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.  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.”  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. 
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  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. 
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].  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”  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 …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)  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.
 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.”
 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.
 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.
 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”).
 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.
 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.”
 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.
 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.
 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.