As an undergraduate, I took a political science class called “Ideas and Ideologies” that had a significant impact on me, and still does to this day. I was interested in politics then, much more so than I am now, so it was fascinating to see the raw material laid out in one huge schematic — a circuit diagram connecting the mechanisms of liberalism, conservatism, socialism, fascism, feminism, environmentalism, anarchism, and their derivates like libertarianism, communism, and fundamentalism.
It was an upper division honors colloquium and so not an easy class. There was an English-crap-tonne of reading, including works with some really obtuse language like Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) and Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), the founding document of conservatism. And it was all very serious.
There was no classroom. We sat in high-backed chairs around a long table inside the conference room of the Carl Albert Congressional Research Center.
There were no lectures. We were expected to have done the reading and to show up prepared for 90 minutes of heavy but moderated discussion. (Our professor did an excellent job of masking his own beliefs. By the end of the term, we still had no idea.)
There were no tests. Our grade came entirely from our contributions in class and a series of papers, including a big fat one at the end.
One of the assignments was pure genius, so much so that I used it with my own students during my very brief teaching career (a temporary second job the year after I quit med school) — a “news tasting”, a cross-sectional analysis similar to how vintners will successively taste multiple wines of the same varietal in the same crop-year so as to appreciate subtle (or not-so-subtle) differences. Here, we had to pick a current event and report on the coverage of that event using at least five different sources, although we were all overachievers in that class, including a minimum of two in each medium, broadcast and print.
It was eye-opening. Some of the differences were obvious of course. NBC didn’t have a very strong political bias but they were very sensational. They used language that subtly increased tension, at least compared to other sources, and would occasionally fail to mention a highly likely outcome in order to extend the “drama” and get you to tune in one more night.
But simply watching back-to-back news coverage is easy. The real value of the exercise came from the paper we had to write and defend in class. It required us to apply what we had learned about the various ideologies to craft a “meta-level” theoretical framework. I was in the middle of my History of Science education at the time — the following year I did my senior thesis in the field — and as I peeled back the news to reveal the ideology, I realized you could keep peeling. To the scientism underneath every single one.
Scientism is the belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and that the human-constructed edifice of science constitutes the most authoritative worldview, or simply the most valuable part of human learning, to the exclusion of other viewpoints.
Most people stiffen a little at that definition. I think to them it implies that relativism is true, or weakly that science is just another point of view the same as any other superstition. But that definition is actually a scientific one in that it presumes no answer, even that there’s anything special about science.
Most people are not scientists, yet scientism — the belief that science is the best or only path — is the unifying factor of every modern ideology. Even Christian fundamentalist thought-leaders will tell you there are coldly rational reasons for what they believe, same as any liberal or conservative.
The point is not whether that’s true. There will always be squabbles over orthodoxy, over who practices the One True Faith and who should die a heretic. The point is, when John Locke set out to justify the English revolution, and so founded liberalism, the first modern ideology, he did so with some very specific inventions that had already become popular with the educated elite (far less so with regular folks) and on the belief that the rational reorganization of the world would lead to human happiness.
I’ve said before that liberalism orients its Golden Age in the future, whereas Conservatism puts it in the past, and both alienate you from your authentic present. It is a point wonderfully made in C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image, his final printed lecture series in which he describes the medieval world view, the one we threw away. He is up-front that he preferred the old way and that, as he said, his Faith makes sense of his Reason and not the other way around.
Almost no one believes that anymore. And in that regard, scientism is the religion of our era, our founding myth, for even fundamentalists put the need for rational proof ahead of faith in God. (Faith, by definition, requires no such justification.)
I’m not suggesting science is wrong, just that scientism is. Science is wonderful, but like any human creation, it has its flaws. More importantly, it has its limits, distant though they be.
In the time of terrorisms, it is often supposed that science and religion are at odds, and that in fighting the fundamentalisms of the world, what we need is “MOAR SCIENCE!” It is the battle cry of scientism, of an orthodoxy fighting a heretical sect of the same religion. But consider this. “Controversial” theories like evolution are already well-established, and if any collection of scientific facts were going to sway some people, it would have happened already. I predict throwing MOAR SCIENCE! at them isn’t going to change a god-damned thing.
What we need now is more humanity. And that is something different.