On Sunday night, a man with a mind known to produce nothing but chia seed pudding brought his naturally sweetened mush to millions. By Monday morning, the nation’s print media had reacted to the sham controversy with genuine concern. Pete Evans has been the featured “guest”, by which we mean cross-promotional device, on Seven’s Sunday Night and dozens of commentators asked, how is this man permitted on TV?
Yes. It is shocking that a man who urges so many to forgo their “Western medicine” in favour of, I don’t know, chard and magpie puree, is on TV. It is shocking that a good number appear to accept that an argument against medical profiteering can be made by a man himself so regularly on TV to promote books. It is shocking that there are so many persons on our screens declaring easily debunked falsehood as truth. It is shocking that this no longer matters.
The Australian Medical Association can urge diabetics to shun Evans’ rash advice. Facebook can make its conspicuous stand against the dissemination of fake news. Activists with good intentions can offer evidence every time Pauline Hanson upchucks her latest immigration delusion into the erratic latrine of Australian public “debate”. I venture that none of these very decent efforts will make much of a dent. There appears to be a great public willingness to find new faith, and that this need have no foundation of truth is truly shocking.
So many, it seems, have come down with a case of Fox Mulder and elect to look for a hidden truth out there, rather than those that exist in plain sight. There is a great appetite in our era for miracle Paleo recipes, for “alternative” views on the destruction of the planet’s materials or presidential birth certificates. A common response to all of this is to call such people stupid, Richard Dawkins-style, or perhaps more gently remind them that methodical doubt is humanity’s highest and most dependable achievement.
There are many popular attempts to declare the primacy of science. At times, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson chooses to do it via good programs of public education, and at others, he chooses utter condescension. The broadcaster and “maverick” capitalist Todd Sampson does it by declaring on TV that he is prepared to “risk his life” for reason. It is interesting that Sampson — you know, that guy who is always getting MRIs on the telly to prove some neuroscientific half-bakery about hacking his brain in the service of greater personal success — says in his new program that he has “faith” in science to not kill him. The word “faith” provides a clue, I think, about why such attempts to woo people into the love of Cartesian doubt so regularly fail.
It’s not just a mistake to posit science as the new faith, but also a description of the way most of us non-scientists have thought of it since the Enlightenment. There never was a time since the birth of science that it appeared to the overwhelming majority of us as more than a mystification. It is, of course, the destiny of a specialist knowledge to be understood only by specialists. It was also our Western cultural destiny to mourn the death of god for a really long time.
You don’t just say, as the Enlightenment thinkers did, “well, we used to believe in supernatural law, but now we all believe in natural law” and expect all of us to catch up inside 400 years. Especially not when science itself has been corrupted, but not by the simple business means that Paleo Pete believes. Science — necessarily and historically a mystified matter — has been so often applied when it doesn’t belong, the “faith” in it has been diminished for many people who are not named Todd.
I don’t mean to pick on Sampson, but his ongoing and unquestioning devotion to the quasi-discipline of neuroscience makes it easy. That dark art, so popular with TED-talkers and so unpopular with neurologists, can illuminate for us the nature of the emerged anti-science and anti-truth. When there are so many arts graduates in lab coats on TV saying, “Look! The brain chemistry is changing itself which proves whatever I say it does”, you might begin to forgive the many who suspect that science is little more than a substitute for people who miss god.
Of course, the confusion of true science with scientism is wrong. But this doesn’t mean the misapprehension can’t be understood. Why shouldn’t people have begun to despise scientists along with technocrats, traditional party politicians and scientistic charlatans when the latter group adopts the mien and misappropriates the method of the former?
It is not too hard to figure out that speech by our leaders and experts is so often less evidence-based policy than it is policy-based evidence. It is, I think, especially easy to see past the claims of economists, who never had any business declaring themselves scientific but continue to wear the garb nonetheless.
This isn’t just a poke at classical economics, by the way. The worst economic misdeeds of the Soviet Union were also performed in the name of pure reason. But scientific socialism at least had the decency to die. What remains is a very science-y sounding liberalism, which keeps declaring its own failed experiment a success.
More than Todd Sampson, and more than Richard Dawkins, even on an especially grumpy and child-hating day, we can blame the dwindling of respect for scientific reason on the technocrats. These are the people who employ the language of reason to deny what we can feel daily and most keenly with our senses. These are the people who say that unemployment is at a manageable level, that wages are fair and that what the market gives us is not a crisis of housing affordability, but an opportunity for great capital growth and rental yield. The liberal experiment has never failed, say the technocrats. The only reason that your kid will never leave home or use that vocational degree that had become redundant by their third year of study is the variable of avocado on toast.
Belief in natural law is difficult enough for everyday people. Belief in the statements of those who usurp its language was, eventually, going to become impossible. When everybody is talking like an expert, it becomes impossible to sort the true specialist from the self-deluded technocrat who wants to assure you that if the conditions of your life are not ascending along with GDP, it’s all your unscientific fault.
In short, our leaders are full of unthinkable scientistic shit, which sadly serves to taint true reason, such as climate science. It serves also to elevate a Hanson or an Evans, who are full of more shit, but say the one thing you suspected all along: the other guys are telling lies. Which is, more often than not, a truth. All of which explains the very wide taste for that horrid Paleo pudding.