While I’m broadly in agreement with Adam Frank’s op-ed about the grave political and social costs of the current state of scientific literacy in America, there is something about the way that he comes at the issue that feels like it’s a part of the problem rather than the solution.
Frank follows a path through thinking about the state of science in American life that I encounter at lot at Swarthmore and institutions like it, especially but not exclusively among our students. The story is told as a tale of decline: once Americans trusted and valued science, and now increasingly they don’t, putting not just individual issues at risk but the entire practice of scientific inquiry.
In some measure that story is incontestably true. For me the most visceral gut-punch truth of it is to watch some of old animated and documentary presentations that used to appear on Disney’s television showcase that were unreservedly committed to the proposition that American modernity and prosperity were synonymous with science, and that was about as close to a consensus artifact as you could ask for.
Or was it? That’s the problem with the story that Frank tells. What he doesn’t know–and maybe none of us can be sure about–is whether all that’s changed is that the Americans who do not trust, value or practice scientific inquiry and knowledge are now politically or socially empowered in a way that they weren’t in the heyday of mid-20th Century high modernism. Did people listen to scientists in the 1950s because they had to, because science had a strong kind of authority within civic and political institutions that were themselves far less inhibited about imposing their general authority on the population? Did people who never really accepted or trusted scientific perspectives just decide to shut up and knuckle under in order to get their professional credentials or to be accepted in a much more conformist middle-class culture?
I’m inclined to think that in some sense denial and opposition to science is not a new social movement enabled by new political ideologies and forces but a sensibility with a much more continuous underground history that traces all the way back to the first third of the 20th Century, at least in the United States. Which, if true, has huge implications for saving what Frank calls “the tradition”: it means that this is less a matter of returning to a venerable and venerated way of living and more a question of doing a kind of work that was never done in the first place, which is rolling up some collective sleeves and making the case for science (and maybe other kinds of knowledge, academic and otherwise) within the terms of the everyday culture and social lives of Americans. It doesn’t mean conceding to those terms but it does require understanding them and sorting out the reasons and roots that have given rise to them. That’s a kind of work that I think many contemporary scientists and academics are profoundly unprepared to do–but if the tradition is to be a living one (in a way that perhaps it never was), that’s what is required.