June 18, 2024

Science or Authority?

Alenka Zupančič

Cover detail of Alenka Zupančič, Disavowal (Polity Press, 2024).

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Alenka Zupančičs book Disavowal (Polity Press, 2024).

The authority of modern science is based—in Karl Popper’s terms—on the inherent possibility of falsification—that is, on the falsifiability of all its theories. If a claim or theory cannot be falsified, if it is not inherently testable; it is not scientific.

The credibility of modern science is based on very different principles than (traditional) Authority. However, it is also indisputable that, in its social functioning, science has achieved at some point the status of Authority. Which is to say that, although most of us have no means of verifying (or falsifying) scientific discoveries and theories, we take them to be true (“blindly believe” in them) because they are socially recognized and labelled as “scientific.” To accept something as true because science says it is so is different from the way in which science itself works, which is by relying on the principle of doubt and falsification rather than on any outside Authority. This difference is often blurred in contemporary social media debates, in which refusal to accept the social authority of science is justified by invoking the method of its scientific authority, the principle of falsification. So we hear things such as: “We refuse to blindly believe (trust the social authority of science) and pledge our right to exercise doubt, which is precisely the most scientific thing to do. Is science not supposed to be all about doubt and not taking anything at its face value? We are indeed the true embodiment of the scientific spirit, contrary to the (corrupted) scientists, who just blindly repeat what Power (politics, capital) wants them to say.” In this way science becomes the justification for not trusting science. This is a very typical confusion of the social authority of science and its scientific authority.

While scientific authority (authority as scientific) is based on doubt, possible falsification, and constant interrogation, the social authority of science is a different matter; it is much more akin to traditional authority in the sense of something that hinges on our (blind) belief and trust. Of course, part of this trust comes from our knowledge about how science operates, about its method being precisely other than that of relying on any outside authority. (We trust science because it doesn’t trust anything.) But this doesn’t make our belief/trust in science any less about trust and belief. And this is not simply because not all of us are scientists (and we cannot ourselves make the appropriate scientific calculations), for scientists themselves depend and rely on the social authority of science in many ways (including, of course, for the financing of their research).

The recent collapsing of the social authority of science can thus not be attributed simply to a rise of (obscurantist) beliefs, since this social authority itself is based on something like an “obscurantist” belief (we trust science because it is science). The gap that cannot be directly filled in by any positive knowledge, and thus requires a “leap of faith,” seems irreducible, indispensable for our social and symbolic functioning. Society—and, indeed, science itself as part of society—cannot function as a purely scientific community. This is not the place to engage in a complex debate about the reasons for the collapse of the social authority of science, so let us simply make two related points.

First: it would be erroneous to see in this collapse a sort of regression into some premodern, prescientific mode of knowledge and belief, for the collapse concerns primarily the always cotemporary existence of the gap that necessitates blind belief (trust) in scientific claims. Simply put: more and more people refuse to make the “leap of faith” when it comes to science. A crumbling of the social authority of science, a reluctance or straight-out refusal to trust it, is the cause of undermining (relativizing) its inherently scientific claims and scientific authority, and not the other way around.

Second: if we listen to what these sceptics are saying, how they formulate the reasons for their mistrust, two key words that keep reemerging are “money” (profit, capital, financial interests) and “surveillance” (the monitoring and directing our lives, for monetary or disciplinary purposes). If we momentarily put in parentheses the often extremely picturesque and phantasmatic ways in which these two words orchestrate the narratives of different conspiracy theories, it is only fair to say that what they evoke is not just a product of imagination but part and parcel of our social order. That is to say, and to put it as simply as possible, that science is losing its social authority on account of its being an inherent and important part of the capitalist world order and its dynamics. And increasingly so, since, for example, money for research mostly comes not from the state (as representing public interest) but, rather, from private corporations pursuing private interests. Yes, the answer is boring and predictable: capitalism. It is precisely this capitalist dynamic that fuels (and often justifies) the mistrust in science, its disappearance as social authority. But this causality is not without an interesting twist.

To take just one concrete example of how involvement in capitalist dynamics facilitates the denial of scientifically established facts: It is obviously true that the so-called green transition can bring huge profits to certain corporations, which in turn can actively direct and influence what is socially perceived as green. A very passionate debate, which includes scientists, that has been taking place lately is for example the debate between advocates of renewable energy and advocates of nuclear energy. Renewable-energy advocates assert that only solar, wind, and hydropower count as “green energy.” But some nuclear-energy advocates counter that, when the full impact of construction, operation, and land usage is taken into account, these renewables cause greater environmental harm than nuclear, so the latter should be regarded as “green energy.” In whose interest is it to promote solely renewable energy, even if the environmental impact is greater, and in whose interest is it to promote nuclear energy as the truly “green” alternative? There is clearly “money and power” behind both options. And there is no way out of this possible suspicion within the existing economic order. Which is why this “no way out” often results in the conclusion that “there is no climate change,” since it’s all just about financial interests. We should recognize this claim for what it is: not simply an obscurantist regression but a disavowal of the traumatic reality of capitalism. Financial interests, which are obviously part of capitalism, are acknowledged and used in a way that shields capitalism’s very brutal reality, and the suspicion moves to science. The acknowledgement of the interests of capital serves to divert us from any consequences of this claim, which would be in the direction of concluding that this is therefore not a good economic system. Instead, the consequence (the conclusion) becomes the nonexistence of climate change. The perverse syllogism goes as follows: everything in our social life is about money and financial interests, therefore there is no climate change. Something similar happened in the case of Covid. More often than not, a refusal to accept scientific facts, their denial, is just one of the forms taken by the disavowal of the truly traumatic dimension of capitalism. The traumatism at stake is not only about social disintegration and environmental disaster related to capitalism but at least as much about what appears as a nightmarish “no way out” of it. In this precise sense, the denial of climate change is a denunciation of capitalism by proxy, in much the same way that fetishist disavowal is not a direct denial but a denial by proxy, denial delegated to the fetish. And pointing out financial interests and people who profit from different things is the means of this disavowal, because it (re)directs our attention to subjective reasons (greed, enjoyment) and diverts us from the far more traumatic possibility of a greedy and self-enjoying a-subjective system of which no one is really or fully in control. A very interesting link between denial and disavowal appears here. Denial of climate change is in this sense a result of the disavowal of the brutal reality of capitalism. And so is the denial of, or refusal to accept, many other scientific facts.

Related to the issue of science losing its social authority is another aspect of capitalism that is more interesting and complex than it might seem at first glance. Money has long since assumed the throne of social authority, and this is not meant in any moralist sense. Money did not replace symbolic authority; money is a symbolic authority in the sense that it is more than itself, it is bigger than itself, it contains a je ne sais quoi that—paradoxically—no amount of money can buy. In his new book, Noam Yuran wonderfully develops the point that capitalist money, which differs from the way in which money functions in other economies, is not just a means of exchange but also has a use value; it has not only a quantity but a quality.1 This is why, for example, expensiveness is one of the qualities of luxury products rather than just a description of their price. When rich people buy expensive things, even ridiculously expensive things, it is not simply because they can afford them, but because by doing so they buy more than the thing itself; they buy precisely what money (as means of exchange) cannot buy directly—a certain quality. They pay not simply for the expensive thing but for this thing to be expensive, incommensurable (with other ordinary things). They pay so that they can pay (a lot). Still following Yuran: there is also something, a quality, that the rich acquire by having their money—that is, by being rich—rather than by giving it away in exchange. I believe this is precisely what Lacan had in mind when, commenting on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, he made the following laconic remark: “It is extraordinary that ever since there have been economists, nobody … ever made this remark that wealth is the property of the wealthy.”2 Wealth is the property (quality) of the wealthy: one could hardly put it more concisely. Wealth does not simply refer to a certain quantity of money but is an additional something that cannot be quantified: it is a property. The wealthy don’t just have a lot of wealth; wealth is also a quality of their being wealthy, something in the wealthy more than their money, or something in money more than money. And it is precisely this circularity, this tautological gap, that accounts for the social authority of money, or for money as authority. Authority as authority is precisely and always about such a self-referential gap and a surplus. And when we hear—as we often do nowadays—the claim that people today “have no respect for authority,” we should think twice before agreeing with it. For the social respect for money is indisputable, and the authority of money functions very much like any other authority: it is founded on something other than reasonable explanation or quantification.

However, while to have money, to be wealthy, is regarded as a positive quality, or at least as something to be respected, doing things for money is much less noble and still carries the inglorious stamp of prostitution (as Yuran also shows very nicely). It quickly smells of obscenity and corruption. The rich are rich. They may be eccentric, ruthless, brutal, degenerate, but there is one thing they cannot be accused of—namely, of doing things for money. Which may seem counterintuitive, for, clearly, they only employ their forces to get more money, yet the remark stands: people working for them can easily be accused of doing things for money, but the rich themselves somehow don’t seem to be “all about money.” HBO’s series Succession is a very good demonstration of this aspect of the wealthy—up to the final twist, which in a sense retroactively dispels the myth that something more than money, something exterior to the less glamorous space and logic of exchange and of doing things for money, is the origin of wealth and represents its essence. Capitalism needs and perpetuates this myth, even if, and when, it gladly and openly “admits” that the game is all about money. This, again, is a textbook form of disavowal. The wealthy say and gladly admit that it is all about money, but they don’t really believe it (they believe that their being, as being of the rich, is not all about money, and that they are somehow special). In fact, it is all about money; but this “all” involves a spectral dimension, a ghost of authority that must at all costs be prevented from being traced back to money, because this would make it collapse as authority.


Noam Yuran, The Sexual Economy of Capitalism (Stanford University Press, forthcoming 2024).


Jacques Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (W. W. Norton, 2007), 82.

Psychology & Psychoanalysis, Capitalism
Money & Finance, Science

Alenka Zupančič is a Slovene philosopher and social theorist, one of the prominent members of the “Ljubljana school of psychoanalysis.” She is Research Councilor at the Institute of Philosophy, Scientific Research Center of the Slovene Academy of Sciences, and a professor at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. She is the author of numerous articles and many books, including Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan; The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two; Why Psychoanalysis: Three Interventions; The Odd One In: On Comedy; What is Sex?; and Let Them Rot: Antigone’s Parallax.


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