Neil deGrasse Tyson’s script in the 2014 documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, is a relentless defence of science against an always unnamed superstitious barbarism. The vehicle is the explanation of how we came to understand our universe as we do today by scientific investigation standing against shadowy forces of ignorance and ideological zealotry.
It is obvious to me that deGrasse Tyson’s target is American fundamentalism, based and still characteristically allied to the noxious Protestant cult of Puritanism that gives American big tent churches their singular sado-masochistic, nihilistic flavour.
It is not quite so obvious that in reducing this conflict between American Puritanism and science to a binary conflict, half of the Enlightenment heritage is shut out. The half without which science cannot be defended against religionist barbarians: the humanities.
I am old enough to recall the original series narrated by Carl Sagan. I don’t recall now whether he too propgandised science quite so relentlessly, whether my assumption that science is a given in explaining natural phenomena may have been partly formed by influences like Sagan, or whether continental European society has that assumption embedded in its educational system.
However, I do know that instead of watching the cricket over the Christmas break, as is sold to us as a ‘national’ pastime, I watched deGrasse Tyson instead, and came away not with a deeper understanding of the cosmos, but of the ideological schism in the USA, where scientists still have to defend the validity of their profession from a savage Bronze Age barbarism claiming for itself the right to dismiss scientific proofs in order to enforce socio-political authoritarianism.
An American friend, still in shock about the most recent setback in this continuing struggle between civilization and barbarian nihilism, said to me quite recently that it was good to see I could take for granted the inherent superiority of scientific proofs over faith-based beliefs. That might not seem much of a statement, but it is in fact a profound reflection of how delicate is the barrier between Enlightenment era thinking and the abyss of ignorant savagery its adherents sought to replace in the Western world.
More perplexing still, though, is that it explained to me another socio-cultural phenomenon: the insane quest to elevate science to the status of a religion in itself. What I mean by that is the idiocy of people who claim that STEM-based knowledge is the only knowledge by which to explain everything.
This ‘Stemicism’ might be seen as a rallying point for people so intimidated by religionists that they must have the same degree of unquestioning certainty. Like two warring armies rallying around their respective flags, which stand for their respective ideological claims of righteousness and the necessity to eradicate the evil of the opposite side.
There is evidence of similar conflicts in other Western societies, but nowhere near as pronounced as it is in the USA.
The danger in this binary opposition between superstition and science is that when science becomes ideology, it becomes ‘unscience’ and it may well destroy the very thing it needs to succeed against its nemesis: humanist rationality grounded not merely in the sciences, but especially in the understandings and critical faculty that come with a deep immersion in, and appreciation of the liberal arts. All those human endeavours at attaining wisdom which have no scientific proofs, and need none, but which foster the ability to understand human ends as not determined by anything but human motivations. These humanist faculties include the ability to critically analyse what others say, ethics not derived from a priori standards, empathy developed in social realities, integrity that always outstrips any merely legal or ideological demands, and imagination unbound from formulaic systems thinking, as it is embedded in religionism and Stemicism.
All rational people understand the dangers of cults of ignorance demanding the dismantling of civilization.
Not all rational people seem to understand that the same outcome will be achieved if only scientific reasons remain for human ends, which really means that it will be a technocratic tyranny that enslaves people afresh rather than the more traditional flavours of theocratic and ideological totalitarianism.
What’s missing from Cosmos, and from the conceptions of American Stemicists, is an appreciation that to reach for the stars we need more than just the science to do it. We need a humanism that tells us why we want to do it, and why we should not see others who don’t share our goals as enemies to be persecuted. Instead we need the power to convince them not to stand in the way of something that does them no harm. And the Stemicists have been spectacularly unsuccessful in doing just that.