If Joseph Tainter had written The Collapse of Complex Societies in the 1900s instead of the 1990s, he would have probably entitled it The Collapse of Civilisations. The change can be accounted for in the first pages of Tainter’s work: he has decided to write a book of social science, and there is no place in social science for words like “civilisation”—the investigation must be, as with all science, “value neutral”. As with all social science, this is an illusion—a very pernicious illusion.
I have a bugbear with mainstream conservatives—classical liberals, libertarians, and neoconservatives—who bang on and on about how postmodernism has undermined the West and scientific achievement. Aside from the fact that I think “postmodernism” means little more to these people other than a token around which to coordinate—few have read the works they condemn—I think that the greater unacknowledged source of “relativism” is the bastardised version of the scientific method known as “social science”.
I fully grant that pink-haired nutcases who are obsessed with toxic masculinity are real, but far more insidious are those people—men like Tainter—who would look at the Spanish conquistadors and the Aztecs and say: “As a social scientist I make no value judgement, these are two complex societies that interacted for the first time in the 16th century. In terms of efficiency of energy use, child sacrifice—as measured in kilojoules—can be compared to Spanish horse-mounted cavalry…” If you follow social scientists you will find that “true and false” are also value judgements for them. The social scientist works provisionally: we have a hypothesis to confirm or refute. “Is it true? Well, let’s just say that the evidence seems to confirm my hypothesis…Truth? It’s a metaphysical idea. It has no place in social science.”
Millions of people—including most mainstream conservatives—have been trained to think in this way. They live provisionally, supposedly without value judgement. None of this comes from postmodernism; it comes out of the scientific method that mainstream conservatives celebrate as a golden achievement of Western civilisation. It is a high-status way to think, even though it is not real science: no social scientist can take three beakers of copper sulphate solution and treat two with a different measure of sulphuric acid and see what happens; we cannot take three copies of the same society and try different policies, with one as a control—and it is that experimental method that is the essence of what real science is. This business about value judgement is just poncing about with words—a cargo cult of real science.
Conservatives are more nihilistic than they pretend; the burden of their song is as follows: Western science and individualism provide people with many cheap consumer goods—you are very lucky, you should be grateful! Evil postmodernism wants to destroy science and consumer goodies through relativism! This viewpoint completely excludes and ignores the role played by the social science approach, the general sensibility of all Westerners—especially the conservatives, who often revert to peer-reviewed studies to discredit their leftist opponents. While more socialism would indeed mean fewer consumer toys, the mainstream conservatives are quasi-nihilists; the left at least has the myth of George Floyd to die for—ultimately, the conservatives would not be that definite about what they stand for.
In my second year at university, a guy in my halls said: “I want to go to Firehill.” “Don’t go there, mate,” said a local, “it’s the Pakistani area. They’ll beat you up.” “And what’s your evidence for that?” replied the newcomer. The local just laughed. This attitude—common to conservatives and liberals alike—where we ask, “Do you have peer-reviewed evidence for that?” comes about through the widespread inculcation of social science, not postmodernism. “That’s not a value neutral assertion!” “It’s the truth, mate.” “I mean truth or falsehood…it’s very strong…a bit metaphysical…I prefer to work in hypotheses…” And what did our naïve young undergraduate study? Political science, of course—Machiavelli weeps.