Of COVID-19 And Witch Burning
René Girard said that we didn’t stop burning witches because we discovered modern science, we discovered modern science because we stopped burning witches.
The idea is that the Bible, Hebrew ideas about victims mediated via the Christianization of the West weakened (but did not eliminate) the scapegoating tendency. Scapegoats were the basis of a system of persecution and superstition. When freed (partially) from that, energy was freed up to pursue knowledge.
Might I suggest that in our times, politics is the superstition, the idol which must be appeased by the sacrifice of the victim. If that is right, our science will become captured by superstition. We’ll use it to see if the woman weighs more than a duck or whatever far more complex version of the same basic tribal anthropology we practice. I think this has happened with epidemiology and public health. We all have to navigate these little taboo zones, and pay little bits of offering, morsels and libations to various hostile nyads and dryads. Pinches of incense to the emperor as we go from lab to evaluation to analysis to publishing to communication to implementation to self-correction.
We can’t really do public health science until we abandon the idols, stop avoiding the allegedly ‘haunted’ parts of the forest, and stop looking for witches to burn. Because in a scapegoating society, anybody potentially can be burned at the stake and so that status is a constant threat, which consumes far more of our cognitive capacity than we realize.
By the way, Cynthia Haven has that observation in her excellent new book, Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy.
Francis Bacon, the founder of the modern scientific method, actually talked about it this way. He identified various ‘idols’ which stopped science from proceeding. Idols of the Cave, Idols of the Marketplace (ideas held by our in-group or by society in general) which stopped us from following the data wherever it led. We don’t trust our experts because we sense that there is a hefty dose of politics under all that science, and our own politics blinds us as well. We need to abandon our idols, all of us.
Originally published on Townhall Finance.
Jerry Bowyer is a Forbes contributor, contributing editor of AffluentInvestor.com, and Senior Fellow in Business Economics at The Center for Cultural Leadership.
Jerry has compiled an impressive record as a leading thinker in finance and economics. He worked as an auditor and a tax consultant with Arthur Anderson, as Vice President of the Beechwood Company which is the family office associated with Federated Investors, and has consulted in various privatization efforts for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. He founded the influential economic think tank, the Allegheny Institute, and has lectured extensively at universities, businesses and civic groups.
Jerry has been a member of three investment committees, among which is Benchmark Financial, Pittsburgh’s largest financial services firm. Jerry had been a regular commentator on Fox Business News and Fox News. He was formerly a CNBC Contributor, has guest-hosted “The Kudlow Report”, and has written for CNBC.com, National Review Online, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as many other publications. He is the author of The Bush Boom and more recently The Free Market Capitalist’s Survival Guide, published by HarperCollins. Jerry is the President of Bowyer Research.
Jerry consulted extensively with the Bush White House on matters pertaining to the recent economic crisis. He has been quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes Magazine, The International Herald Tribune and various local newspapers. He has been a contributing editor of National Review Online, The New York Sun and Townhall Magazine. Jerry has hosted daily radio and TV programs and was one of the founding members of WQED’s On-Q Friday Roundtable. He has guest-hosted the Bill Bennett radio program as well as radio programs in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.
Jerry is the former host of WorldView, a nationally syndicated Sunday-morning political talk show created on the model of Meet The Press. On WorldView, Jerry interviewed distinguished guests including the Vice President, Treasury Secretary, HUD Secretary, former Secretary of Sate Condoleezza Rice, former Presidential Advisor Carl Rove, former Attorney General Edwin Meese and publisher Steve Forbes.
Jerry has taught social ethics at Ottawa Theological Hall, public policy at Saint Vincent’s College, and guest lectured at Carnegie Mellon’s graduate Heinz School of Public Policy. In 1997 Jerry gave the commencement address at his alma mater, Robert Morris University. He was the youngest speaker in the history of the school, and the school received more requests for transcripts of Jerry’s speech than at any other time in its 120-year history.
Jerry lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, Susan, and the youngest three of their seven children.