Science Versus Scientism in Real Life: Where Do We Go from Here?

Scientism, sadly, has become a serious problem in public policy and even in science proper (consider demands for proof via RCT in medical circles even when RCTs would be a methodologically flawed approach). The media has reinforced this tendency with its fealty to authority and dogged enforcement of orthodox opinion, whether well-founded or not.

I don’t have a good grasp on when this bad tendency really started taking hold. It probably reflects the bias of my background but I wonder if the blind acceptance of mainstream economics, which is not even remotely a scientific enterprise but pretends vigorously otherwise, helped set up the corruption of actual sciences.

Needless to say, this is a vast topic. KLG today hones in on what he calls “science-adjacent scientism”. And his examples are wide-ranging and vivid.

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.

“Trust the science.”  This is a simple statement often heard, especially recently, that has its origin in the Enlightenment. [1]  But what does it really mean?  This depends on the perspectives of both the speaker and the hearer.  For the typical scientist, “Trust the science” means “Listen to me, because I know what is best, for you and everyone else!”  To many of the hearers, it has come to mean something much different: “That’s what you say, but your authority is less impressive than you seem to believe, and you once again have reminded me to think for myself.”

And this is when and where science becomes scientism, the simplest definition of which is “the overextension of scientific authority into realms of knowledge and culture where it does not properly belong.”  The occasional “scientist” will attempt to extend his authority into moral philosophy, where lived human experience is the key going back into the deep recesses of historical time.  The correct answer cannot be deduced from scientific theory of any kind or arrived at by induction.

The discipline of economics has become scientistic in its insistence upon “economic laws” that are nothing more than the preconceptions and preferences of one “school” or another, with Neoliberalism the current reigning model that admits of nothing else – TINA: There is no alternative.  Economics is properly an adjunct of history, politics, sociology, psychology, moral philosophy, and cultural anthropology, i.e., the lived experience of human communities, for which spurious calculations using a recondite mathematical apparatus have no epistemic validity.  That is, outside the confines of a typical academic Department of Economics or the United States Department of the Treasury, which is naturally next door to the White House.

While I was outlining this post, the August 2023 issue of Harper’s dropped through the mail slot.  The featured essay by Jason Blakely is entitled “Doctor’s Orders: COVID-19 and the New Science Wars.”  The current pandemic has revealed how the improper extension of science into everyday lived experience and its governance has not worked out particularly well, which is a continuing story.

But there is also a science-adjacent scientism that causes problems, too.  And both of these pathologies have been part and parcel of our responses to COVID-19.  There is no need to rehash this aspect of the official response to COVID-19 here, but the scientism of “Trust the Science” is distilled in this short statement by Dr. Anthony Fauci, former Director of NIAID, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health.

Eventually, all scientistic approaches fail in their erstwhile science-adjacent intentions.  Some also lead to initiatives that are simply obtuse.  For example, a current program of the National Cancer Institute is funding grants to identify why cancer is a major burden in “Persistent Poverty Areas.” [2]  Well, it is obvious and true that cancer outcomes are worse in these areas, but the interventions that will reduce this burden and these poor outcomes are equally obvious: Abolish “Persistent Poverty Areas” through political, social, and economic actions, including employment policies that work, environmental protection in areas such as Cancer Alley upriver from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and around Lake Charles, and extending healthcare directly to all instead of prattling incessantly about improved “access” to healthcare.  This is not “free healthcare.”  The services are no-cost when they are needed because we, as a people, have all already paid for them with our taxes.  This is not difficult.

While mostly unrecognized, an important prerequisite for scientism instead of science is hyper-specialization and the concomitant compartmentalization of knowledge that leads to a pervasive narrowness of vision among a large number of scientists and academics from all disciplines.  This is a big subject beyond my ken but it does not imply that the seemingly more integrated world of the Natural Philosophers was “better.”  It is a good thing to know that microorganisms instead of “miasma” cause disease and that spontaneous generation is a false notion; also, that evolution is real in viruses, bacteria, plants, protists, and animals.  It is also good to know that smoking causes lung cancer.  Natural science has obviously led to a deeper understanding of the “natural world,” but science also has its definite limits, many of which are covered very well in the Harper’s article by Blakely.

Nevertheless, the perils of specialization and its attendant scientism remain unrecognized by too many scientists, and this contributes to the problem.  However, some scientists like some judges do know scientism when they see it (pdf).

It turns out that science-adjacent scientism in action is not so hard to notice if you are paying attention.  Light is easy to measure in small volumes with an extremely high signal-to-noise ratio.  Thus, using light emission to detect proteins, enzymes, or antibodies can be very useful in the laboratory.  In the late-1980s, I was part of a team that developed an assay for a complex sugar attached to proteins that was very sensitive, down to the sub-attomolar level (10e-20 M, or a few thousand molecules in a small volume, a fraction a “drop”).  This was useful in the research lab, which led to the idea that this hyper-sensitivity would translate into the clinical laboratory by making assays for body fluid and blood components faster, more sensitive, and more accurate while requiring very small samples.

One is reminded of Theranos, but this start-up failed for a legitimate reason.  Alas, the problem is that clinical assays very rarely need to be sensitive even at the picomolar level (10e-12 M), with micromolar (10e-6) to nanomolar (10e-9) being the most common range.  For our sensitivity to work, the body fluid or blood sample would have to be diluted a billion-fold, more or less, and this was confirmed when I asked a clinical chemist if this project had a future.  I remember her reply as “Absolutely not!”  There is no way to perform this dilution accurately at scale in a clinical laboratory, so the assay design would be useless in clinical chemistry.  This particular quasi-academic start-up company, funded in part by Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from NIH, collapsed soon enough in a scatter of recrimination – a small story undoubtedly repeated hundreds (thousands?) of times since the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. [3]

This brings up another key characteristic of science-adjacent scientism: The clever scientistic solution is often for a problem that does not exist, or does not have to exist.  Around the time we were developing biological assays that were too sensitive to be useful in a clinical laboratory, I attended one of the first international meetings of the nascent community of plant molecular biologists.  The overarching theme of this meeting, which featured the recent Nobel Prize recipient Barbara McClintock, who discovered mobile genetic elements using maize and thus indirectly facilitated modern plant molecular biology, was: “Yes, hybrid maize developed using conventional plant breeding is great, but how can we genetically engineer crop plants to be even better products of and for industrial agriculture?  And get rich in the process, by the way.”  These products came to fruition within a few years.

The most well-known biotech products in industrial agriculture are probably Roundup-Ready [4] commodity crops such as maize, cotton, soybean, and alfalfa.  The rationale for inserting the Agrobacterium gene for glyphosate resistance into these plants was to make “weeds a thing of the past.”  Plant the crop, spray the Roundup, wait for the harvest.  What could go wrong?

As it happened, the engineering of Roundup Ready seeds was a technical tour de force, but yields of Roundup Ready crops are not higher than their non-GMO cognates.  However, the weeds have developed resistance to glyphosate under the unrelenting selection pressure due to overuse of the herbicide on outsized industrial “farms.”  The one undeniable “benefit” of Roundup Ready seeds is that the transnational corporations of Big Ag have made a lot of money, for a technical solution to a problem that does not have to exist and in this case is the result of the category mistake that is industrial agriculture.  This was a large part of the plan all along, and it is not an accident that many of my academic plant molecular biologist friends and acquaintances seemed to have been on the Monsanto (now Bayer) payroll as consultants in the 1980s and 1990s.

Another prime example, which was a major topic of discussion at this international meeting is Golden Rice, even then a project of the International Rice Research Institute.  Golden Rice is intended to alleviate the vitamin A deficiency that has afflicted much of the Global South, largely as a consequence of the Green Revolution.  Golden Rice is another technical masterpiece directed at a problem that should not exist and one that has made little difference in outcomes, so far.  A more effective technical solution to vitamin A deficiency is a two-cent injection of the vitamin itself into those in need (as a fat-soluble vitamin, one dose lasts a long time), rather than a GMO commodity crop producing not vitamin A but its precursor, the beta-carotene of carrots, squash, sweet potato, pumpkin, and greens such as spinach and kale.  A better, traditional, and local diet that includes the latter foods is the real solution to vitamin A deficiency.

This brings us to my primary focus here, which is another recent example of scientism in pursuit of an improved industrial food system.  George Monbiot of The Guardian published Regenesis in 2022.  Having been a sometime reader of Monbiot as a sometime reader of his newspaper, I started reading this one shortly after it was published.  Monbiot is an excellent writer, and he is earnest.  With previous books of his (Out of the Wreckage and How Did We Get into this Mess?) on my shelf, I looked forward to this one.  I did not get very far, however.  The book is a contribution to something called Ecomodernism, which can best be described as a scientistic approach to the proper place of humans in the Anthropocene ecosphere.  In my view Ecomodernism is directly analogous to the Effective Altruism and modern philosophy of William MacAskill and the scientistic cheerleading of recent books like Virtual You.

So I decided to wait, and that wait has been amply rewarded by Chris Smaje in Saying No to a Farm-Free Future (currently on sale direct from the publisher, Chelsea Green).  As Smaje the farmer puts it, Ecomodernism is the “classic package of nuclear power, rewilding, and urbanism in which the people will eat industrially synthesized food” as the next step in the complete industrialization of agriculture and the urbanization of the human population.  Or business as usual.  Creative disruption of our current attenuated but antediluvian attachment to real food, such as we can find it, is the only Ecomodernist pathway to the future.  And a direct way to do this is through “precision fermentation,” for example by the bacterium Cupriavidus nectator, to produce bacterial biomass loaded with protein that is suitable for human consumption, after necessary treatment, of course. [5]

Can this work?  As a technical proposition, yes.  As a solution to our unsustainable food system, probably not.  And not only because it will be difficult to find a latter day Edward Bernays who can convince people that eating powdered bacterial sludge is good for them and their environment as easily as the original Bernays convinced first-wave feminists 100 years ago that smoking would be good for them.  For one thing, the energy requirements for such a massive effort are assumed away, which is standard scientistic operating procedure.  In the coming world that seems to be arriving ahead of schedule, these requirements are likely to be impractical and unsustainable.

The larger problem associated with Regenesis, the subtitle of which is “Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet,” is that it is another technical solution to a problem that does not have to exist.  The problem itself exists as a consequence of the hypergrowth and consolidation of industrial agriculture after World War II.

One go-to source for a basic understanding of industrial agriculture is Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture [link is to the small format reader edition; the large format (11×12) edition is out of print but the photographs are worth a million words]. [6]  Another source is the collected works, fiction and nonfiction, of Wendell Berry, now available from the Library of America.  His poetry is also essential and is in print but has not been collected yet, to my knowledge.

The goal of industrial agriculture is to provide the Global Standard Diet from the Global Standard Farm to the Global Standard Consumer.  This is to be accomplished through the near-complete commoditization of agriculture for the benefit of a few large transnational Big Ag/Ag Chem corporations (e.g., Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Bayer, Corteva, BASF) that control 90% of the global grain trade, two-thirds of the ag-chemical market, and half of the world’s seeds (from a review of Regenesis by Harriet Friedman in NLR; paywall).

But lost as we are in this particular cosmos, we have forgotten that food is fundamentally not a commodity to be traded for the highest price in a rigged world market (few things are, actually).  The Global Standard Diet, Global Standard Farm, and Global Standard Consumer are not valid constructs except in the mind of the industrializer.  The same applies to “urbanization” and “rewilding.”

A primary Ecomodernist thesis is that agriculture takes up too much land.  Well, this is true when the desired object of industrial agriculture is full sections of land (640 acres; one square mile; 2-3 permanent residents) one after another after another, planted farm road-to-farm road in Roundup Ready maize, soybeans, or wheat in the Corn Belt or the Great Plains. This requires inputs of fossil fuel energy, fertilizer (more fossil food feedstocks), and various agricultural chemicals, all from somewhere else and expensive.  After harvest, these commodity crops will be fed to industrialized animals or provided directly to “consumers” [7] in the form of processed food-like substances found in the center aisles of the modern American supermarket…modern “food science” at work.

Meat production is the primary bête noire Ecomodernists.  The animal exemplar of commodity crops is the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) for pigs and chickens and the “feedlots” where the vast majority of yearling cattle are shipped from all over the United States to be “finished” with grain before slaughter, after which the parts will be shipped back to their points of origin.

Yes, this is expensive, whether costs are accounted for or mostly not.  It is also inhumane.  Industrial meat production also depends on the misuse of antibiotics, which has contributed to the surge in antibiotic-resistant bacteria over the past few decades.  Animals do not have to be raised and mistreated in this way.  If they are a natural and essential part of a farm economy, they contribute little to global warming and do not pollute the land and the water where they are raised and where farmers live in community.

Nor is it true that a few billion people the world over can be easily “urbanized,” pushed off the land and into cities where they will work happily at the (once again) unspecified “jobs” that were defined by the late, lamented David Graeber.  Where will they be housed and how will they be provided with energy and clean water?  Assumed away.  The lands left behind by Ecomodernist urbanization will not be “rewilded,”  either.  It is more likely they will be left for the taking by Big Industrial Ag, which is probably the objective, recognized or not.  Ecomodernists assume that the health of rewilded lands will improve after they have been cleansed of people, who seem to be superfluous in the worldview of Ecomodernists.

Not necessarily.  One need only to travel through much of the remnant small-farm country of the Old Northwest (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota; to which I would add much of Kentucky west of the Appalachians) and observe.  Several natural experiments have also shown that people and wildlife will coexist in the ecosphere to their mutual benefit.  For example, Gary Paul Nabhan tells a story of the National Park Service in Southern Arizona where 50+ years ago they bulldozed the home of José Juan of the Tohono O’odham people and churned up the ground with the objective of creating a bird sanctuary absent human inhabitants.  A “noble” sentiment, except the habitat became less heterogeneous as it slowly degraded.  The birds left and the annual seed plants around the pond disappeared.  Which is not to say that people do not destroy the land, intentionally and otherwise.  Of course, we do.  But neither does it mean that we are required to do so, except as cogs in the maladaptive machine that is industrial agriculture.

For agriculture to be productive and conducive to human health and wellbeing it must be as local as possible and focused on providing food and fiber to those within its ecological footprint.  As Eugene Odum put it in one of his successor texts to Fundamentals of Ecology, the only way for cities to thrive is for them to remain connected to the surrounding area that makes them possible.  Cities that are totally disconnected from their surrounding area (Greater Phoenix?) will shrink of necessity as the water dries up and energy becomes limiting.  To repeat Herbert Stein, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”  Industrial agriculture will stop.

The primary argument from Agroecology in Saying No to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods is that we have a choice.

We can “get over ourselves and appreciate that people weren’t necessarily unenlightened prior to the Enlightenment” (or prior to World War II)…we can and must…“reconnect to older philosophies that may be better suited to ideas of limits and steady-state livelihoods (see Herman Daly), something that…others [8]…have begun to explore from quite different standpoints.”

Or we can go the scientistic route in which:

Too many Ecomodernist proposals look like shrill calls for liberal-capitalist governments to ban things and to eliminate rural lifeways on the basis of tendentious evidence, just at the time when rebuilding and supporting these lifeways is called for.  Aside from the unrealistic energy dynamics, the main problem with such proposals is that they replicate exactly the high-energy, high-capital, growth-oriented urban industrialism that generates the problems we are trying to overcome.  Ecomodernist doing-somethingism is really a version of doing-nothingism disguised under some fancy but flawed and superficial technological tricks.  Its chances of overcoming present crises are minimal.

Can we use science?  Of course, we can.  And we must.  But the scientism of Industrial Agriculture, like the scientism of Evidence-Based Medicine, will not solve our problems of right livelihood and human health.

If humans are going to survive, much less thrive in the coming smaller world, we will have to revive the lived experience of a previous smaller world, where the energy we use comes primarily from the sun.  Shocking yes, but we are just about out of technical fixes.  We cannot maintain the status quo in perpetuity, despite the anxieties of the High Neoliberals of the Professional Managerial Class (PMC) who are deathly afraid of the one thing they remember from a mistranslation of Karl Marx: “The idiocy of rural life.”

It is perfectly clear that a change based on agroecology within the local economy (pdf) [9] that balances urban and rural, neither of which can thrive without the other, is our best hope.  This smaller world will provide a better, richer, more human and humane world than the Ecomodernist vision of photovoltaic-powered fermenters producing bacterial paste for our grandchildren to eat while they are warehoused in cheerless, urban, high-rise warrens when not working at their bullshit jobs.  And of course, without the Oxford garden allotment that pleases George Monbiot so much, as it rightly should.


[1] See The Secular Enlightenment by Margaret C. Jacob, Professor of History at UCLA, for a brisk exposition of “how the Enlightenment transformed people’s everyday lives.”

[2] The description is here, long but telling: “Persistent poverty areas (have) a higher disease burden, including cancer, where the health consequences of elevated and continuous levels of poverty over time have not been fully investigated.…Residents living in persistent poverty areas are at an increased risk of cancer due to multiple factors, including…greater environmental toxicity/exposure, food insecurity, treatment-related toxicity, inadequate access to health care, higher smoking rates, and low educational attainment…persistent poverty by itself is detrimental to health and cancer outcomes, structural and institutional-level factors (e.g., residential segregation and racism) further interact with poverty, creating differential effects on health outcomes…(these) factors result in increased cancer incidence, delayed cancer diagnosis and treatment, increased morbidity, treatment-related toxicity, and subsequently lower rates of survival…Currently, there is very limited research in persistent poverty areas that provides evidence on ways to reduce the overall morbidity and mortality of cancer. Therefore, it is important to understand the interrelated/synergistic effects of persistent poverty and other social, economic, and health factors, at the structural and institutional levels, to implement interventions.”  Alternatively, we could just fix the primary sources of poverty and its attendant ills, but science in the abstract or the concrete has no real answer for those, nor will it ever.

[3] The actual effectiveness of the SBIR and the similar STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) programs at NIH is an interesting question to which I do not have an answer.  Yet.

[4] The first sentence of the Abstract of this paper can be ignored because it is not true, but it is the perfect scientistic justification for glyphosate-resistance commodity crops: “The engineering of transgenic crops resistant to the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate has greatly improved agricultural efficiency worldwide.”  No, actually.  But it has made many wonder what Bayer was thinking when it swallowed Monsanto.  Bayer is currently on a winning streak defending itself in Roundup lawsuits, but that is not likely to last (cf. Big Tobacco and in the future the makers of “forever chemicals”).

[5] Studies such as these papers from 2021 and 2022 have shown this to be technically feasible, as a laboratory exercise.  But as noted, bacteria also produce toxins that are not always benign.  The use of yeast grown in fermenters to produce the amino acid tryptophan more than 30 years ago when it was all the rage to use this dietary supplement as a sleep aid caused an “outbreak” of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome because the yeast cells had been tweaked to overproduce tryptophan.  A contaminant in the partially purified tryptophan caused the disease; nearly 40 people died.  Yes, yeasts are our evolutionary cousins, unlike bacteria, but the use of microbes to produce food for human consumption cannot be assumed to be harmless.

[6] From the first page, by Wendell Berry: “A healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among a people soundly established upon the land; it nourishes and safeguards human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace.  The growth of such a culture was once a strong possibility in the farm communities of this country.  We now have only the sad remnants of those communities.  If we allow another generation to pass without doing what is necessary to enhance and embolden the possibility now perishing with them, we will lose it altogether.  And then we will not only invoke calamity – we will deserve it.”

[7] Every time I hear “consumer” I am reminded that consumer has become the neoliberal term for “citizen.”  And that pulmonary tuberculosis was called “consumption.”  Words matter, here, here, and here.

[8] Alasdair MacIntyre, Patrick Deneen, Giorgos Kallis, and Eugene McCarraher.  I have read MacIntyre and have started the books by Deneen and McCarraher, both of which are staring at me as I write this.  Too many books, too little time, but these are all very good.

[9] I was privileged to hear Wendell Berry present this essay for the first time in the summer of 2000.  I still have the notes, and I have yet to find anything in this with which to argue.  The further away the necessity, the less control a community has over its own life.

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  1. Terry Flynn

    Thanks for great piece.

    Scientism, sadly, has become a serious problem in public policy and even in science proper (consider demands for proof via RCT in medical circles even when RCTs would be a methodologically flawed approach). The media has reinforced this tendency with its fealty to authority and dogged enforcement of orthodox opinion, whether well-founded or not.

    I don’t have a good grasp on when this bad tendency really started taking hold.

    Just one (of many in my case) dates, depending upon which “area of patient/human research we are interested in” is circa 2001. This is when I finished my PhD, which sought to (using Fortran since I’d still be doing it now otherwise) simulate the accuracy of methods to analyse efficacy and cost-effectiveness data from cluster RCTs. The area was (like many PhDs) a bit esoteric, but had important real world implications – should you recruit another hospital/school/clinic or get more people from existing ones? The robust answer is the former, but that doesn’t go down well with policy-makers due to practicalities (cost/resources). I sensed the pressure to “give leeway” even then. I left that area when entering my post-doc, feeling that “it was becoming too hard to fight forces rooted in politics and the latest statistical fad”. I admit I’m not massively au fait with current state of affairs but anecdotes etc from people suggest that the poitics have won out.

    1. ChrisRUEcon

      I was going to thank Yves as well for the exact section you quoted here. I always like to drop a link to Ziliak’s and McCloskey’s “The Cult Of Statistical Significance” (via at times like these. It’s a known thing, but we have yet to turn the corner because the ill-advised methods contribute to supporting fallacious ideas popular in economics orthodoxy.

      1. Watt4Bob

        It’s a known thing, but we have yet to turn the corner because the ill-advised methods contribute to supporting fallacious ideas popular in economics orthodoxy.

        The tragedy being there is no one who could make the decision to address the necessity to “turn the corner“, who will be allowed to broach the subject, because their career/paycheck depends on demonstrated belief in those ” fallacious ideas” you mention.

        The belief in those “fallacious ideas” is an iron-clad rule for members of what we’ve been calling the PMC.

        The result is a tremendous momentum in what you or I, and indeed most people understand is clearly the wrong direction.

        As you say, “it’s a known thing” and as Terry Flynn pointed out above, you eventually come to understand there’s no use in fighting the massed forces defending the criminal enterprise that foisted these “fallacious ideas” on us.

        That’s one of the ways we know that those who say they are “Fighting for us” are lying through their teeth.

        1. ChrisRUEcon

          I always say that the key to success here is relegating the “agents of orthodoxy” to “irrelevance” … and that can only be done if we present better alternatives side by side, and have it be so glaringly obvious that the orthodoxy = fallacy = 💩 … once again, I’m hoping to help here. But yes, it’s a tough hill to climb.

          Thanks for your response.

        2. Bryan Steele

          While I certainly agree and understand the sentiment that “there’s no use in fighting the massed forces,” I do argue that making the study of a good-faith postmodern epistemology part of the academic experience would go a long way to preventing this kind of problem, i.e., this is something we’re doing to ourselves.

      2. Jeff Z

        I read that Ziliak/McCloskey piece a while back. It has stuck with me ever since. It may even be more relevant today given the fascination with randomized controlled trials in economics, particularly development economics. And this goes beyond another problem, which is the use of proprietary data which subverts replication in many cases. Thank you for posting the link.

  2. hk

    Great article. In an odd way, the way ecomodernism is supposed to work sounds like another failed social experiment: collectivization, which led to huge human tragedies in USSR and China (if one were to consider Great Leap Forward as a variant of collectivization with more fantastical ideas added).

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      I’ve thought of Ecomodernism as capitalism continuing on with some of Paul’s or Obama’s “hope.” “I got this” is the message from this billionaire (Pritzker)-funded group. You might take that promise with a grain of salt or sulfur since solar geoengineering is part of their package. Maybe that decoupling thing isn’t going all that well.

      But I’m not sure I’ve seen any collectivization involved at all. Could you elaborate?

      1. hk

        I’m talking of collectivization as utopian schemes based on uniformity concocted by elites forced on the masses by fiat, where choice to participate is excluded by definition because the elites’ “solution” has to be the single right answer for all. This is along the line with my other comment here about the obsession with “the” right answer,” provided by Science!(tm), without thought of nuance, context, or skepticism that seems to prevail all too often. Not necessarily thinking of the actual “collectivization,” ie taking property from kulaks and creating collective farms–although the vision of all the people forced into a maga city and fed bioengineered slop does have collective farms like aesthetics.

        1. Arkady Bogdanov

          collectivization. noun [ U ] us/kəˌlek·tə·vəˈzeɪ·ʃən/ politics & government. the organization of all of a country’s production and industry into government ownership and management.

          Hope this helps.

          1. hk

            Yes and no. It can be defined, in practice, a bit more broadly. The underlying economic logic is increasing returns to scale, so the powerful institutions (often government, but not always) enforces the production of all/most goods of certain types to fit the parameters of their own choosing. In a sense, the best succinct summary of collectivization as I see it is the quote attributed to Henry Ford: “You can have a Model T in any color you like, as long as it’s black.” Variety in practices is ruled out–you can’t farm outside the collectives, you can’t refuse the nutrient-rich bactierial gruel, you can’t demand a model T in pink, because they all disrupt the mass production schema. One might add that the “company town” idea, where the corporation actually provided for and policed for conformity of, its employees and their families in all aspects of their lives, even outside work, was a distinctly American practice, if not invention, practiced by corporate titans of late 19th/early 20th centuries–another aspect of “collectivization” as I see it. Now, Soviet collectivization featured heavy involvement of the state and and heavy political/ideological slants because of their historic circumstances but I don’t think state involvement is necessarily required, as long as there’s big disparity in power (and who have the wherewithal to throw capital at the collectivization scheme.)

  3. .Tom

    I’d like to mention three factors that I think are part of the change Yves mentions in the intro.

    The first is increasing specialization, which puts ever greater distance in understanding between specialist and everyone else.

    The second is institutionalization. Most people who can claim to be scientists work for public or private institutions, their status derives (in part) from their attachments to these institutions, and they depend on the attachments. As Jeff Schmidt has explained convincingly, academic freedom in the form of tenure doesn’t mean much since it is only ever given to people who can be trusted to never use it (see Disciplined Minds). And those in the private sector or public but without tenure are under the conformity pressure typical for salaried positions. The institutions themselves compete for the available favors and capital of public and private sponsors and regulators. So an effective top-to-bottom system of control favoring the status quo exists.

    Third is the general lack of proper appreciation of where science stops and everything else in life takes over. Science can help us produce objective information, which is neutral in and of itself. What that information means for us in terms of choices we face in life is a judgement call for whoever is interested/involved. I find that most scientists, engineers and technical specialists don’t understand the distinction very well or at all and believe problems can be solved entirely in the scientific domain. I was inclined to this view for the first 10 or 15 years of my own career (I was schooled in physics and engineering and practice engineering for 35 years so far).

    1. hk

      Perhaps a related phenomenon is the obsession with “right answers,” rather than “factually correct” answers. Allegedly “factually correct” answers come with a lot of caveats and can ultimately be tested against data. “Right answers” are not. When was a kid, my math teachers went by the rule: show your work or your answer is always wrong. This turned out to be a very difficult path to follow in modern environment, especially in areas where the “right” answers are dominated by caveats, assumptions, etc. The short answer should be that we don’t know what “the right answer” is, but we have, well, many hands that the answers depend on (the joke about multihanded economists. Alas, econs seem to have lost that worldview over time.)

      1. JBird4049

        >>>Alas, econs seem to have lost that worldview over time.)

        The reason why there is such a disconnect between reality and what passes as economics, science, education, and much else is that the right answer is always something with getting money instead of the factually accurate answer to a problem, a solution, a question, an expression, or even an explanation; political economy was stripped of the word political when the formula heavy, reality light field of economics was created in the early twentieth century. It was a means of preventing threatening ideas like morality or Marxist analysis from being taught in college and interfering with free market capitalism.

        I believe that once neoliberalism with its valuing of money as the only important indicator of worth became dominant, it forced everyone and everything to be reframed into, not just in relation to money, but reduced to simplistic stupidity. Maybe, it can be seen as a society, even civilizational, monoculture with everything that makes a healthy, resilient civilization cut down and replaced by a fast growing, easy to harvest forest consisting of only a single species of tree.

        The Amazon Jungle as with Redwood forests often have thin nutrient poor soil. The San Francisco Bay Area’s was once covered by Redwoods all along the northern half of the entire Bay with its soil of clay. The complete community of plants including other tree species, fungi, insects, and animals beneath the tall trees of both communities holds onto and recycles everything despite the poor, thin soils and heavy rains that strip the ground of its topsoil. People have looked at these areas with their massive trees and heavy greenery, cut it down, and wonder why their crops are so poor. There is a reason why terra preta was created by the previous Amazonian civilization.

        Extended this to our science and everything else in our civilization. Everything is reduced to the appearance of heavy greenery. That monoculture of easy to plant, and profitably harvested, which is often difficult to maintain and survive because it susceptible to changes in climate, with drought, fires, or parasites. No one is going to say that they don’t want a Redwood forest, but if you ask a timber company what kind of forest it wants to have after it chops down the old growth, it will not be an old growth forest with its massive two thousand years old trees in an extremely complex ecosystem. However, replacing that forest and waiting two thousand years, or sustainably harvesting it is not that profitable.

        Like a light and a blackhole, everything curves towards the money, even if it is not consumed by it. I have to be careful with this because we are a complex civilization, but it seems that greed for money (and power and status) is the major issue.

  4. Irrational

    Excellent post.
    Coupled with Aurelien’s Substack post about the credentialled PMC today, it gives me flashbacks to the book “Aid on the edge of chaos” by Ben Ramalingam, which basically recounts case studies where the World Bank and its peer institutions went into countries and destroyed traditional farming and irrigation methods (Indonesia for instance) in the name of a) science and b) profit. I recommend the book.

    1. truly

      I would also like to couple this article with Doctorow’s article on Technofeudalism. (Posted here at NC recently).
      Under Technofeudalism not only can the oligarchs turn off your harvesting equipment (John Deere or anything else with a chip in it) but they can also, in a sense, turn off your crops. Pay the rent on the intellectual property of a GMO or hybrid or starve.
      In my gardening project I aim to get back to growing more heirloom and less hybrid.
      I really appreciate this article addressing big corporate ag and scientism.

  5. Mangelwurtzel

    Thanks so much, KLG, excellent work. A Small Farm Future by Chris Smaje from 2020 is also well worth a read.

  6. Lils

    Appreciate this piece. I remember being seduced by Monbiot’s book Feral when I was in my teens, it’s taken a while to start seeing through his perspective. It doesn’t help that some of his writing is really quite enjoyable.

  7. Carolinian

    The summer upper of your Harper’s link

    these policies entailed balancing conflicting interests. The closing of a school, for example, meant one thing to a child with nowhere else to go during the day or a parent whose job had been deemed “essential,” and another thing to a teacher living with a vulnerable family member—or for that matter, to a person with no immediate contact with the school system. Discerning the public good amid this array of individual interests is an unmistakably political act—it is, in fact, the political act par excellence.

    Nonetheless, when public officials were challenged on these policies, they routinely insisted that they would not let “politics” dictate their decisions. As President Joe Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki put it in response to a question about the administration’s mask policy, officials would simply “listen to the data, listen to the science.” Data, she said, “doesn’t move at the speed of politics; it moves at the speed of data.” Psaki and other officials who helped justify the government’s approach seemed to ignore the idea that some American communities might have goods that rivaled those heralded by the government in the name of “health.”

    Meanwhile to an unprejudiced observer it’s obvious that for this administration politics controls all their decisions. Harper’s is trying to politely convey that cynical conclusion. But those of us on the sidelines can feel free to conclude that the game is rigged and “scientism”–which used to be called pseudoscience–is the tool doing the rigging. Better to drop out of the debate altogether than to confront certainty in the name of fear. Fear itself is now job one in the national conversation. Take that FDR.

    Anyhow thanks for the discussion which can apply to many areas beyond economics. I’d suggest “gender”–per the Dawkins link this morning–would be one of them.

    1. hk

      Another way of describing “science” vs. “scientism,” in this context, then is that the former allows for a more informed debate about the choices we face; the latter shuts up the debate because “the answer is obvious” and only “science” decides what we do–like Zelensky about all things Ukrainian (at least in terms of the rhetoric: it ain’t us–it’s something else that says we “have to do X” b/c it is “the right answer” beyond any debate.)

  8. Craig Dempsey

    Science seeks to approach the truth. Business seeks to make a profit. Government seeks to get re-elected. Business and government both fund science to further their own goals. Extrapolation and fraud are easy to imagine. If we as a society do not commit to the sanctity of basic research, we will always see an abundance of scientism such as KLG outlines.

    The sad part is, in a world with over 8 billion people, and still growing, we have no clear path back to a Wendell Berry world. For a start, we need to find ways to support real science over against the pretenders. One piece of that probably is finding ways around the problem of overspecialization. For example, in medicine we hear plenty about the sidelining of general practitioners in favor of expensive specialists. The person with broad knowledge is just as important as the person with deep knowledge. Our neoliberal economic system has given us a world where broad knowledge is penalized. Meanwhile, obvious solutions are also often penalized, such as the idea that women should have control over their own reproduction. Forced birthing in an overpopulated world is both cruel and stupid.

    Thank you for an interesting piece. It is making me think!

  9. Petter

    It’s blueberry season here in Norway – the forests are filled with them, and the forests are only fifteen minutes away from anyone living here.
    So where do the blueberries sold in the grocery stores right now come from?
    The Ukraine.
    I am tired, that is clear,

    Because, at certain stage, people have to be tired.

    Of what I am tired, I don’t know:

    It would not serve me at all to know
    Since the tiredness stays just the same.
    Fernando Pessoa

    1. Ignacio

      This is one of all too many examples of ideology-driven bad resource and land management in the supposed Garden that Europe is. Nothing that will be solved (at least in the part that belongs to the EU) with the new bright regulations on land management for sustainability which fall once again in the bad practice of governance through unachievable targets.

  10. ChrisPacific

    I think it’s where science as falsifiable hypothesis transforms into science as appeal to authority. The problem is that all of us are guilty of science as appeal to authority to some degree – we don’t necessarily have time to do the work of critical assessment ourselves, so we rely on the work of others. But I’d like to think we can still critically assess available evidence, check whether results have been verified, and that kind of thing. When you ignore evidence (or worse, reject it) in favor of believing bias-confirming assertions from your expert of choice, you’ve definitely crossed into scientism territory.

    In mathematics we learn that if you can’t clearly explain a result to a layperson from first principles, then it’s suspect. The explanation can be more theoretical than practical, and it might require a good deal of preparation and background learning first, but faced with a hypothetical layperson with unlimited time and curiosity, you should still be able to do it. If you can’t, your chain of logic is shaky. I think the same is true in science.

    Sadly this is rarely the case in practice – communication skills aren’t typically prized all that highly in science, and academic institutions often feature primate-style dominance displays as faculty show off their abstruse and complex theories. A professor once told me that Harvard published a journal which was ‘one of the very few in the world where I’m guaranteed to understand absolutely none of it.’ Believe it or not, this was meant as a compliment and endorsement of Harvard – slightly tongue in cheek, but genuine all the same.

    In practice it’s just as easy to lie with science as it is with statistics, and we should all learn the techniques we need to recognize it – and also to recognize our own tendency to abandon critical thought for what we want to believe.

    1. JW

      Indeed. Science is about creating hypothesis and encouraging everyone to destroy the hypothesis by experimentation. Eventually if it stands up to open and transparent ‘destruction’ it can utilised where possible by technicians, engineers etc.
      ‘Scientism’ is the opposite. It defends its postulations from criticisms and investigation. It closes down anything that argues against its position. It behaves like Aztec priests giving their edicts and expecting, demanding obedience.
      It uses IT/AI to defend its position.

  11. ChrisRUEcon

    > Alternatively, we could just fix the primary sources of poverty and its attendant ills, but science in the abstract or the concrete has no real answer for those, nor will it ever.

    Exactly this. There is a line from the Police song “Driven To Tears” (via YouTube, off of the album “Zenyatta Mondatta”):

    “Too many cameras and not enough food, this is what we’ve seen …”

    So science then – especially data science – as a never ending supply of cameras providing no food to solve the hunger.

    1. Bryan Steele

      Thank you ChrisRUEco, and may I add that there is only one consistent predictor of K-12 academic success, household income.

  12. James T.

    Excellent post with a lot to digest. I think one big problem that I have seen is our inability to consider living a realistic sustainable life by only focusing on continued growth of the economy and our bank accounts. Subsequently, we find no real connection to the world around us and that has devastating effects. One personal experience with industrial processes is comparing the best eggs from the store to mine that come from my own chickens and almost no chemicals. The yolks are so yellow and the flavor is amazing with my eggs.

  13. PlutoniumKun

    Wonderfully written post – this is a very complex topic, breaking it down into such clearly expressed ideas is very impressive.

    One issue I think we’ve seen with over-specialisation is that very smart people can often Dunning-Kruger themselves very quickly when they inadvertently stray outside their area of expertise – very often they are not even aware that they’ve left their own silo. We saw this all the time with Covid with various -ologists getting over their skids. I see it regularly in debates on energy use too – just because you have a PhD in physics does not mean you understand power grid design issues. In complex societal issues we need specialists and we need generalists. We need people who understand data and we need people who understand that data alone doesn’t tell us all we need to know. The trick is getting them talking to each other.

    As for Monbiot – a slight disclaimer here as I met him a few times back in the 1990’s when I was more actively involved in campaigning – I’ve been somewhat baffled by his often paradoxical views on a range of subjects. In some topics he is impressively fact and data driven (he is a very, very smart guy), in others he seems to be all too credulous of technological unicorns. His arguments for nuclear power are very disappointing, they are just a series of unicorns and straw men lined up in a tottering row.

  14. Ignacio

    Thank you KLG. The idea that comes to mind reading your essay is that we are still to close in historical terms to the opiaceous effects of the roaring 50-60s economic and industrial development (in parts of the world only) which brougth and still brings innovations which were unthinkable before though all this came with a cost. Isn’t this the root of the scientist approach as by your essay? Difficult for us to change the chip and think differently about our relationship with the rest of the planet? These are questions for you.

    There is a scientific project I know, financed mostly by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that i believe matches your descriptions on scientism and ecomodernism. This tries to develop, by complex genetic engineering, plants that are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen and wouldn’t thus require nitrogen fertilizers. For me It is very telling the mere fact that this is being supported by such Foundation. Scientism at its best. (Though It is a somehow crazied objective, It is quite posible this project brings insights that would only be achieved trying It, so i am not contrary to the world being done).

  15. podcastkid

    This brings us to my primary focus here, which is another recent example of scientism in pursuit of an improved industrial food system. George Monbiot of The Guardian published Regenesis in 2022. Having been a sometime reader of Monbiot as a sometime reader of his newspaper, I started reading this one shortly after it was published. Monbiot is an excellent writer, and he is earnest. With previous books of his (Out of the Wreckage and How Did We Get into this Mess?) on my shelf, I looked forward to this one. I did not get very far, however. The book is a contribution to something called Ecomodernism, which can best be described as a scientistic approach to the proper place of humans in the Anthropocene ecosphere. In my view Ecomodernism is directly analogous to the Effective Altruism and modern philosophy of William MacAskill and the scientistic cheerleading of recent books like Virtual You.

    So I decided to wait, and that wait has been amply rewarded by Chris Smaje in Saying No to a Farm-Free Future (currently on sale direct from the publisher, Chelsea Green).

    Progressivism is now something an organization bestows on itself by virtue of a “presentation.” The first goal ends up aligned with the greatest status achieved by whatever presentation. There is lots of competition to put on the best, but all the drama doesn’t matter by the time Congress is considering action. At that point it’s not that thing Ellul named…technique…that’s in control. It’s not MOST EFFICIENT METHODS anymore. It’s what ends up most “bipartisan” after a lot of horse trading across the aisle of favorite projects. The Pubs cannot let drama (presentations) with-a-point affect too many minds. And the Dems cannot allow too many to worry over interest due on foreign held bonds…all the while nothing emerges from the duopoly to get the nation more in the black.

    This rundown looks alright for the moment.

    1. podcastkid

      Sometimes it seems now technique’s technique is focused on the most efficient way to send money to the top. Stock buybacks, or if you’re Norfolk Southern you don’t replace tracks till there’s a wreck. But, if you try to follow Congress, you DO witness sort of a dogged (efficient) determination to navigate something. What is it? Rules. Poor ole Matt Taibbi can’t get a word in edgewise while Wasserman-Shultz is packing as much condemnation in her “questions” as a human can. The rhythm of the rules allows for this where it will. And then, when time is donated to Matt, they have to keep track of it to the minute! It’s the same with what’s now classified. You have to march into closed session, and then march right back out. One of the strangest things about technique’s efficiency used to be how you’d replace a president (you might consider exploding cigars), but it’s remarkable now how things have stepped over into a quicksand of code talk and code rituals…all of which appear aimed to prolong the great “performance designed to keep the eyes of the masses away from the inner workings of the machine.”

      There’s a mechanicalness to the navigation. There’s a smartness to it. There’s an efficiency to it. And yet there’s also a gridlockedness to it as the maze is complicated. The feature that now strikes one in the whole thing is the strict PCness in observing myriad rules (even unwritten ones, that insure the “look” of two philosophies each having a say). And, boy, if you don’t have to stop and observe a thousand and one ways the Espionage Act can make something treasonous.

  16. JustTheFacts

    Great article, KLG.

    I think part of our problem is that we don’t have a word for un-wisdom or anti-wisdom: the quality of being the opposite of wise — not just lacking in wisdom but completely oblivious to it. I know many people who suffer from this affliction: however mindbogglingly intelligent they are, one would never call them wise, because they don’t see the larger picture. For instance, I knew someone who was brilliant at math. He was also quite arrogant. He rose rapidly in a (non-US) bank. Not much later, he was judged to have played fast and loose with banking rules, and was sent to prison. I was not remotely surprised. Knowing him, he’d probably think of people’s bank accounts as pawns in a game he could play, not as people’s cherished life savings. It’s a shame — had he remained a mathematician, he might have made some major contributions.

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