Science in America: History?

Are Republicans at war—on science? The relationship between the GOP and the scientific community is in the news, and certain aspects of the coverage will be of interest to those working on the history of science in America.

Rick Perry (on the “Stump”)
Rick Perry’s recent entry into the race has raised a number of questions about his party’s (and the American people’s) relationship to science. Over the past few weeks, Perry has revealed—nay, reveled in—skepticism about both evolution and climate change.

Responding to a question from a New Hampshire child about whether or not he believed in evolution, Perry told the boy that evolution is “a theory that’s out there” that’s “got some gaps in it,” and that “In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution.”

On climate change, Perry went even further. Asked, the previous day, to defend a claim (from his book Fed Up!) that climate science is “all one contrived phony mess” propagated by “a false prophet of a secular carbon cult” (guess who?), he went on the offensive:

“I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. And I think we are seeing almost weekly or even daily scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea…”

These positions don’t make Perry an outlier in his party or the candidate pool—far from it. Take Michele Bachmann’s famous 2006 assertion that “hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel prizes, believe in intelligent design.”

She’s been joined, in recent weeks, by candidates previously somewhat immune to this line of questioning. Video from 2007 of Ron Paul disavowing the theory has re-emerged, and Mitt Romney now has his doubts about humanity’s role in climate change.

The only Republican candidate standing against this (real or performative) skepticism is Jon Huntsman, who took a pro-science stance in response to Perry’s remarks, via Twitter: “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

Though it earned Huntsman some good press, it didn’t help him in the polls. He’s leagues behind the others—especially Perry, who at this point seems to be running away with the nomination, suggesting his remarks didn’t cost him too much with his base.

All these developments caught the eye of Paul Krugman, who devoted his column this week to the issue. His stance is that it’s all a part of a “deepening anti-intellectualism of the political right” that, in typical slightly-overdrawn language, “should terrify us.”

Should it? On the one hand, our ability to address large-scale problems—financial, climatic, and otherwise—would no doubt be hampered by the ascendence of a president and a party that was, as Krugman puts it, “aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge.”

On the other, something tells me that it’s the politics that underlay this summer’s debt-ceiling debacle (and the infamous AA+ downgrade) that we’ve got to worry about, not anti-scientism. For the record, the source on that is still George Packer’s New Yorker piece.

So what about science (and AmericanScience), then? Well, there’s the issue Ron Paul raises at the beginning of the video I linked to above: whether or not evolution is relevant, or if it’s appropriate “for the presidency to be decided on a scientific matter.”

In a post at The Intersection, this is parsed in a quotation from popular-science author Steven Berlin Johnson, who wrote The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (2008) and who thinks it does matter – for an interesting reason:

“[W]hen our leaders take these anti-science positions, […] – they’re not just being anti-intellectual. They’re also being un-American. The people who founded this country were serious science geeks. We should be celebrating this fact, not running away from it.”

Why is this interesting? Because it’s precisely the sort of argument that appeals to the far right, and especially the Tea Party. From Ron Paul to Rick Perry, GOPers have staked their claim on Originalism and the Founders. Remember Paul Revere, “ringin’ those bells“?

Michele Bachmann
So, if Franklin was pro-science, shouldn’t Bachmann be? Well, that’s the trick. She *is* pro-science, and so are her colleagues—as they understand it. For anyone interested in the cultural authority (and rhetoric) of science, Bachmann’s justification of her views is fascinating:

“I support intelligent design,” she said in June: “What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides.”

The question is what constitutes “all science,” or what counts as a “scientific issue,” or, perhaps most crucially, what distinguishes “reasonable doubt” from … something else. But check out what *isn’t* up for grabs: today, science is good—we just disagree about how to do it.

Today’s debates are largely conducted in a shared metascientific language—what’s at issue isn’t whether or not science can help determine policy (it can!), but whether we’re being scientific enough, or whether politics have polluted the assumed purity of the scientific method.

Now, this isn’t earth-shattering (or even that original) as a comment on contemporary politics. Still, for someone studying the rise of science’s cultural authority in the United States, it’s a stark sign that things people disputed a century ago are now unspoken assumptions.
Can that history of earlier debates over the authority of science tell us anything about today’s troubles? Not really. In many respects we operate within the framework set by those earlier contests, and so any analogy is muddied by their genealogical relationship.
That said—and as I’ve suggested here before—what historians can contribute is what is precisely that sort of realization: we’re trapped (or shaped) by our vocabularies, which have histories too. Taking stock of our terms can, I bet, help us see what’s really at issue.

4 thoughts on “Science in America: History?

  1. Lukas

    I like this post, esp. because it goes beyond the usual point of just bashing Tea Party Republicans for being anti-science; asking if they may simply have a different idea of what constitutes legitimate science or scientific debate.

    I do wonder if the argument follows exactly, though. My sense is that Bachmann and others would prefer science to have a great deal less authority in our culture than it currently enjoys. The fact that she claims climate science is bad because it's bad science (rather than e.g. just bad for business) does imply she takes it for granted that science is an appropriate way to adjudicate some of these questions. But it need not mean she feels it actually deserves that status.

    I guess the comment comes down to two points: First, There is more than one culture in the U.S. and politicians appeal to the diverse beliefs of different audiences when it is expedient for them to do so. And, second, politicians are often a lot more cynical than Hank's argument seems to suggest, making arguments whose unstated premises they probably would not accept so long as the conclusions serve them well.


  2. Zed

    I don't know about this one, Hank. I'd be hard pressed to think of an issue for which Bachmann and/or Perry think that science should actually play a leading, or even important, role in determining Federal policy.

    Anything environmental is more or less out; besides the obvious regarding climate change, I think we can safely assume things would be the same when it comes to wetlands or endangered species or ANWR or the potential shortcomings of the execution cocktail or any other issue. For that matter, look at how Perry responded to Science rearing its head during the Willingham execution. In all of these issues I'd be willing to make heavy wagers that science is pretty much guaranteed to be ignored in favor of other policy justifications, such as economic growth, liberty, energy independence, justice, etc.

    They do, as you noted, make arguments that Science should not disqualify whatever policy they've chosen on other political (or perhaps theological) grounds. Perhaps this alone represents some sort of important thing in relation to the past. I'll leave that analysis up to you. But I feel compelled to argue that attempts to shore up their policies against scientific counterarguments is not quite the same thing as willingly reinforcing the cultural authority of science. Especially when such defenses are mounted in an idiom that seems largely designed to appeal to those who might otherwise offer less calculated and ambiguous positions regarding the proper role of science in the public sphere.


  3. Dan

    I thought Gary Gutting had an interesting take on what non-experts can or cannot do in debates over science. Basically: once there are agreed experts and a “consensus,” we have to believe experts' facts. But that doesn't mean non-experts have to agree with experts on how to respond to any given set of facts.

    Another historical question we might ask would revolve around the way in which politics has adapted to increasing levels of technocracy. Questioning the science behind climate change strikes me as the most basic form of turning “research” into “nonaction.” That's a very old strategy, but one that seems to have become particularly useful in the 60s and 70s around early environmental concerns (think DDT and the many times legislation fell victim to calls for “more research.”)

    The striking thing about “more research” is that it uses scientists to promote delay. Scientists' own sense of their fallibility and their need for better data facilitates non-action. That strategy fails with “consensus.” Who needs more research then?

    So the response has been to cultivate doubt by cultivating new experts. From a purely analytical perspective, it's a fascinating new set of cultural games we play.

    I can't say for sure if these games have strict party affiliations.


  4. Hank

    Thanks for the thoughts, everyone. You've all (correctly) noted that my charity toward the Tea Party's “scientism” is a bit overdrawn.

    Are calls for “more research,” or the adoption of science studies' skepticism, or getting more voices in the room, done cynically (as Lukas and Zed both suggest), or in earnest? I'm not sure.

    There's a point to be made about the fact that they're conducting these battles – ingenuous or not – in the language of scientism, and that that's important. How or why, though, is part of my dissertation, so more on that some other time.

    On another note: the NYT has two new pieces relevant to all this:

    Number one is on “Rick Perry's Scientific Campaign Method.” It's an interview with the author of a forthcoming book on the science of political campaigning – she argues that Perry is unusually skeptical of traditional campaign tactics, and that he relies heavily on social science methods to find what works.

    Number two is a Stone column on philosophical naturalism by Timothy Williamson, the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford. It's less obviously relevant, but his point about naturalists (of whom there are many) pinning themselves to the “scientific method” links up with both Dan's Gutting reference (above) as well as his differentiation of “method” and “spirit.”

    Here's the history: science and scientism get conflated with technocracy and quantification far too often, and Williamson is as guilty of it as anyone. “Method” is, or at least was, more capacious than hypothetico-deduction or any of its alternatives. Around 1900, for example, “method” captured “spirit,” too, and had more to do with individual mindsets than scholarly practices.

    Which of these – a widespread mindset or a rarified practice – our Tea Partiers are channeling is an open question. The answer seems to depend on why they're invoking science (the cynicism issue) and their complex relationship to expertise (the Gutting issue).



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