The Myth of the Scientist
A friend recently recommended I check out The Dark Mountain Project, so I did. The Dark Mountain thesis goes something like this: human beings evolved to live in small tribal communities where myth and story played key roles in shaping the tribe’s culture, behaviour and attitudes towards the future. Fast forward thousands of years to today and our evolutionary biology has not changed one whit. As a globalised tribe we are still driven by myth. The founding myths of our civilization are twofold:
I: The myth of “progress” – things can only get better and better – “you can’t stop progress”.
II: The myth of “nature” – nature is something other than human beings. “Progress” is the subjugation and conquest of nature, the conversion of every last square metre of unspoilt wilderness into human waste, as fast as technology makes possible. The endpoint of “progress” – one we are fast approaching – is the extermination of most non-human life on earth.
Of course this will be swiftly followed by the elimination of most human life on earth, since the premise of the above “myth of nature” – that human beings, unique amongst the animals, have transcended nature, are outside of it – is a ruinous delusion. Yet we continue to follow the pied piper’s tune of our tribe’s shamans – who we call “economists” – and worship at their totem – which we call “the market”.
When Bill Hicks implored marketers to “Quit putting a goddam dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!” he though it was obvious to everyone that this was a bad idea. Such are the heights our delirium that “putting a goddam dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet” is now seen by many as the means to save global civilization. But the idea that “ecosystem services” are “worth $X Tn annually” is quite obviously ridiculous – whatever X is.
What can this number possible mean? If all ecosystem services are eliminated (patience, we are working on it) it cannot imply lost annual economic revenues of $X Tn. There won’t even be an economy, because every last human being alive on the planet today will die. Why do we not see this? Because we buy into “the myth of nature” – the idea that we, our human economy, can exist outside of it. Most of us, living our whole lives in cities – where food comes from the supermarket and water comes from the tap – see little reason to believe otherwise.
Where does “the scientist” of my title enter the story? Scientists have been brought into the fold, they are also part of global civilisation’s myth-making apparatus. Scientists are some of the wizards behind the curtain, working to keep the smoke and mirrors going. I don’t speak out of any dislike of science or scientists – I am one myself. Rather I want “the scientist” to recognize that they are deluded and that they are participating in furthering the delusion of others.
Their delusion, their misguided mythology, is that of “scientific progress” – the belief that this ecological wrecking machine of global industrial technology can be wielded instead to save civilisation. It cannot – not when every institution behind the machine’s controls is constituted to wreck. I want “the scientist” to come out from behind the curtain and say this. Perhaps then they can do some good with our technology?
Why are most of our scientists still behind the curtain, what tempts them there, and what role do they serve for “the machine” once there? This is a complex story that begins during childhood. Of course it will be a little different for every individual scientist, but there are some common themes. For most of us including myself, the story goes something like this:
Chapter I: Childhood
At a physics conference in Bern (city of Albert Einstein’s 1905 “Annus Mirabilis”) a doctoral student from Venezuela told me a story I’ve never forgotten. He was out in the middle of the countryside with a group of young girls with almost no formal education, no knowledge of science. Perhaps most of them would never get the opportunity to have any? He had a telescope and one by one they were looking through it at the planets. They were absolutely enraptured by the experience. These were other worlds! Balls of rock and gas whizzing through space! Now THAT is science, in a nutshell. Science is not petty academic squabbles over whether or not you cited my paper fairly. Science is not – as many “artists” seem to think – “clipping an angels wings” or “destroying the poetry of the rainbow”. Science can enhance our sense of wonder, it need never diminish it. Science complements art. Science is the height of Wordsworth-ian romance about nature.
All children, like the Venezuelan girls, begin life with a soaring sense of wonder about the natural world. Most have is beaten out of them early, in part by a formal “education” system which labels them failures as quickly as possible and in part by a culture that discourages the asking of probing questions (especially where these relate to the exercise of authority) and encourages strict adherence to often arbitrary rules. Our proto-scientist, for one reason or another (perhaps the ability to “succeed” within the formal education system, to pass through its filters and examinations unscathed), manages to retain this sense of wonder relatively intact, all the way to to adolescence.
Chapter II: Adolescence
During adolescence the scientist begins to pick up, through cultural osmosis, a sense of the place of science and the role of the scientist in society. Scientists are to expand the frontiers of human knowledge, to make new discoveries that benefit mankind. Most will quite sincerely buy into this naive mythology, including yours truly. They go to university desiring to explore more of nature’s wonderful delights, and to arrive at the point where they know enough of others’ contributions to science to begin making their own contributions to science and to society.
Chapter III: Adulthood
Having made it this far the scientist is ready to take on their role within society. Many of the scientist’s university colleages have now fallen by the wayside, having been caught out by university examinations – or perhaps they have seen through the whole mythology of “the scientist” and decided to invest their energies elsewhere? No matter, our young scientist is not to be deterred – they are now ready to serve mankind.
It soon turns out that “serving mankind” does not quite work as the scientist had hoped. “Politics”, a subject the scientist was spared from at university, their intellect left free to roam only nature’s untarnished truth, now enters the scientist’s world. Einstein said that “The Lord [nature] is subtle, but He is not malicious”. Politics reverses the proposition. The scientist is troubled by this and by the various compromises they must make to “serve mankind”. Must pharmaceutical patents exist? Must research into new technologies be funded by armaments contractors? This is all disquieting to the scientist, but it is rationalized away. This is after all “the real world” and compromises must be made. The ends will justify the means. Social good is being done by the scientist, at least on average.
Not all scientists make the same choices of course – those inclined to be more critical of the compromises they make, those that weigh the balance of social good and bad a little differently and average it a little more pessimistically may reach the painful decision to abandon their chosen path, even having come so far. The scientist is not pathological after all – they need to believe that their work behind the curtain, their participation in keeping the machine going, is really making the world a better place, not a worse one. Certainly not propelling that world on a trajectory toward global catastrophe. Any scientist sincerely reaching the latter conclusion and possessing an ounce of human decency must abandon the path of “the scientist” immediately.
So all those choosing to remain as scientists must, by necessity, buy into the mythology of “scientific progress” – the notion that the technologies they will help to develop, for various institutions to wield, constitute a net benefit to global society. The cognitive dissonance that results from believing otherwise – the idea that instead they are helping to accelerate the collapse of our civilisation – is too great a burden for anyone to bear. This is the final filter. The process is complete. “The scientist” has emerged from chrysalis as a wizard ready for work behind the curtain, ready to defend to the death the myth of “scientific progress”, ready to help bring about the endpoint of “progress” mentioned at the outset – the subjugation and extermination of “nature”.
I went through the above filtering process. I made it to the final filter and am faced, coming to the end of my doctoral degree, with the question – shall I become “the scientist”? I have decided not to. More than this, I have decided that “the scientist” is also a human being with a conscience and that as a human being cannot conscionably give their tacit support – any level of it – to the present economic paradigm. I implore them to withdraw this support (and what applies to “the scientist” applies equally to other professionals – one can read Peter Kropotkin’s essay An Appeal To The Young for illustrations of this).
I am exaggerating things “the scientist” may say. I am overstating my case. I thought this too, for a long time. It is a powerful psychological defense mechanism. The desire to convince oneself, contrary to Einstein’s dictum, that the problems of the world today can be solved by the level of thinking that created them, is all too alluring. It allows the scientist to keep working behind the curtain, because technology will save us. This too is a delusion. Technology may yet help us – but only if the scientist emerges from behind the curtain, ready to slay with the people the monster of “progress” and in the ashes of its desolation make the world anew.
If technology is used instead to bring about further “progress”, further economic growth, only further death and destruction of nature, of ourselves, can result. That is what “progress” means. That is the only use of technology the scientist can make from behind the curtain. The machine will use technology only to feed upon itself and its surroundings, until nothing remains. It is impelled to do so by its very nature. It is incapable of acting otherwise.
Consider the melting arctic sea ice – this is seen not as the symptom of a systemic crisis but as a new investment opportunity. New shipping lanes are opening up. New oil deposits can be drilled in the arctic ocean. Or consider the recent observations of methane hydrate deposits on the ocean floor melting and bubbling up to its surface. Again, not a symptom of systemic crisis but a new economic opportunity. Methane deposits are our salvation, a new energy source – peak oil is no longer a problem. In a similar vein is President Obama’s recent endorsement of shale gas: “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy”. All reassurances that the economy will not be forced to stop growing by crude natures’ limited resources. Human beings are cleverer than that. “Progress” can continue unabated.
Any scientist that cannot plainly see this – cannot see how global civilization is eating itself – is either not looking or is looking away. But if “the scientist” sets any precedent at all by the truth – which they will argue quite sincerely is the sacred virtue of science – then looking away is not acceptable. One cannot seek the truth in science and ignore it in human affairs. And if one does, one must say clearly to oneself and others “I am the most complete of hypocrites”.
The belief that the technology of “the scientist” working for “the machine” will save us – that the economic machine can save itself, under its own steam – is therefore false. The machine cannot save itself – it is only in its nature to consume itself. “The scientist” must not carry forward the mythology of “scientific progress” or “technological salvation” for a moment longer. Compromise be damned – the machine assimilates all concessions to it. The time has come for all scientists – as human beings in possession of consciences – to emerge from behind the curtain, remove the wizard’s garb, and stand instead with the people as the enemies of “progress”.