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Technocracy and Scientism in SF

Although science fiction relies on the forward (and occasionally backward) extrapolation of scientific principles and developments to explore possible consequences for the human race, it is often an anti-scientistic genre. 

Scientism is the exaggerated positive belief in “science” as a body or principle, which raises it almost to the status of faith. In this picture, the vast and varied disciplines of scientific research tend to be lumped under a single heading, and individual beliefs or motivations are subsumed by the demands of “science” itself. These must be accepted without question. In fact, most scientists are not themselves scientistic - the scientific method relies on a constant process of questioning and revising assumptions and interpretations on the basis of new evidence: at no point is a scientific result unassailable or accepted as “gospel truth”, although in some cases the evidence is extremely strong and a hypothetical disproof would need to be still stronger. Nonetheless, to those without scientific training, “scientists” and “science” do sometimes appear to make assertions which must be accepted without in-depth understanding, and this can lead to suspicion and even fear. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, science fiction is rife with examples in which the actions and motivations of “scientists” are viewed with suspicion, and in which the rule of a scientific elite, or their more practical counterparts the technocrats, is hypothesised.

Technocracy - the rise to political power and authority of a (theoretically) meritocratic group motivated by scientific and technical principles rather personal power - has a long history in political theory. The rise of a newly qualified middle class during the Industrial Revolution challenged authority vested in land, tradition and lineage, and raised both wealth and education (particularly in the applied sciences) as potential alternate criteria by which to select a ruling elite. Movements such as Malthusianism and Eugenics suggested that religious and ethical mores should be set aside in favour of a “scientific” approach to population control which would apparently benefit humanity as a whole (albeit through a wholly morally-repugnant selection process). By the 1930s, a movement (founded by engineer Howard Scott) was advocating a form of technocratic government, in which all decisions were made on the basis of their scientific evidence and an energy cost criterion.

Unsurprisingly then, science fiction was quick to extrapolate the potential future of such a system and to explore its benefits… and its possible costs.

As early as 1888, Walter Besant published The Inner House - a dystopian novel in which a means of prolonging life indefinitely is discovered in the nineteenth century [1]. Set several hundred years later, it portrays humanity sunk into an emotionless torpor in which love and art have been forgotten, and the only authority is vested in the Council of Life - a group of scientists who hold the Secret. While the scientists are not entirely without individual identity, the dominant voice is that of a former lab-technician of humble birth who rose to power through his own abilities. He enforces a society of strict social and individual equality, in which all men and women dress alike, work alike and speak alike, and looks forward to a utopia in which humans do nothing but eat and sleep, in a perpetual vegetative state.

Unsurprisingly this is soon recognised as a dystopian condition, and the novel centres on an attempt to overturn it. While the novel certainly calls out the former aristocracy for disregarding the poverty and misery most endured before the great discovery, Besant's overall moral appears to be that meritocracy and scientific leadership lead inevitably to mediocracy and the death of faith, emotion and humanity itself.

Film poster for Another striking early example of technocratic rule can be seen in the works of H G Wells [2], and was articulated in the film Things to Come (Dir: Korda, 1936). This movie traces the decline of civilisation through war and disease, and the rise to power of a group of engineers and scientists known as “Wings over the World”. This group exercises a form of autocratic technocracy over the wider population, and eventually launches a space mission, but is not free from internal dissent. Again Wells’ message here is a mixed one - recognising both the flaws in then-contemporary society and the dangers of unconstrained technocracy. While Wings over the World is an idealistic force, and one which keeps civilisation from total collapse, leading to great technical innovations, it is also shown as amoral and weakened by the failure of its leaders to value emotional decision making and personal freedom.

This juxtaposition - between science and emotion, or between technology and freedom - lies at the heart of most of the critiques of scientism and technocracy in science fiction. It argues that while scientific advancement may bring material gain, it does so at the cost of some fundamental aspect of humanity.

Implicit in Things to Come, but made more explicit in other science fiction examples is a second common critique of scientists: the apparently arrogant assumption of superiority.

Both themes were picked up in the 1955 novel When the Moon Died by Richard Savage. This is written from the perspective of a character from the year 2800, who obtains a way to view earlier times. He gradually comes to realise that his world has been stagnant since 1999, when we learn that a scientific committee took power to prevent a Cold War nuclear exchange, destroying the Moon both to demonstrate their ability to take control and to remove a focus of an East-West Space Race. Indeed, many of the accusations made by these scientists, resonate today:

"We taught you scientific truth, but you preached lies and put your faith in men of lies. We taught you freedom from superstition , but you put your minds in chaos. We taught you to produce plenty, but you stole from half the world what it needs to live" (pg 60).
This accusation is explicitly described in the text as “threatening” and “arrogant”, and is clearly viewed with disgust by the narrator. Almost a millennium later, the scientocracy has turned into a tyranny with independent research banned, history unknown and nostalgia diagnosed as an illness: “In a Utopia, change of any importance is unthinkable. You cannot produce anything better than perfection” (pg 16).

This theme is picked up in fourteen-part BBC radio drama Orbiter X, first broadcast in 1959, which describes the Commonwealth Space Programme’s attempts to construct the first orbiting space station. These are derailed by Unity - a clandestine global organisation of scientists who wish to take it for themselves and establish world dominance. Like most 1950s or early-60s SF, Orbiter X works hard to create a convincing scenario, focussing on the technical aspects of orbital maneuvers and explaining the operation of a Unity moonbase in detail. Such detail lends verisimilitude to the radio script, and in turn to the concept of the scientistic conspiracy. Unity have no qualms about threatening atomic warfare in pursuit of their goal. Their leader, Kramer, states his position clearly: “The true leader must have such a measure of scientific understanding that he is supremely aware of the relative insignificance of a few individual lives in relation to the future of the whole world!” (Episode 3).

A similar point is made in the 1972 pulp SF novel When the Earth Died by Karl Mannheim (which is unrelated to the similarly-named Moon title above, notable for being printed without its final page, ending mid-sentence, and, from my perspective, also for having a protagonist called Stanway). Here an international group of scientists is determined to save a group of those they consider “worthy” from the inevitable nuclear war that they believe will occur on Earth and have no qualms about triggering that apocalypse along the way.

In all the above texts, the rights, views and privileges of the general population are dismissed by a self-selected few. Organisations of scientists either attempt to or succeed in deposing elected representatives. While the same questions of amorality and emotional disconnect in scientific rule are raised as in Things to Come, a stronger theme in these texts is thus that of arrogance amongst scientists - an implied presumption within the scientific community that advantages in education and mathematical reasoning ability equate to superiority and a higher worth compared to “ordinary” people.

Other texts extend this premise still further.

The principle protagonist in the 1960s spy-fi television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. were an organisation known as THRUSH. This was also a supra-national organisation bent on world domination and headed by scientists, but now expressing its amorality and disregard for human conventions through criminal activity.

The Kaled Scientific Elite from Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (1976) with their leader, DavrosPushing to the limits, and considering the ultimate end result of scientific leadership without the morality and emotion of humanity to challenge it, we find two alien races: the Kaleds and the Treens. Appearing in Doctor Who, the Kaleds were a society ground down by unending war. As revealed in “Genesis of the Daleks” (BBC 1975), the result was the rise to power of a militarised scientific elite led by the scientist Davros - an alien equivalent to World War II’s Manhattan Project. Their decisions - taken nominally on the grounds of scientific logic and emotionless reasoning - ultimately led to the destruction of not only the enemy Thals, but also his own species and the birth of the ultimately militaristic and emotionless Daleks. The origins of Dan Dare’s Treens are less clear, but as the first serial made clear (Eagle Magazine 1950), the reptilian race of Venusians are ruled over by an arch-scientist, the Mekon, whose experimentation on both his own species and the humans who fall into his hands ranges from the amoral to the truly evil. His argument is always that the experiments are justified by their scientific value, and take priority over personal liberty or individual rights. The human Colonel Dare is required to oust him from his position of authority.

Admittedly, there may be more positive examples of scientific technocracies in science fiction (Star Trek’s Federation and James White’s Sector General hospital system arguably fall into this category). However, the weight of the examples above, together with the less collectively organised but very common “mad scientist pursuing amoral goals” sub-genre, suggest that the goals of scientists as a body should be viewed with suspicion and treated with caution. More than ever, this representation of the field is highly negative and dangerous, with similar distrust underpinning the current pressing social problems of vaccine refusal and climate change denial.

So, as a scientist, is this a picture I recognise or can understand?

Well, yes and no.

On an individual level, every scientist I’ve met or worked with has been a rational human being, with an appreciation of the ethical and moral dimensions of their lives in parallel with the logic-driven aspects of science.

On a group and societal level, the scientists of my acquaintance and of which I’m aware have also proven themselves utterly incapable of keeping secrets, conspiring against authority or effectively campaigning. A brief inspection of scientific accounts on Twitter demonstrates the constant and open flow of information, speculation, discussion and debate that surrounds every new discovery or insight and which precedes any announcement. A cross-disciplinary global scientific conspiracy seems as bizarre and unlikely as the wildest science fiction.

While astronomy is perhaps more sociable and less commercialised than some other fields, the current regulation and funding systems of science, combined with requirements for open data, mean that the vast majority of evidence underpinning most scientific work is publically available on the internet. This has been dramatically evidenced during the Covid-19 pandemic, where the public sharing of information and data between organisations and countries has been constant and extensive.

A difficulty with this openness, and perhaps at the root of mistrust of science, is that while the data is freely available, the training, resources and background knowledge required to interpret it correctly has become increasingly specialised over time and often requires many years of formalised education. This acts both as a perspective-changing experience for the scientists, and as a barrier for non-scientists in both understanding and world-view. As a result, misunderstandings can arise from faulty interpretation of the openly shared data or misunderstandings of the statistics required. Resentment and frustration can result when impossibly simple explanations are demanded of issues which themselves are inherently complex. And because simple explanations do not always suffice, scientists can be (and often are) accused of being closed to new or heterodox ideas when they cannot explain the (very real) logical or factual flaws in those ideas in non-mathematical or non-technical terms.

This frustration can go both ways. A famous quotation from science fiction writer and trained biochemist Isaac Asimov exemplifies the problem:

“The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” (Asimov 1980).

Fundamentally, this statement is scientific: it asserts that decision-making should be based on knowledge in the form of data. “Ignorance” here is simply the absence of data or of understanding of that data, and scientists can be just as ignorant of matters outside their field of expertise as non-scientists. It does not argue against democracy - merely notes that an equal say in making decisions does not necessarily imply all outcomes and opinions are equally supported by the information available, are worthy of equal consideration or will have equally positive outcomes. On the other hand, from an anti-scientistic viewpoint, the term “ignorance” could just as easily be interpreted as an insult, and the “me” vs “you” phrasing of the sentence gives the impression of an arrogant assertion of superiority. And that impression may not be entirely false - some scientists, particularly in previous generations, have indeed been firm in the belief that science is in some way empirically superior to the arts and humanities. Most scientists today accept that both are needed and have equal though different value, but Asimov was of a generation and background that prioritised the physical sciences. Certainly many scientists struggle to place faith or deeply held beliefs on a par with scientific evidence. The result is a statement that comes across as confrontational, and could easily strengthen distrust of science rather than counter it.

Ultimately dislike or distrust of scientists has the same roots as dislike of other marginalised or Othered groups: fear of the different or misunderstood. Like most phobias, it is a response to the potential of a threat from a group or concept which is unfamiliar and lies outside of a societal norm. The Manhattan Project made clear the potential of those with scientific training to create weapons of mass destruction (albeit under political and military pressure). It is perhaps unsurprising that so much science fiction extrapolated that threat and highlighted the Other in a scientific attitude, rather than highlighting the humanity and morality in individual scientists. What is perhaps surprising is how little this narrative has changed over time. While I have focussed on classic examples, amoral scientists can be found even in contemporary texts. Generations of SF have fed into a narrative which is now deeply destructive. Science phobia and the resultant denials and refusals have more potential than ever to affect lives. Understanding and addressing the roots of that fear will be vital in the years to come.

"Technocracy and Scientism", Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog, 8th August 2021.


[1] This book is now out of copyright and available to download for free as an ebook from repositories such as [Back to text]

[2] It should be noted that Wells’ politics tended towards socialism, but did not embrace the socialist or communist movements. In a 1935 book of essays entitled What are we to do with our lives?, he advocated the popular establishment of a global “scientific commonweal” where the science was applied primarily to economics and social issues such as health and population management. This is a little different from the rule-of-scientists discussed elsewhere in this post, and explicitly provided for individualism and creativity. [Back to text]