is the human imagination.

The concern that Eisenhower raised in that address is the “capturing” of science by a technocratic elite, and thus insulating themselves from the democratic process of collective decision-making, and maintaining a position of monopoly experts. In times of a crisis, when urgency and necessity trump awe and wonder in science, scientific inquiry gets organized and requires leaders like Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves. 

During a crisis, fate appears to hang in the balance, and mental and material resources must be coordinated and that requires a commander who is in control of the process. But that will not work if curiosity is squashed in the effort to courageously command.

In economics, such moments confronted the community of scientists in the wake of the Great Depression, in the wake of the Collapse of Communism, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, and it appears today in the wake of COVID-19. Our knowledge learned from our explorations motivated by awe and wonder must be applied to address what must be done due to urgency and necessity. At least, that is what I would argue science in real time should do if we hope to make progress on tackling the issue at hand.

But, in reality, science in real time always operates within the context of the brine of politics. Emotion, mood affiliation, and electoral concerns substitute for sound reason and careful empirical analysis. All of this makes perfectly rational sense. Politicians are not saintly creatures, nor are their appointed public officials. They may be perfectly scientifically competent, but they – like all of us – face incentives in the context within which they operate. And as analysts it is vital to always remember that context matters.

Knowledge is necessarily imperfect. As Einstein repeatedly stressed about research, if we knew the answer, then we wouldn’t call it research. And, the scientific process is one grounded in a culture of criticism. As Richard Feynman often stressed, the true scientific attitude is reflected when one understands that it is always preferred to ask questions that cannot be answered to offering answers that cannot be questioned. Science motivated by awe and wonder has this luxury, science motivated by urgency and necessity often does not. A fire is raging, and we must put that fire out.

The idea of mobilizing science to address pressing practical issues of an existential threat due to natural or man-made disaster, or economic crises or global public good, tends to favor command and control “task force” initiatives. The resources go to fund a process that has a single goal in mind – defeat the enemy, end poverty, whip inflation – and talent is focused on that single goal. 

To invoke an image from cinema concerning space travel, remember the scene in Apollo 13, when it is realized that they have a CO2 problem with the air filters, and the lead engineer comes into the room and says we have to build a filter that fits into this hole with only these materials. The other engineers work feverishly to solve that problem before the air quality becomes so dangerous that the astronauts succumb to the situation. 

That is a classic engineering problem. It is not a problem of scientific discovery, but of puzzle solving. Similarly, once was step back from immediate urgency, one must always remember that the resources involved in mobilizing scientific energy require resources, and those resources come from the public purse. 

To invoke another scene in another space movie, The Right Stuff, the test pilots are bantering back and forth and a journalist reminds them that “without bucks, there is no Buck Rogers.” They need to get appropriations, and that requires political gladhanding. Back to Apollo 13, remember that James Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) is leading a tour of Congressmen through the NASA command center when he learns that he will be leading the next Apollo mission.

At the present moment our demented times are not defined by ideological delusions of communism or fascism, nor military aggression by a foreign enemy combatant, nor a hurricane or tsunami that has swept away a city, but a virus that has spread throughout the globe. The movie reference perhaps most applicable isn’t Planet of the Apes or World War Z, but And the Band Played On, a docudrama about the discovery of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s. One of the things I loved about this movie is the depictions of both the passion and sense of urgency that the scientists exhibit. The field scientists exist in that borderland between natural and social science. With respect to infectious disease, the natural science is molecular virology, but the social science is in the interaction of the virus with human populations that have choices with regard to how they behave when confronted with knowledge of the virus. 

The natural scientists may be confronted with the troubling aspect of human strategy only with respect to their own behavior with regard to jockeying for prestige, position, and funding, but the epidemiologists and social network analysts must try to capture not only the natural science, but the strategic response of the populations impacted by the virus, and their own jockeying for prestige, position, and funding. 

In the movie And the Band Played On, the science at the CDC is guided by the mantra of (1) what do I think, (2) what do I know, (3) what can I prove, but the everyday operation is guided by a concern for responsible communication that does not cause either panic or upset political interests so that funding can be secured. The entire point of the docudrama is to show the audience the role that politics – at a personal, organizational, and local, state and federal government level – played in the frustrating process of the discovery of scientific knowledge and the dissemination of useful scientific knowledge to address a policy issue of urgency and necessity.

If you think this is any different this time around with COVID-19, just look around. And, it isn’t just at the public bureaucracies at the federal level. The association of Governors issued a joint statement about a month ago saying that COCID-19 funds should not be restricted just to COVID-19 expenses. The CARES Act includes a 20% premium on top of normal Medicare payments to hospitals for patients classified as COVID-19. Mayor Muriel Bowser of DC recently announced that in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the city will allocate more than $300 million for construction of St Elizabeth’s East that will be operated by George Washington University, and also an expansion of 225 beds to Howard University Hospital. These projects are expected to open in 2025 and 2026. 

Whatever the need for high quality health care in underserved parts of the city is, the pretext that these construction projects are to address the current COVID-19 situation must be looked upon with some suspicion. On the relevant margin, choices will be biased in one direction rather than another because of the simple economic calculus of marginal costs and marginal benefits of this or that choice. None of this relies on any claim that a conspiracy of corruption is underway. All that is being stressed is that incentives are at work on a multiplicity of margins that will direct attention away from the immediate problem at hand, and focus instead on the ordinary yet peculiar business of politics. It is just vital to our quest for exact thinking about current affairs to never forget that politics at the local, state and federal level are the one constant in a fluid and dynamic search for some knowledge and wisdom in public policy.

Recognizing the ever-present reality of politics involved does not take away either from the virology, or the epidemiology, but it may impact the theory choice of the decision-makers. The models that best serve the interest of public health officials, or the electoral chances for the politician, are going to be chosen. Again, nothing in that guarantees they will be the wrong choice of theory; it just means that a citizens one should always think critically not only with the information one is being asked to process but through the theoretical lens which information is being conveyed to you and which is guiding public policy decisions that impact your health and well-being. 

This does put a burden on citizens, as they are being asked to critically verify information that may be extremely difficult for them to actually do. But that would be true no matter what I say. One of the primary goals of economics teachers is to convey to their students the tools required for them to become informed participants in the democratic process of collective decision-making. If we are failing in our task as educators, that is on us as educators at the high school, college and university level, but it doesn’t change the basic truth that epidemiology models must account for changes in human behavior and that another layer in all of this is not only the interaction with politics on human behavior within the populations we study, but that politics is involved in the choice of which models are chosen to guide public policy.

In our quest for exact thinking in these demented times, we are dealing with a situation of essential complexity. It is a dynamic and fluid reality we are trying to capture at multiple levels – the virus itself (natural science), the interaction of the virus with human populations (epidemiology), the adjustment and adaptations of human actors to the knowledge of the virus (social science), and the ever-present politics of policy response, and the choice of models attempting to capture all of what I just described. 

Scientific understanding is always difficult to acquire; it takes training and diligence, but when our awe and wonder excite our imagination our creative powers are unleashed. Science in real time, on the other hand, relies on our sense of urgency and necessity, and in doing so is more prone to emotion, mood affiliation, and the ordinary business of politics. 

To address a public health crisis, sound science must be deployed intelligently. What I am warning about is precisely about that. How can reason within democratic action on pressing issues be assured? The answer to that, I would argue turns not on the rejection of sound science, nor doubting the need for science in real time, but in effectively challenging the presumed monopoly status of experts and the command and control notion of mobilizing scientific energy to address a crisis. 

It is not ‘Moon Shots’ that are needed, but nimble and diverse experimentation, and lots of it. Epistemic humility, not epistemic confidence in technocratic elites, should be how we enter the process, and diversity of viewpoints and contestation at different decision nodes must be built in. Not the mobilization of resources, but cultivation of curiosity and creativity should be the goal.

The Manhattan Project or NASA should not be the model we desperately turn to in our hour of need, but instead to examples of private and public sector ingenuity and gumption that leads to improved treatments and ultimately, hopefully, to a vaccine. That will require acts of entrepreneurship at each and every node of decision.

Peter Boettke

Peter Boettke

Peter J. Boettke is a Senior Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research. He is a University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University, as well as the Director of the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, and BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Boettke is a former Fulbright Fellow at the University of Economics in Prague, a National Fellow at Stanford University, and Hayek Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics.

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