Tattooed Cockney podcaster Russell Brand said it best: “If science and progress are the solution to all our problems, then it’s important that pharmaceutical companies and science more generally can be presented as the solution to the problem of coronavirus. If science caused coronavirus by ‘gain of function’ experimentation – [singing] meddling in the Lord’s domain – then our whole cultural narrative of science and progress as the driving force for all human endeavour, that starts to collapse and fall apart.”

With Big Pharma directors on the boards of mainstream media outlets and spending US$6 billion yearly on advertising, Brand continues, “If they’ve been lying to us about that, what else are they lying to us about?”

In fairness, what’s playing out today in the mass media, global bureaucracies and equities markets has little to do with real science – even if state-sponsored science started it all.

Western science was birthed in the 13th century by Oxford Franciscans Robert Grosseteste, Magister Experimentorum Peter of Maricourt, and their visionary student Roger Bacon. Bacon foresaw science as an independent, corporate enterprise –  necessarily protected by the Church from rapacious princes. Real science continued to be nurtured into the 20th century by theists like Maxwell, Pasteur, Mendel, Kelvin, the Curies, the Big Bang’s Lemaitre, Gödel, Heisenberg, the list goes on. And despite its recent research scandals, real science keeps ticking along today, on a life-support commitment to transcendent truth.

Cultural insurgents

In the 17th century, however, following the Reformation, atheist visionaries founded a new faith, “progressive Scientism,” seeking to displace Christianity as the faith of the new West – and cheerfully embracing the rapacious princes. Edmund Burke called them “the New Epicureans… active, designing, turbulent and seditious.”

Scientism’s prophets – Francis Bacon, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire – never confessed their duplicitous materialism, so their successors fashioned a workable, courteous coalition with charitable Christian colleagues in the Royal Society, Scottish Rite Freemasonry and American Founding.

But practical scepticism – their persistent assertion that “the only true knowledge is mathematical” – slowly leached into the culture, sucking public credibility from any transcendent faith. Scientism’s authority grew with real science’s discovery of new tools, drugs and toys, until finally, the materialists expelled Christians from their consort with princes. Now, just as astronomy sanctified Babylon’s priest-kings and temple guards, Scientism is the established church of the Bureaucratic West.

Scientism’s original promise (in Francis Bacon’s words) was the endless discovery of “new grains, nuts and fruits” as our future bliss – the magnification of “man’s power over nature” fulfilling all our needs and hallowing lives of leisure.

But for Scientism’s ambitious prophets, technological progress became a two-edged sword. However much public reverence they garnered from the new toys, tools and drugs (the Progressive Era), their mechanical triumph over Necessity increasingly freed working people, the independent middle class, from political control. What’s more, freed from Necessity and spiritually stunted by materialist scepticism, the middle class grew increasingly nostalgic for purpose and prone to the anxiety of anomie.

We grew itchy with the possibility that “new grains, nuts and fruits” aren’t enough in life.

The emergence of ‘fauxtastrophes’

Scientism’s new back-passage behind the throne required their re-imposing Necessity on working people. So, real science aside, its prophets began creating “fauxtastrophes,” cosmic pseudo-calamities that would satisfy our irrepressible hunger for transcendence – the natural expectation of divine retribution – and affirm our dependence on their priestly caste. The first two efforts in the Sixties were the Population Bomb and New Ice Age. Both were “undeniable settled-science,” but only the Population Bomb had “legs,” capable of generating political license and authoritarian programs.

In the Sixties, biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted global starvation and economic collapse in the Seventies. By the Eighties, more people were healthier and better fed than ever before in history, due to our growing population, infrastructure and trade. As real scientists predicted, Ehrlich was diametrically wrong. Nonetheless, the Population Bomb dominated the media and licensed coercive public population control programs through Asia, Africa and Latin America. And it still awards moral superiority to the West’s decadent infertility. In mid-2021, 40 years after Ehrlich’s fauxtastrophe proved false, the New York Times finally discovered the real issues of global depopulation and ageing. So like the New Ice Age, this fauxtastrophe may now fade.

In defence to real scientists:  when their ambitious colleagues assume the vestments of public policy, they cease to do science, in pursuit of promotion as authoritarian “settled-scientists.” They become agents of the ubiquitous bureaucracy. Real science is an enterprise of intuitive hypotheses, falsifiable predictions and unexpected aberrations, progressing in a succession of honest failures. Science is open.

Bureaucracy, on the other hand, is an edifice of universal regulation, rigid categories, blinkered precautions and tick-box protocols. Bureaucracy is closed. Protocols forbid discernment. Bureaucratic physicians, once inquisitive diagnosticians, become treatment protocol managers. Bureaucratic social workers abuse families with child protection protocols. Bureaucratic anxiety and ambition ritualize protocols, and protocols have no tick-box for error.

The manifesto of scientism

The political manifesto of settled-science fauxtastrophes was a highly influential article in a 1969 issue of Science magazine, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In barely a dozen pages, cited ever after by academics, University of California biologist Garrett Hardin proves —wait for it—that scientists must rule the world. His argument is a calm, well-reasoned mare’s nest of artificial anthropology, half-truths, and outright lies.

Hardin argues that, left to our natural devices, human beings always overgraze their common village pasture lands—and that means the whole world. In a “pasture open to all,” he asserts, “each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.” Each, seeking to maximize his gain, weighs the benefits and costs of “adding one more animal to [his] herd.” Each gains the full benefit of another animal but suffers only a small share of the cost of over-grazing, so each sensibly adds another and then another, “locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited.”

When each pursues his own interest, all men rush to ruin, and “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

So the problem is human freedom. Human nature – “the desire for children” – leads inescapably to overuse, overcrowding and destruction of the “commons in breeding.” “Biological facts” prove that unregulated humanity races toward disastrous overpopulation, so scientific necessity demands “coercive laws.” Only science can save us from self-destruction. Since we can’t control our herds, we all must be herded.

Clear, elegant, convincing, and wrong—wrong as only geometric projections of stovepipe data and kabuki narrative can be wrong:

  • Hardin claims human populations never stabilize themselves. Lie. Historically, nations stabilize for millennia at the “carrying capacity” of their technology (not the real estate).
  • He claims there’s no technological solution for the problem of population growth, short of government coercion. Lie. There’s no problem, no demonstrable “limits to growth.” Inventive free agents, not bureaucrats, generate solutions ahead of population growth, like medieval crop rotation, the Green Revolution or fracking for natural gas.
  • He states that no prosperous peoples ever had a zero-population growth. Half-lie. Historically, stable populations start growing, given a propitious climate change or new technology, which brings sudden, disruptive prosperity. Affluence then bankrolls ambitious new political elites, who quickly slide into decadence, fun-loving infertility, depopulation, and eventually foreign invasion and mass immigration.
  • He calls the (Third) World’s growing populations “most miserable.” Arrogant lie. Suicide is virtually unknown among the cheerfully poor nations, while the luxurious, infertile West drowns in senility, depression, anxiety disorders, and psychotic politics.

Most unfairly, Hardin smugly blames the death of the village commons on greedy villagers. In truth, the medieval commons was cheerfully tended for a thousand years by responsible villagers, fully aware of their land’s carrying capacity—and their responsibility to their progeny. By nature, the “irresponsible breeders” of natural societies look two generations ahead (unlike the European Union’s current childless statesmen).

But in the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers encouraged the erudite gentry to enclose the commons for commercial flocks—in the name of scientific agriculture. The village commons of traditional society was ritually sacrificed by the intelligentsia.

from WALL-E

The five fundamentals of fauxtastrophes

Yet, thanks to the specious clarity of its argument, Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” sketches out the five fundamentals of settled-science fauxtastrophes:

First and most important: the disaster is always Our Fault. Ordinary humanity—us—raising our children in our ordinary daily lives, generating new and innovative ways of solving our problems (like bronze replacing scarce flint, or plastics replacing metals)—we are the problem. We’ve ignorantly abused the world and provoked the unseen calamity. The angry elements will now inflict retribution: the ocean swelling, earth shaking, wind howling, sun burning. Because we’ve been free, innovative, and prosperous—in short, because we are evil—Nature will punish us.

Second: The disaster is graphically expressed. A graph prophesizing a solitary disastrous trend— bird-shell thinning, population growth, lake-water acidity, oil consumption, sea temperatures, waste plastic—intersecting a hypothetical limit, like a bike hitting an imaginary wall. We know anything mathematical is scientific, but we aren’t expected to understand it. So, “excluding extraneous factors,” the settled-scientist provides a visual representation, perhaps employing large raw numbers instead of tiny percentages.

The censored factors include the spontaneous natural or human feedback—like environmental carbon feedback or free market innovation—that work to return environmental and social systems to sustainable steady-states. The purpose of the graphic or single-variable representation is “behaviour modification of clients,” rather than “informing the deliberation of citizens,” so thought-provoking information is best avoided.

Third: The looming fauxtastrophe itself must be invisible, necessarily invisible. If a calamity is visible, it’s merely local and fixed by local solutions. (So, after Exxon cleaned up the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Prince William Sound yielded record fish harvests within the next decade.) Every visible disaster (even a Mount St. Helens eruption) is local. A local disaster is repairable, slowly by nature (wind-blown seeds) or quickly by technology (planting). As a bonus, local disasters inspire the evolution of more efficient, economical repair technology.

So global fauxtastrophes must be invisible (like CO2). Settled-scientists then pretend to be real scientists, by admitting some minor uncertainty, and then droning gravely, “But what if it happens? If it’s possible, we must take precautions.” Ah, the Precautionary Principle.   

The Precautionary Principle states: “Any possible calamity justifies the real expense of public prevention.” Only invisible calamities can activate it. Calamities must remain invisible and unlocalized, or they might be repaired by the responsible party (like Exxon). In demanding the prevention of disasters, prior to their happening, the Principle inflicts anticipatory costs on the population in general, costs that can be exacted only by the public administration. (So, after Exxon Valdez, the “world community” subjected the global tanker fleet to relatively useless but expensive double-hulling, so government was visibly “doing something.”) The Principle seeks to replace relatively cheap, local and real repair with expensive, global and theoretical prevention.  

Beloved of activist judges, bureaucrats and government contractors, the Precautionary Principle enables a potential fauxtastrophe to reach beyond the circle of celebrity settled-scientists and tabloid media.

Now things get serious. Settled-science makes a “viral jump” from cultural fad (like the New Ice Age) to coercive public program, a mature fauxtastrophe. So:


Fauxtastrophes and the bureaucracy

Fourth and most necessary: The fauxtastrophe must justify expanding bureaucratic control over ordinary people, blamed for the invisible calamity. However – and this is important — it’s not a conspiracy. Why?

We must first understand a little of bureaucracy from the inside. Tax-fed bureaucrats face no hard limits or performance measures, so careers hinge on avoiding personal responsibility for mishaps, and promotions depend on discovering unseen injustices or calamities (“progress”). Therefore, every purpose, from child protection to criminal justice, is reduced to protocols, so “ticking all the boxes” grants pre-emptive absolution from any future blame, regardless of any mishaps. Real outcomes become irrelevant, as when child protection programs traumatize protected children, or judicial systems promote primarily criminal welfare. Inside bureaucracy, regulation is everything, especially security from blame. 

This self-protective professional culture then “jumps” sectors. Over time, as the productive economy grows, the civil service swells. Its reach and revenue begin to metastasize across the general public, by anticipating and preventing future calamities: “keeping us safe” with regulatory tick-boxes, costlier than repairing calamities as they occur.

Any activity not subject to public regulation becomes “unregulated” – potentially evil. And sadly, many common folk, or our most vocal, buy into this promise of limitless security – especially as we get older.  

As the hunger for regulatory security nurtures public anxiety, enter the settled-scientists, proselytizing the bureaucracy. The government becomes a True Believer. The fauxtastrophes become a new “grazing commons” for public revenue, public employment and managerial positions. A symbiosis develops between fauxtastrophic settled-scientists, government agencies funding their research, tabloid media, and swelling public prevention programs. These prevention programs successfully forestall fauxtastrophes that never happen.

But to repeat: it’s not a conspiracy. Given the precautionary principle and symbiotic consensus, democratic representatives, charged with overseeing the bureaucracy, quickly surrender to its real authority. Scientism empowers the ubiquitous bureaucracy, so fauxtastrophes acquire the revenue and coercive power of the public administration, which in turn authoritatively verifies their settled-science. And public failure to comply becomes contempt-of-court. So:

Fifth and inevitably:  Fauxtastrophe prevention programs themselves must punish guilty us. Bureaucracy always costs, but fauxtastrophe prevention must also inflict visible, gratuitous human sacrifices, vital, monetary or symbolic (like Greta Thunberg). First, only real costs publicly confirm the reality of an invisible fauxtastrophe. Second, lacking visible repairs, only visible public compliance confirms the bureaucracy in its effectiveness.

Here’s a trivial example: the “landfills crisis” mandates plastic recycling programs, despite increased energy consumption (proven by the necessary public subsidies). The prevention program gains public compliance to the degree of the cost inflicted, so bureaucrats instruct docile homeowners to wash their recycling plastic, not despite, but because of the increased cost in time and water heating. Other medical and judicial examples are less trivial.

How much penance is enough?

Psychologists call this expectation of divine retribution cognitive dissonance: “If X costs so much, X must be truly urgent.” In adolescents, this presents as, “When X is mean to me, X is much more loveable.” Population-wide, it becomes the Stockholm syndrome. For penitentes, visible sacrifices affirm their righteousness to an impersonal world. But it’s not conspiracy.

Clearly, mature fauxtastrophes need an extraordinarily productive industrial base, to carry their dead-weight. So what of “limits to growth”? A fauxtastrophe must extract a cost in retribution for whatever sinfulness provoked the wrath of nature, replacing proven methods and resources by substitutes that are wasteful in time, energy, and innovation (natural gas replaced by client solar energy). Since the middle class is neither a corporate (“crony”) client nor an assistance (“welfare”) client of the patron bureaucracy –and therefore “unregulated” – independent working people must necessarily bear the cost of our new security, impoverishing us with taxes or inflation, and pushing us into some manner of regulation or, even better, dependency.  

Is there a natural limit to this retribution, short of economic collapse? Tick-box protocols would have to be able to purify program administrators of their professional angst, ambition, greed, malice or megalomania. But as clever school bullies quickly discover, “zero tolerance for bullying” policies are fertile grazing for clever bullying. As Chesterton said, “Original Sin is the only part of Christian theology that can really be proven” – and it is proven today by both coercive fauxtastrophes and their docile popular repentance.

What else are they lying to us about?

So, to answer podcaster Russell Brand’s question: What else are they lying to us about? Everything. Science and progress were never “the solution to all our problems.” Only the religion of Scientism said it was, and we must now all hope that real science and real faith can stem our pandemic anxiety. Real science is increasingly affirming the order, beauty and purposiveness of the Cosmos, and we can all rediscover the chasm between knowledge and wisdom.

Churchill warned of “a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” But the Old Dark Age was an impoverished anarchy, while our New Dark Age is a spendthrift Tower of Babel, quite prone to toppling itself.

So – full disclosure in the final words: widespread mockery of “settled-scientists” and their “fauxtastrophes” can’t hurt.

Joe Woodard earned a PhD in Political Theory at Claremont, then spent 10 years as an academic (Brock, UCSB, USCCR, Bethany), 15 as a journalist (Alberta Report, Calgary Herald), and 11 as a Canadian federal...