Over the past few decades there has been an increasingly negative attitude by governments, pundits, religiosi and faux philosophers against science. We have seen an increase in denialism about climate change (one of the most well supported scientific models of the day), vaccination, evolution, medical research in general, and the ancillary aspects of science like museums, education, and expert opinion. At the same time we have seen an increase (I believe) in the number of pseuodoscientists claiming scientific credentials they do not have, such as cancer quacks, non-members of the House of Lords claiming to be climatologists, and celebrities opposing this or that public health measure, along with Oprah-style “doctors” of medicine or psychology. What in the merry hell is going on here?
As Goldfinger once said “Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time, it’s enemy action.” Who is the enemy here? I think the answer has to be more than a few conspiracists or plutocrats funding astroturf campaigns. The answer has to do with the basis of modern urban society. It’s the money, honey.
Since the end of the second world war we have seen the freedoms and pro-education values of the time slowly but inexorably eroded. It has been known for a while that the majority of scientific research done in the United States, for instance, is done by the Department of Defence or allied organisations. We know that corporations are well involved in this – and the reason is that the money is to be found in military expenditure (the US spends more on its military and intelligence activities that pretty much the rest of the world). Corporations have but one motivation these days – to “maximise shareholder value” – and so they will employ any and all techniques to achieve this. If it involves science, then they will use science, but if it involves corrupting science, and it does, too often, then they will do that. At the same time the myth has taken root in the west that corporations must flourish for society to flourish (a deeply erroneous myth). So governments have followed the money trail, and taken many steps that promote anti science.
Some people are anti science for psychological reasons. I think of these as “anti modernists”; they fear the change that science will bring. Since science involves, of its very nature, a challenge to the status quo, those who are fearful of changes from the “”way things were” (i.e., in their childhood) will fear also science. These people tend to be those who benefit from the status quo; that is, they tend to be the ruling classes. If science tells us, as it does, that the use of oil and other fossil fuels is bad, the ruling classes who own much of that industry will object, and take steps overtly or covertly to destabilise science.
We have seen this in more than in science. Teaching on what used to be the “humanities” has been defunded. I was chatting to some people recently who were reminiscing about the days when European languages, history and philosophy were well funded university courses. Now there aren’t enough people in my city (Melbourne) to run a frequent seminar series on these topics. The problem is not that science alone is being treated so harshly, but that intellectual life is. Yesterday (and this is what inspires this post) I was told by the vocational counsellor appointed for me by the unemployment agency that “nothing that I know has any value”, meaning that I was unemployable as an intellectual.
What causes this is the focus, purely and simply, on money and its acquisition. The idea that we might take steps as a nation (in my case, Australia) that could in any way interfere with this economy of plutocrats is simply unthinkable to that class. Consequently, science, along with all the other intellectual activities we used to hold dear in a liberal democracy, are now otiose; they simply do not contribute to the Holy Economy. The minister for education in Australia, for example, has said he will personally decide which grants are “useful” when funding academic research. This follows the past thirty years since a notionally progressive government reduced all education to “vocational” education by collapsing the education system into one system, so that vocational education was now the main task of universities (previously, vocational tertiary education was done by non-university colleges).
We live now in a deeply anti intellectual world, at least in the west (there are other problems in the developing nations). It is not because the populace wants no intellectual activity – the many pro-science and pro-intellectual groups that spontaneously form on the internet show that. But instead of it being done properly, the plutocracy has made it into “infotainment”. Instead of shows that actually explain scientific processes and theories, such as we had int he 1960s, we now have Brian Cox or some other pretty face giving us “gee whiz” science, with no explanation or underlying principles at all. But we get some pretty graphics.
For example, in the climate change “debate” I have never seen any mention of Arrhenius’ nineteenth century proof that the earth will warm. Arrhenius used what is now called a “single pixel” approach – treat the earth as a single system and measure the input of energy against the reflection of energy and show that there is an imbalance. What is debated now is the role that parts of that system, like the oceans, play in sequestering heat or recycling it, but the overall sum doesn’t change. We are and can only be seen to be, warming the globe. The rest if detail, and there is no damned debate whatsoever, just about the role different “pixels” play in the way it will happen.
But this is to explain the science, and the media doesn’t like that, because the proprietors, whether state or corporate, do not like that to happen. The reason we live in one of the most stupid of societies for generations si simply that it doesn’t suit the money makers. I have little hope we will oppose this in any way soon.