Recently I’ve been reacquainting myself with the stories of Clark Ashton Smith. Though he’s largely forgotten today, Smith was one of the leading lights of Weird Tales magazine during its 1930s golden age, ranking with H.P Lovecraft and Robert Howard as a craftsman of fantasy fiction. Like Lovecraft, Howard, and most of the other authors in the Weird Tales stable, Smith was an outsider; he spent his life in a small town in rural California; he was roundly ignored by the literary scene of his day, and returned the favor with gusto. With the twilight of the pulps, Smith’s work was consigned to the dustbin of literary history. It was revived briefly during the fantasy boom of the 1970, only to sink from sight again when the fantasy genre drowned in a swamp of faux-medieval clichés thereafter.
There’s no shortage of reasons to give Smith another look today, starting with his mastery of image and atmosphere and the wry humor that shaped the best of his mature work. Still, that’s a theme for another time, and possibly another forum. The theme that’s relevant to this blog is woven into one of Smith’s classic stories, The Dark Age. First published in 1938, it’s among the earliest science fiction stories I know of that revolves around an organized attempt to preserve modern science through a future age of barbarism.
The story’s worth reading in its own right, so I won’t hand out spoilers here. Still, I don’t think it will give away anything crucial to mention that one of the mainsprings of the story is the inability of the story’s scientists to find or make common ground with the neo-barbarian hill tribes around them. That aspect of the story has been much on my mind of late. Despite the rockets and rayguns that provide so much of its local color, science fiction is always about the present, which it displays in an unfamiliar light by showing a view from outside, from the distant perspective of an imaginary future.
That’s certainly true of Smith’s tale, which drew much of its force at the time of its composition from the widening chasm between the sciences and the rest of human culture that C.P. Snow discussed two decades later in his famous work “The Two Cultures.” That chasm has opened up a good deal further since Smith’s time, and its impact on the future deserves discussion here, not least because it’s starting to come into sight even through the myopic lenses of today’s popular culture.
I’m thinking here, for example, of a recent blog post by Scott Adams, the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip. There’s a certain poetic justice in seeing popular culture’s acknowledged expert on organizational failure skewer one of contemporary science’s more embarrassing habits, but there’s more to the spectacle than a Dilbertesque joke. As Adams points out, there’s an extreme mismatch between the way that science works and the way that scientists expect their claims to be received by the general public. Within the community of researchers, the conclusions of the moment are, at least in theory, open to constant challenge—but only from within the scientific community.
The general public is not invited to take part in those challenges. Quite the contrary, it’s supposed to treat the latest authoritative pronouncement as truth pure and simple, even when that contradicts the authoritative pronouncements of six months before. Now of course there are reasons why scientists might not want to field a constant stream of suggestions and challenges from people who don’t have training in relevant disciplines, but the fact remains that expecting people to blindly accept whatever scientists say about nutrition, when scientific opinion on that subject has been whirling around like a weathercock for decades now, is not a strategy with a long shelf life. Sooner or later people start asking why they should take the latest authoritative pronouncement seriously, when so many others landed in the trash can of discarded opinions a few years further on.
There’s another, darker reason why such questions are increasingly common just now. I’m thinking here of the recent revelation that the British scientists tasked by the government with making dietary recommendations have been taking payola of various kinds from the sugar industry. That’s hardly a new thing these days. Especially but not only in those branches of science concerned with medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition, the prostitution of the scientific process by business interests has become an open scandal. When a scientist gets behind a podium and makes a statement about the safety or efficacy of a drug, a medical treatment, or what have you, the first question asked by an ever-increasing number of people outside the scientific community these days is “Who’s paying him?”
It would be bad enough if that question was being asked because of scurrilous rumors or hostile propaganda. Unfortunately, it’s being asked because there’s nothing particularly unusual about the behavior of the British scientists mentioned above. These days, in any field where science comes into contact with serious money, scientific studies are increasingly just another dimension of marketing. From influential researchers being paid to put their names on dubious studies to give them unearned credibility to the systematic concealment of “outlying” data that doesn’t support the claims made for this or that lucrative product, the corruption of science is an ongoing reality, and one that existing safeguards within the scientific community are not effectively countering.
Scientists have by and large treated the collapse in scientific ethics as an internal matter. That’s a lethal mistake, because the view that matters here is the view from outside. What looks to insiders like a manageable problem that will sort itself out in time, looks from outside the laboratory and the faculty lounge like institutionalized corruption on the part of a self-proclaimed elite whose members cover for each other and are accountable to no one. It doesn’t matter, by the way, how inaccurate that view is in specific cases, how many honest men and women are laboring at lab benches, or how overwhelming the pressure to monetize research that’s brought to bear on scientists by university administrations and corporate sponsors: none of that finds its way into the view from outside, and in the long run, the view from outside is the one that counts..
The corruption of science by self-interest is an old story, and unfortunately it’s most intense in those fields where science impacts the lives of nonscientists most directly: yes, those would be medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition. I mentioned in an earlier blog post here a friend whose lifelong asthma, which landed her in the hospital repeatedly and nearly killed her twice, was cured at once by removing a common allergen from her diet. Mentioning this to her physician led to the discovery that he’d known about the allergy issue all along, but as he explained, “We prefer to medicate for that.” Understandably so, as a patient who’s cured of an ailment is a good deal less lucrative for the doctor than one who has to keep on receiving regular treatments and prescriptions—but as a result of that interaction among others, the friend in question has lost most of what respect she once had for mainstream medicine, and is now learning herbalism to meet her health care needs.
It’s an increasingly common story these days, and I could add plenty of other accounts here. The point I want to make, though, is that it’s painfully obvious that the physician who preferred to medicate never thought about the view from outside. I have no way of knowing what combination of external pressures and personal failings led him to conceal a less costly cure from my friend, and keep her on expensive and ineffective drugs with a gallery of noxious side effects instead, but from outside the walls of the office, it certainly looked like a callous betrayal of whatever ethics the medical profession might still have left—and again, the view from outside is the one that counts.
It counts because institutional science only has the authority and prestige it possesses today because enough of those outside the scientific community accept its claim to speak the truth about nature. Not that many years ago, all things considered, scientists didn’t have the authority or the prestige, and no law of nature or of society guarantees that they’ll keep either one indefinitely. Every doctor who would rather medicate than cure, every researcher who treats conflicts of interest as just another detail of business as usual, every scientist who insists in angry tones that nobody without a Ph.D. in this or that discipline is entitled to ask why this week’s pronouncement should be taken any more seriously than the one it just disproved—and let’s not even talk about the increasing, and increasingly public, problem of overt scientific fraud in the pharmaceutical field among others—is hastening the day when modern science is taken no more seriously by the general public than, say, academic philosophy is today.
That day may not be all that far away. That’s the message that should be read, and is far too rarely read, in the accelerating emergence of countercultures that reject the authority of science in one field. As a recent and thoughtful essay in Slate pointed out, that crisis of authority is what gives credibility to such movements as climate denialists and “anti-vaxxers” (the growing number of parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated). A good many any people these days, when the official voices of the scientific community say this or that, respond by asking “Why should we believe you?”—and too many of them don’t get a straightforward answer that addresses their concerns.
A bit of personal experience from a different field may be relevant here. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I lived in Seattle, I put a fair amount of time into collecting local folklore concerning ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. I wasn’t doing this out of any particular belief, or for that matter any particular unbelief; I was seeking a sense of the mythic terrain of the Puget Sound region, the landscapes of belief and imagination that emerged from the experiences of people on the land, with an eye toward the career writing fiction that I then hoped to launch. While I was doing this research, when something paranormal was reported anywhere in the region, I generally got to hear about it fairly quickly, and in the process I got to watch a remarkable sequence of events that repeated itself like a broken record in more cases than I can count.
Whether the phenomenon that was witnessed was an unusual light in the sky, a seven-foot-tall hairy biped in the woods, a visit from a relative who happened to be dead at the time, or what have you, two things followed promptly once the witness went public. The first was the arrival of a self-proclaimed skeptic, usually a member of CSICOP (the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), who treated the witness with scorn and condescension, made dogmatic claims about what must have happened, and responded to any disagreement with bullying and verbal abuse. The other thing that followed was the arrival of an investigator from one of the local paranormal-research organizations, who was invariably friendly and supportive, listened closely to the account of the witness, and took the incident seriously. I’ll let you guess which of the proposed explanations the witness usually ended up embracing, not to mention which organization he or she often joined.
The same process on a larger and far more dangerous scale is shaping attitudes toward science across a wide and growing sector of American society. Notice that unlike climate denialism, the anti-vaxxer movement isn’t powered by billions of dollars of grant money, but it’s getting increasing traction. The reason is as simple as it is painful: parents are asking physicians and scientists, “How do I know this substance you want to put into my child is safe?”—and the answers they’re getting are not providing them with the reassurance they need.
It’s probably necessary here to point out that I’m no fan of the anti-vaxxer movement. Since epidemic diseases are likely to play a massive role in the future ahead of us, I’ve looked into anti-vaxxer arguments with some care, and they don’t convince me at all. It’s clear from the evidence that vaccines do far more often than not provide protection against dangerous diseases; while some children are harmed by the side effects of vaccination, that’s true of every medical procedure, and the toll from side effects is orders of magnitude smaller than the annual burden of deaths from these same diseases in the pre-vaccination era.
Nor does the anti-vaxxer claim that vaccines cause autism hold water. (I have Aspergers syndrome, so the subject’s of some personal interest to me.) The epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders simply doesn’t support that claim; to my educated-layperson’s eyes, at least, it matches that of an autoimmune disease instead, complete with the rapid increase in prevalence in recent years. The hypothesis I’d be investigating now, if I’d gone into biomedical science rather than the history of ideas, is that autism spectrum disorders are sequelae of an autoimmune disease that strikes in infancy or early childhood, and causes damage to any of a variety of regions in the central nervous system—thus the baffling diversity of neurological deficits found in those of us on the autism spectrum.
Whether that’s true or not will have to be left to trained researchers. The point that I want to make here is that I don’t share the beliefs that drive the anti-vaxxer movement. Similarly, I’m sufficiently familiar with the laws of thermodynamics and the chemistry of the atmosphere to know that when the climate denialists insist that dumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere can’t change its capacity to retain heat, they’re smoking their shorts. I’ve retained enough of a childhood interest in paleontology, and studied enough of biology and genetics since then, to be able to follow the debates between evolutionary biology and so-called “creation science,” and I’m solidly on Darwin’s side of the bleachers. I could go on; I have my doubts about a few corners of contemporary scientific theory, but then so do plenty of scientists.
That is to say, I don’t agree with the anti-vaxxers, the climate denialists, the creationists, or their equivalents, but I think I understand why they’ve rejected the authority of science, and it’s not because they’re ignorant cretins, much as though the proponents and propagandists of science would like to claim that. It’s because they’ve seen far too much of the view from outside. Parents who encounter a medical industry that would rather medicate than heal are more likely to listen to anti-vaxxers; Americans who watch climate change activists demand that the rest of the world cut its carbon footprint, while the activists themselves get to keep cozy middle-class lifestyles, are more likely to believe that global warming is a politically motivated hoax; Christians who see atheists using evolution as a stalking horse for their ideology are more likely to turn to creation science—and all three, and others, are not going to listen to scientists who insist that they’re wrong, until and unless the scientists stop and take a good hard look at how they and their proclamations look when viewed from outside.
I’m far from sure that anybody in the scientific community is willing to take that hard look. It’s possible; these days, even committed atheists are starting to notice that whenever Richard Dawkins opens his mouth, twenty people who were considering atheism decide to give God a second chance. The arrogant bullying that used to be standard practice among the self-proclaimed skeptics and “angry atheists” has taken on a sullen and defensive tone recently, as though it’s started to sink in that yelling abuse at people who disagree with you might not be the best way to win their hearts and minds. Still, for that same act of reflection to get any traction in the scientific community, a great many people in that community are going to have to rethink the way they handle dealing with the public, especially when science, technology, and medicine cause harm. That, in turn, is only going to happen if enough of today’s scientists remember the importance of the view from outside.
In the light of the other issues I’ve tried to discuss over the years in this blog, that view has another dimension, and it’s a considerably harsher one. Among the outsiders whose opinion of contemporary science matters most are some that haven’t been born yet: our descendants, who will inhabit a world shaped by science and the technologies that have resulted from scientific research. It’s still popular to insist that their world will be a Star Trek fantasy of limitlessness splashed across the galaxy, but I think most people are starting to realize just how unlikely that future actually is.
Instead, the most likely futures for our descendants are those in which the burdens left behind by today’s science and technology are much more significant than the benefits. Those most likely futures will be battered by unstable climate and rising oceans due to anthropogenic climate change, stripped of most of its topsoil, natural resources, and ecosystems, strewn with the radioactive and chemical trash that our era produced in such abundance and couldn’t be bothered to store safely—and most of today’s advanced technologies have long since rusted into uselessness, because the cheap abundant energy and other nonrenewable resources that were needed to keep them running all got used up in our time.
People living in such a future aren’t likely to remember that a modest number of scientists signed petitions and wrote position papers protesting some of these things. They’re even less likely to recall the utopian daydreams of perpetual progress and limitless abundance that encouraged so many other people in the scientific community to tell themselves that these things didn’t really matter—and if by chance they do remember those daydreams, their reaction to them won’t be pretty. That science today, like every other human institution in every age, combines high ideals and petty motives in the usual proportions will not matter to them in the least.
Unless something changes sharply very soon, their view from outside may well see modern science—all of it, from the first gray dawn of the scientific revolution straight through to the flamelit midnight when the last laboratory was sacked and burned by a furious mob—as a wicked dabbling in accursed powers that eventually brought down just retribution upon a corrupt and arrogant age. So long as the proponents and propagandists of science ignore the view from outside, and blind themselves to the ways that their own defense of science is feeding the forces that are rising against it, the bleak conclusion of the Clark Ashton Smith story cited at the beginning of this post may yet turn out to be far more prophetic than the comfortable fantasies of perpetual scientific advancement cherished by so many people today.
On a less bleak but not wholly unrelated subject, I’m pleased to announce that my forthcoming book After Progress is rolling off the printing press as I write this. There were a few production delays, and so it’ll be next month before orders from the publisher start being shipped; the upside to this is that the book can still be purchased for 20% off the cover price. I’m pretty sure that this book will offend people straight across the spectrum of acceptable opinion in today’s industrial society, so get your copy now, pop some popcorn, and get ready to enjoy the show.