Regardless of its total or partial likelihood, here I speculate about the possibility of reaching some new Dark Ages with negligible scientific progress. The process is:
Society gains complexity for consumers, employees, employers, managers, voters, politicians,…, until everything gets out of control. Most economic models work well under a set of assumptions like perfect information and rational agents, not satisfied in real life.
Collective denial for the difference between actual value and perceived value. In free markets value is subjective, there is only perceived value: “If you are paying for heroine then subjectively heroine is better for you than anything else that you could buy with that money. You know better than any medic what is best for you, the customer is always right”. Collective denial of any objectiveness in axiology.
How things are and how they are perceived are not bound, diverting beyond proportion. Hollywood actors are economically rewarded by society more generously than top scientists that change the state of the art of our understanding of the universe, atoms, health, brains,… Even for scientists visibility is the priority, in order: cameos (movies/series) ≺ divulgation ≺ research and publish. Economy and free markets assign more money (signalling subjective axiology) to looking young, e.g. cosmetic surgery, than to actually being young, e.g. research on ageing. The former is more important in such a world. Priorities and incentives are inverted.
Spending on R&D to make a product superior is not irrelevant but an unaffordable opportunity cost, a mistake that increases the risk of a competitor focusing 100% on the perception thus being more cost efficient, winning in a competitive market. Nothing is good, some things are cheap, expensive brands invest on marketing to represent a higher status. A race to the bottom. Progress halts, kakonomy reigns.
Academia focuses on perception and results for marketing, the state of the art is irrelevant. Reproducibility is obtained through alliances: “I publish I reproduce your results, you publish you reproduce mine”. The main skill to obtain a PhD in most sciences is p-fishing, such skills and reputation are sold to obtain funding. Depending on the paycheck payer the research concludes that $X is good and should be consumed, or that $X is bad and $Y should be consumed instead. The Ivory Tower falls.
Delusion is the game, everything is corrupted to the bone beyond repair. Homo homini lupus est. All collaboration is to delude a third party. Politicians own the media. News are propaganda. Good deluders signal higher status with brands that spend more on marketing. The best deluders use counterfeit copies for the same effect. It is a cargo-cult world, the whole economy runs on a collective delusion. The new Dark Ages peak.
Some existential risk materializes (e.g. global warming), scientific progress and the type of challenges that humankind could overcome stagnated long ago. We can only convince each other that everything will be fine, and that we must keep our optimism. The great filter of intelligent species is epistemic, mass delusion enabled by societal complexity.