Acton Institute Powerblog

Awe and wonder: The keys to curbing COVID-19 hubris

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In our information age, armchair economists and epidemiologists are many. Society remains deeply divided—preoccupied with social media squabbles over the credibility of our leaders and the rightness or wrongness of their proposed solutions.

Of course, the actual experts are divided, as well. Scientists and researchers are still arguing over the validity of various mathematical models. Inventors, businesses, and community institutions have adopted wide-ranging approaches to adapt to the virus. Governors and legislators remain split on how to interpret the bigger picture—weighing multiple concerns to establish timelines and protocols that keep the public safe while still protecting individual freedoms (at least, one would hope).

Although we see plenty of diverse, innovative thinking—and while many of the subsequent solutions are sure to succeed—we are increasingly sorting individual approaches based on our ideological tribes. This creates new blind spots and greater risks of overconfidence and intellectual hubris. We would do well to be mindful of our shortcomings, to embrace humility, and to resist the fatal conceits and scientism that tend to abound in crises such as this.

Economist Peter Boettke has long cautioned against such temptations, reminding us that our expert class is better viewed as a set of “prophets” as opposed to meddlesome engineers. “The economist as prophet is more likely to utter ‘Thou Cannot’ than ‘Thou Shalt Not,’” he writes in Living Economics. “This sort of economics has a default, though not inviolable, respect for the workings and value of institutions that have survived the process of social evolution”—a feature that the economist-engineers tend to ignore or resist.

In a recent essay, Boettke applies this same skepticism to the soothsayers of our current crisis. He recommends that we be wary of top-down schemes and instead work to restore “awe and wonder” to exploration:

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.

In times of actual crisis, it can be easy to let awe and wonder fall by the wayside. Even in times of prosperity and plenty, our politicians and would-be planners are adept at finding urgency and necessity where neither truly exists. In such cases, real or imagined, “We often organize inquiry as if it is a military mission with a central command and a common purpose,” Boettke writes, “and scientific energy is mobilized as opposed to being cultivated and unleashed.”

Given the unique public-health risks of COVID-19, a prompt “central command” response was probably necessary. But at what point do we pause and reconsider or readjust the focus of our scientific energy? At what point do we give awe and wonder their due?

The view from the lofty tower may be useful, but much of the actual searching will be done beneath the trees, accomplished without direct orders, predictive guidance, or financial assistance from the masters on high. Like many of our most important discoveries, it will involve surprise, and we ought to prepare our hearts and minds accordingly.

As Boettke continues, this is not mutually exclusive—“tear down the experts and empower the dreamers!”—but rather requires a balancing of priorities, goals, and vision. We can begin and end with awe and wonder while still having plenty of urgency and laser-like focus on the realities at play. “Awe and wonder do not need to ever be at odds with urgency and necessity,” Boettke continues, “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.”

In our own context, we see this tension quite clearly. Each segment of society—medical experts, inventors, government, businesses, and church leadership—seeks a solution to the same problem, and each is feeling undermined and stifled by the other in various ways. Yet as Boettke reminds us, given the concentration of power at the top, the risk of hubris runs deepest among the technocratic elite:

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 …

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.

To be clear, Boettke is offering these warnings specifically to those in the technocratic classes. In turn, much of his proposal includes “effectively challenging the presumed monopoly status of experts” and the “command and control” model of scientific inquiry, particularly in academia and the halls of power.

But the core lesson applies to us all, particularly in our age of social media tribalism. We can recognize the power of the tools in our hands while also recognizing their limits. We can appreciate the unknown and remember that ours is a world of abounding mystery and uncertainty, sourced from a Creator God whose ways are higher than our ways. We can respect the creative capacity of individuals and institutions just as much as the sciences we have conceived to study them. We can remember that each of us has a calling and a purpose in working, creating, and serving our neighbors amid this crisis. The more we are able to “see and foresee” the limits of our own understanding, the better our solutions will be.

“It is not ‘Moon Shots’ that are needed, but nimble and diverse experimentation, and lots of it,” Boettke concludes. “Epistemic humility, not epistemic confidence in technocratic elites, should be how we enter the process.”

“[C]ultivation of curiosity and creativity should be the goal,” he writes.

(Photo credit: NIH Natl. Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Public domain.)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.