Inter Caetera

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The Cult of Science

Published on 19 May 2021

Who, Dear Reader, do you see when I ask you to think of a "simple medieval man"?
Do you see a farmer peasant, who without a word of complaint toils every day in the field, who has been told that one day he has to work in the field of his master? Do you see an infantryman, running into battle with a pike on orders from his lord, ready to die in a minor feudal dispute, expecting his reward to come in the afterlife? Do you see a burgher merchant, travelling in rain with a couple barrels of Bavarian beer to the Imperial Court in Prague, expecting a generous payment?
Perhaps you see one of these, or a similar image. Now, you ask me: what do I see when you ask me to think of a "simple contemporary man"?
I don't think of anyone in particular when I think of a simple contemporary man. But there is one quality, that, in my view, all simple men have these days, and I think it's contemptible.
They all seem to love science.

The future is now

The first time I encountered the cult of science must have been in the early 2010s, the beautiful time when Facebook was just getting popular in my circle of friends. Nobody, really, used the internet much except the biggest nerds (including yours truly) and kids still went out to play football outside every now and again (also including yours truly, even though the 2020 me finds this hard to believe).
As an aside, they don't do that anymore. There were three improvised football pitches outside of my building. Two have been since turned into a car park, the third grew over with tall grass and eventually the goals were removed.
That's when the modern popular science boom started (or at least that was when I was getting conscious enough to notice it). NASA started putting up pictures of distant stars and galaxies for everyone to see. New breakthroughs in medicine and genetics heralded that the defeat of cancer and obesity were just around the corner. Interesting insights into human behaviour were uncovered and available to everyone with internet. And pop-sci pages aggregated all the most interesting things and ensured that you were always, every day, fed new scientific breakthroughs in real time. The future is now. It's happening. You no longer have to pay money for obscure magazines or books, it's interspersed between your friends' drunk party pictures. And you're the first to know, because you really love science.
Of course, we know now, this is all fake. Space is cold and dark and there's nothing there, and the NASA photos are all touched up, coloured, photoshopped, artificial. Cancer still kills you, and from sitting all day scrolling through the Facebook feeds filled with science you got a bad back and arthritis and no amount of pills help. You can't use game theory to predict human behaviour, and you ruined your relationships when you tried to use it. And for some reason, all the pop-sci pages turned political when they realised that people no longer find them that interesting.
What went wrong?

The future was then

This is, of course, nothing new.
Like many terrible things, it started with the terribly named "Enlightenment". There were rationalists before then, of course, but that was (to my best knowledge) the first time reason tried to be applied to the public. The Enlightened did not need God, because with reason and science everything was solved. Everything was illuminated, for we have discovered the Book of the Universe, and we understood its language and characters. The Book of the Universe was "written in mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures ... without which one is wandering in a dark labyrinth."
As we know from history, this is all fake. Look around. Numbers are fake. They don't exist. Likewise, the geometric figures. In nature, does anything have the shape of a perfect circle, or square? And yet, the Enlightened had over 2,500 people guillotined in Paris alone. We saw what turning the society into a scientific experiment brought. And the French needed a truly exceptional man to, at least temporarily, knock these ideas out of their heads and institute a sane system of government at least for a bit.
In the twentieth century, we forgot our lesson once again. In the twentieth century, God was dead. God was dead, we killed him, and there was not enough water in the universe to wash down the rivers of blood. But the cult of science attacked with even stronger force. They proliferated their ideas in society, creating centrally planned economies. They reasoned that there was no reason for men to not be rational, therefore they could predict the future just by applying numbers to a model. Their scientific experiments on the public caused millions to starve, and further thousands to die for criticising them.
Of course, the twentieth century science brought us fantastic inventions. We have telephones, aeroplanes, vaccines, crystal meth. But at what cost? Does it comfort you, Dear Reader, that the price for your Internet is an everlasting threat of complete nuclear destruction at the push of a button?
I hear the simple man's scream: but religious wars killed so many people! Religion is the true source of evil in the world! We ought to get rid of the churches of the world, so that all may finally live in peace under the guidance of science!
Isn't it science and technology which gave us, overgrown monkeys with opposable thumbs, the ability to potentially wipe out millions in seconds?

Driving with sat-nav

Should we now then turn on science? Should we profess that Earth is flat, because we see it that way? Should we burn the universities, turn away from engineering and abandon reason? Should we claim NASA is a conspiratorial psyop?
Much like rationalism should be relegated to where it is applicable, so too should science. Science does not belong in the hands of the everyman. The individual is incapable to understand the implications of what science is, at no fault of his own.
The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal. The world is not as it seems. The world that you see is merely a projection that your brain creates to make sense of it. You create, in your head, a structure of the world as you perceive it, with abstractions and metaphors. You know the world for what it is in a very limited capacity, if at all.
And science is something that exists on the map, not in the territory. It's an abstraction, a generalisation. It's not a book of the universe with numbers and geometric figures. It's a fake.
It's a fake like everything else you are told, read, reason about and experience.
On top of that, while being a part of the map, it also is not something that lends itself to easy explanation. Science, by its very nature, requires above average ability to understand it and use it, it requires a degree rigour of expertise that the average person does not have. To make science popular, one has to rid it of its nuance and make it digestible. Which, again, would be fine, if pop-sci was considered just a form of entertainment and not something used to guide life or, worse, political decisions.
Actually, once you get to the point where science starts to influence politics you get into the dangerous point where you no longer do science for its intended purpose, that is: curiosity, but rather political power and prestige. Once you reach that point, you will get pseudoscientific (after Feynman) disciplines posing as science in order to siphon off some of that prestige — and it will be in nobody's best interest to point this out, because why would anyone want to give up that prestige?
The simple man, of the science-loving type, is like someone driving a car staring at his sat-nav instead of the road, the pedestrians and the traffic signs. He trusts completely that science has solved his life and he can just follow it to the end.

Know the world...

"Why should I not follow science, though? After all, it describes the world!"
Because science will not tell you how to live a virtuous life. It might give you the tools to do it, but more often than not it will present you with an even greater number of tools you can use to ruin your life. Science is not guidance.
Science also is not a description of the world. It doesn't say how things are. If anything, it says how things are not. The scientific method does not confirm truths, but eliminates falsehoods and contradictions if applied well. By generating new hypotheses, iterating with experimentation and finally drawing conclusions it might rule out enough options to say with a degree of certainty that a particular phenomenon is as it seems.
In the words of Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Chapter 24):
Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can't tell you where you ought to go, unless where you ought to go is a continuation of where you were going in the past.
However, yet another hint that science is a part of the map and not the territory is that science works only in specific circumstances. Since the foundation of science is rationalism, and rationalism requires a starting point of certain assumptions or axioms, so too does science. Not only that, but it also requires a reproducible environment to conduct experiments. It requires elimination of variables to provide reproducible experimentation environment.
There are too many variables in real life to make any real use of the popular science you read about on the internet. Economics is not science. Medicine is not (strictly) science. And as a rule of thumb, anything that has to justify itself by having "science" or "studies" attached to it is also not science.
The simple man will eventually be disillusioned by science, when he tries to apply the science he saw on the Internet in real life. He will look into the sky and see that it is black. He will get his blood tested and be told that everything seems fine even though he's been feeling worse every day. He will be unhappy, because he never accomplished anything outside of consuming the pop-sci media. No beauty. No virtue. Just science. That's the plight of the rationalist, the simple man.
It's tragic when you apply science to an individual, because everyone's mind and body is different. It's even worse if you apply it to society (French Revolution), a political system (famines resulting from centrally planed initiatives, totalitarianism), economics (nobody can predict the next stock market crash) or climate (nobody actually knows anything about climate change).

...for what it is

Focusing your life around science is in the same way tragic and unfulfilling as focusing on any other individual thing. We have souls not to be consumed by a single topic, and a single way of thinking. We are humans that ought to apply the best tool for the job at hand. This is the same point I made in my criticism of reason, but this boils down to the same thing.
The thing about rampant scientism that makes it sadder than pursuit of pure reason is that it is completely unfulfilling. It eliminates the beautiful, the philosophical, the mystical and the religious in favour of numbers, vectors, constants and models. All that, gone, except one thing ­– the myth of endless scientific progress and of constant progress. Moving upwards. And what's there at the end of it all?
Heat death of the universe.
Scientism is a grim way with a dead end, but science and technology still permeates our lives, otherwise you would not be reading these words. I would offer one, middle-of-the-road solution to acknowledge that fact, applicable to the simple man: to treat all science that's not been realised as engineering as mythos.
Engineering is tangible science. One that's been sufficiently generalised to be useful. Not once has science influenced anyone's life before it was realised by engineering in real life. It's a filter, a test of metal. Not one that only lets good ideas through, but one that definitively filters the really bad ones.
(Aside: if you are an engineer yourself and it is your job to realise science through engineering, apply this rule of thumb to science that is outside your particular field).
Don't be a simple man. Live for more than just science.