The se­cret of ev­ery Eden

Any utopia, whether founded on rea­son or faith, con­tains the seeds of dystopia within

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS -

Any utopia, whether founded on rea­son or faith, con­tains the seeds of dystopia within

LAST MONTH, Neil de Grasse Tyson, a pop­u­lar as­tro­physi­cist, sent out this con­tro­ver­sial tweet: “Earth needs a vir­tual coun­try: ra­tio­na­lia, with a one-line Con­sti­tu­tion: all pol­icy shall be based on the weight of ev­i­dence.” In other words, he was ask­ing us to re­place our world based on faith, in­stinct or in­tu­ition with one based on sci­en­tific rea­son. Tyson pre­sum­ably be­lieves such a world is likely to be less vi­o­lent, or more ef­fi­cient, or more pros­per­ous.

His tweet trig­gered a sharp back­lash from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, ridi­cul­ing his ra­tio­na­lia as yet an­other illustration of the naïveté and ar­ro­gance of sci­en­tism— the be­lief that science is not merely a method for ap­pre­hend­ing ma­te­rial re­al­ity, but ar­guably the most re­li­able guide to mak­ing the world a bet­ter place.

Ap­plaud­ing his tweet, big­think. com posted a video, where Tyson ex­pands on his ra­tio­na­lia project idea. He ar­gues that as there are many be­lief sys­tems in the world, “it’s un­sta­ble to build a gov­ern­ment on a be­lief sys­tem. What you want are ob­jec­tively ver­i­fi­able truths around which we can all agree. That’s what you build your eco­nomic sys­tem on, your gov­ern­ment sys­tem. Once you have that, then you can go forth to your mosques, your churches.”

No doubt science has been in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful in de­scrib­ing the phys­i­cal world through univer­sal laws. But to claim that the same in­ves­tiga­tive and in­ter­pre­tive tools are our best bet in nav­i­gat­ing the hope­lessly messy world of hu­man af­fairs—as Tyson does—smacks of hubris. In fact, if we leave aside physics and chem­istry, science has a mis­er­able record ar­riv­ing at “ob­jec­tively ver­i­fi­able truths” in com­plex sys­tems like hu­man be­hav­iour, ecol­ogy, or the tan­gled web be­tween genes and en­vi­ron­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2005 study, most pub­lished re­search find­ings, es­pe­cially in medicine and psy­chol­ogy, are false. A re­port pub­lished in Na­ture in May this year found that more than 70 per cent of re­searchers couldn’t re­pro­duce an­other sci­en­tist’s ex­per­i­ments, and more than half failed to re­pro­duce their own.

When the ev­i­dence it­self is so shaky and un­re­li­able, how does one even be­gin to weigh it, let alone de­sign poli­cies based on them? This is per­haps the great­est dan­ger of liv­ing in a world ruled by tech­nocrats or ex­perts. Af­ter all, they are hu­mans like us first, with all the prej­u­dices and foibles they so of­ten self-righ­teously ridicule in oth­ers, and their Janus-faced ra­tio­nal­ity is of­ten guilty of ped­dling harm­ful ideas based on flawed ev­i­dence. Re­mem­ber the eu­gen­ics move­ment, or the treat­ment of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity with hor­monal in­jec­tions, or the Ch­er­nobyl and Bhopal dis­as­ters? But then aren’t all sci­en­tific truths pro­vi­sional, con­tin­gent, sci­en­tists might re­tort, on new ev­i­dence that al­lows us to amend or even junk old ideas? True, but isn’t that pre­cisely why hu­man in­tu­ition, pol­i­tics, and val­ues must nec­es­sar­ily trump “ev­i­dence”?

Tyson is not the first to fetishize rea­son as the or­gan­is­ing prin­ci­ple of an imag­ined new world. Fran­cis Ba­con con­ceived of a sim­i­lar utopia in his un­fin­ished novel New At­lantis as far back as 1627. In the 20th cen­tury, we had sci­en­tific Marx­ism, Hitler’s Third Re­ich ex­per­i­ment, and to some ex­tent, the con­tin­u­ing mod­erni­sa­tion project of cap­i­tal­ism. And we all know how these in­tel­lec­tual fan­tasies turned into night­mares for a large num­ber of peo­ple.

But we haven’t learnt our lessons from his­tory as we are in the thrall of sci­en­tific pro­fes­sion­als more than ever be­fore. Some sci­en­tists sug­gest it’s high time we stopped leav­ing it to the ex­perts to tell us if some­thing’s safe or not. We must make that de­ci­sion our­selves. As the Ger­man so­ci­ol­o­gist Ul­rich Beck so pre­sciently warned us: “Nei­ther science, nor the pol­i­tics in power, nor the mass me­dia, nor busi­ness, nor the law nor even the mil­i­tary are in a po­si­tion to de­fine or con­trol risks ra­tio­nally.” Fi­nally any utopia, whether it is founded on rea­son or faith, or any other idea, con­tains the seeds of dystopia within. Tyson’s imag­i­nary Re­pub­lic of Rea­son is one of them. It won’t suc­ceed. In­stead, we might do well to cre­ate more of what French philoso­pher Michel Fou­cault called het­ero­topias, spa­ces that in­ter­ro­gate and dis­rupt the re­pres­sive and au­thor­i­tar­ian el­e­ments of utopia.

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