~Written for the Heythrop Student Paper, Edition 6~
Held at the RSA in December, Tzvetan Todorov’s discussion of the enlightenment was altogether thought provoking, however it was a minor reference that really caught my attention. Todorov highlighted what he thought to be one fault line left by the enlightenment movement, namely the idea that science can take us anywhere and can teach us everything. A relatively benign concept, it was initially recognized by enlightenment thinkers as both fallible and containing limitations. It has been steadily revolutionized, however, to the point where “scientism” forms what many conceive of as an ideological movement. The basic understanding of scientism is that it is a view that espouses the superiority of science over all other interpretations of life, for example the religious and philosophical. The radicalization is in the overreaching of the discipline into other areas where scientific enquiry may not have jurisdiction, and the sense that there is no other appropriate means of interpreting our reality.
Todorov discussed scientism as fuelling the evolution of totalitarianism within Europe through the growing sense of biological understanding. Resultantly, we are capable of accelerating the work of nature and eliminating whatever is perceived as a “lower” form of life. An apt example that could be brought in would be the prominence of scientific experimentation and profiling used under the Nazi regime, or even the elimination of bourgeois or minority groups, a commonly repeated formula in European history. For Todorov the permanent cycle of ‘improvement’ we are seeing from science is dangerous, potentially leading us on a path which could very well end disastrously, either for environmental reasons, or because of the encroaching involvement of science in the creation or reconfiguration of humans. And this is something with which ethicists in particular have been grappling for as long as science has been experimentally intervening with humans; the fear that in offering the ability to, for example, ‘design’ our children we will create a race which eliminates everything that is seen as an ‘unwanted characteristic’.
However, another equally provoking application of scientism is in relation to the global warming debate. The leaked emails of some of the most senior environmental scientists in the country revealed a startling level of data manipulation and peer pressure in the struggle to gain footing as the definitive scientific view on present environmental circumstances. I am not going to discuss the truth behind global warming claims, my focus instead is on the extreme scientific perspective displayed by some global warming scientists, what Melanie Phillips called ‘green totalitarianism’. Michael Egnor, in his piece “Scientism and Totalitarianism” sees a ‘militant’ sense of certainty in scientism which, coupled with a severe fanaticism against dissent, is becoming increasingly totalitarian in its practice. The strong-arm tactics employed by the global-warming scientists as revealed by the emails, offer a frightening insight into the lengths that will be gone to in order to gain a unity of opinion within the scientific community. The emails reveal the intent to exclude alternate interpretations or theories, and to delete and doctor raw data. Although this isn’t a representation of the entire field, it represents an influential group of scientists with what I find to be a frightening approach to their craft.
In 2002 the Cobb County Board of education approved the use of stickers in biology textbooks stating, “evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. The material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered” only to find themselves in court. The sticker had been added after more than 2,000 parents complained that no other alternative explanations were offered. In court, the school defended its actions in saying that “science and religion are related and they’re not mutually exclusive… this sticker was an effort to get past that conflict and to teach good science.” The court ruled against the school board, saying that the disclaimers were unconstitutional in their endorsement of religion. The science that I used to learn about at school was one of the pursuit for truth, the acceptance that you are most likely never right but that a theory is true for as long as it goes without being disproved or replaced. Science has undoubtedly grown in its prominence and its scope since the first conceptions of it, and it plays a greater role in modern life than ever before. If there really is a developing scientific fanaticism in what always seemed to be one of the most logical and rational disciplines on any curriculum, I for one find that a sight unsettling.