by Marco Malaguti

"Science is not democratic.": this is what Roberto Burioni - doctor, virologist and, by now, television personality - has said several times. Usually this specification is a rhetorical strategy of low level to silence opponents but, although it may represent a trick oratory of low league, it contains a kernel of truth.

As mentioned several times in these pages, Science is not, and should not be, an ideal regulator and administrator of human life and ethics; Science, as it is systematized over time, is framed as a practice, arbitrarily devised by man over the centuries (especially the last four) to systematize reality in an organic whole, coherent and explainable facts linked together by causal relationships. To obtain this perspective framework democracy and its practice are fundamentally useless because they belong to a sphere, that of politics, separated from Science itself: applying democracy to Science has no more sense than applying a piano in the construction of a new building.

Science and democracy: an impossible coexistence

Both Science and Democracy are subject to a condition of instrumentality, i.e. they are instruments, neutral in themselves, that have emerged to solve problems that have emerged in the course of human history. The resolution of different problems (material in the case of science, ethical and political in the case of democracy) has over time codified a different architecture of thought. It seems obvious to remember this, but scientists and politicians, especially if the latter is democratic, reason (or should reason) differently.

Under the gloomy light of modern nihilism, ethics never gives definitive answers and, in a world where (to quote Nietzsche) "the purpose is missing", the only possible democratic solution, to harmonize the differences in views, is the practice of discussion. So it is not instead for the sciences: pluralism, in the scientific field, is valid exclusively with regard to the right to propose an alternative view of the paradigms in force, but it immediately runs into the bottleneck that requires the proponent to support the new paradigm on the basis of data and observations methodically collected and classified.

Science, as already said, has the purpose to describe reality: it must (should) remain open to contradiction, even in the almost oxymoronic position of having to provide at the same time unquestionable solutions. In order to propose a new paradigm, different from the current one, the scientist cannot discuss, but he must necessarily do, he must observe and, using a vivid expression of Francis Bacon, vexate ("oppress") the matter to propose new incontrovertible data to support his thesis.

However, when the two spheres, science and politics, end up blurring, things become more complicated. The rise of the technocrat, who becomes the new key figure of the 21st century just as the bureaucrat was in the 19th and 20th centuries, opens the door to scenarios that the 20th century had only hinted at.

The abdication of politics

The inability of politics and of the classic instruments of sovereignty to face the challenges of the new millennium has meant that, in the search for quick solutions (often dictated by emergency needs), politics has provided more and more space to the figure of the technocrat, starting, as an obvious consequence, to think more and more like him. The current pandemic crisis marks the almost symbolic culmination of the entire process, with entire teams of scientists, throughout the Western world, to perform more and more functions attributable to the political sphere, similar to what Bacon dreamed in his New Atlantis and, later, the positivist Auguste Comte.

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What are the implications of this political and cultural turn is easy to imagine. Thinking about politics in a scientific way means, for the reasons stated above, not applying democratic rules.

For the scientist, the world consists of problems to be solved, rather than commonalities to be created. The "solution" to the problems is hidden among things: it's all about vexating and dissecting them in order to extract the secrets necessary to achieve the goal. If this is not a problem with inanimate substances or even animals, the matter changes radically when this practice is applied to humans. Thinking about society scientifically means reifying its components and subjecting it to continuous social experiments until the desired ends are achieved: the success and failure of the experiments in question fall inappellably and arbitrarily on the populations, which are despite themselves to pay the consequences.

As the scientist is trained in a world of problems to be solved, society itself is problematized. While politics always considers multiple meeting points and different possible outcomes, society, interpreted as a mathematical expression, can only consist of one big problem and with only one possible outcome for each of the sub-operations to be performed. It is for this reason that technocratic society is, as is well known, made up of forced choices.

The politics of forced choices

Whether we talk about health or economy, pandemic or debt crisis, "there is no alternative" seems to be the motto of modern technocratic societies. Just as an arithmetic operation must have only one exact result, achieved through the application of strict rules, so too the problematized society can know only one possible outcome, achievable through rules as strict as they are impersonal.

The scientific conception of politics is thus situated at the antipodes of democracy. In an absolutely innocent way, the scientific thought shares with the totalitarian one a bipartite ontological conception. If in totalitarian thought everything is black or white, friend or foe, in scientific thought the whole sphere of the thinkable is simply reduced to the dichotomy right-wrong: scientific thought is ontologically incapable of thinking about mediation, and with it democracy. Hegemonized by technocrats, political discussion degrades into a challenge between theories that do not allow replication with each other except in the form of experiments, which are not conducted on inanimate substances but on entire human communities reduced to the rank of things. The current pandemic is, in this sense, an enlightening example.

The politics that abdicates, consciously or not, to its functions in favor of technocracy, can only know the end of democracy as we have always known it. The choice, utopian but dangerous, to live in a society completely regulated by science could be the last real political decision of western public opinions, but to make an objective and really conscious choice it is always necessary to keep in mind the words of Roberto Burioni: "Science is not democratic.".


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Research fellow at the Machiavelli Center. A philosophy scholar, he has been working for years on the topic of the revaluation of nihilism and the great German Romantic philosophy.