Denial Is a River In Egypt

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.

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7 Responses to Denial Is a River In Egypt

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    So, maybe the 1950s faith in science was tied to an expression of a triumphalist exceptionalism–Henry Luce’s American Century and all that. That ideology got badly battered during the sixties, what with the opposition to the war in Vietnam that emerged in the middle of the decade, the civil rights movement, counter culture, feminism, etc. By the end of the decade the Apollo program was all that was left on which to hang that ideology. That program ended, the OPEC oil embargo in ’73 delivered a gut punch to industrial America, and the war in Vietnam ended with a lot of whimpering.

    So, with the ideology in tatters, there was little to prop up American faith in science.

    Not sure I believe this, but it’s worth thinking through.

  2. SamChevre says:

    I would agree that the “anti-scientific” tradition goes back much farther than the 1980′s. I would note that there are two general kinds of “anti-scientific” views/positions as well.

    The first is distrust of science/scientists as a reliable guide to physical reality–distrust of technology. Here, you get a hodge-podge of things: opposition to GMO’s and nuclear power and vaccines, a large portion of alternative and holistic medicine. This kind of “anti-science” attitude seems to have been both unpopular and scorned in the 1950′s and early 1960′s, but it’s in full swing by the late 1960′s with the hippie movement. In this case, there’s an easily-observable reason–there had been massive improvements in technology (cars, radios, electricity, airplanes) in the 1920-1950 timeframe that were visible to everyone and visibly worked.

    The second is distrust of science/scientists as a guide to morality and wisdom. This tradition in American reasoning goes back at least to William Jennings Bryan (his opposition to Darwinism both in the natural and the social world was prominent, and opposed to the scientific consensus of the day). This distrust is the one that the articles seem to fret about–but it isn’t the same as the first one. And looking at the history of scientific consensus on how science should affect society, it is far from a uniformly positive picture. (Eugenics; phrenology).

  3. Tim,

    The link doesn’t seem to be working. (It could also be my computer’s weird internet connection, which has been screwy lately.)

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Fixed it. Thanks.

  5. Bill Benzon says:

    Picking up on SamChevre, there’s an account of religious fundamentalism in America that makes the Scopes trial a key event. Darrow so humiliated Bryan that fundamentalists withdrew from the public arena for decades. When they finally decided to return they brought that old humiliation with them in the specific form of opposition to biological evolution and the more general form of skepticism about science.

  6. Withywindle says:

    I may have mentioned here before … I’m fascinated by what I take to be an Evangelical/dissenting Protestant distrust of established science that parallels the distrust of the established church, that emphasizes inner spirituality as a component of health. Christian Science, chiropractic, various diet fads, and some odd ophthalmological beliefs I take to be parts of this tradition, and current distrusts of vaccination, etc., fit into the pattern as well. I think this tradition always distrusted established science; to some extent–but not entirely–I think what has changed is that the establishment has started to notice the dissenters. Your narrative, I think, concerns the extent to which this core dissenting tradition has purchase with the broader American public. That may have something to do with a narrative of the rise and fall of scientific authority–but I think the inner dynamics of core dissenting distrust of science may be related little or not at all with that narrative.

  7. DensityDuck says:

    Seems to me that a big part of the problem is that Americans now have the idea that technological progress comes from AT&T instead of The Government. The concept of “do what Science says” worked when Science was a proxy for The Government, which was In Charge. These days, that’s not true. Technological progress is a bigger faster phone that can post video to Facebook with a single button press, or a car that doesn’t use gas and has a Nissan sticker on the front.

    To the extent that technological progress happens at all, that is. Which is another part of the problem. Modern technological progress is “a kind of glass that lets the next iPhone be only 84.75% the thickness of the current one”, or “a new type of surgical instrument that lets your arthroscopic knee surgery be accomplished with a .29-inch incision instead of a .32-inch one, leading to a 48% chance of a 13% reduction in recovery from the prompt effects of surgery”. It’s tiny, stuff that’s hard to see and measure and believe, and none of it’s really new. There is no equivalent to the fact that in the 1940s we were all flying in propellor aircraft that held thirty people, and in the 1960s we were flying in jet aircraft that held a hundred and fifty and took them farther faster. There is no equivalent to rocketry or spaceflight.

    To some extent we’ve learned to take the future for granted, as our due. Nobody looks at their iPhone and says “wow, this thing is what science-fiction writers thought of forty years ago”. They look at it and say “why is Angry Birds running so goddamn slow on this thing?” They look at a modern CVT car that has power-control systems which automatically stop and start the engine, and they don’t understand that only twenty years ago none of what that car does was even possible.

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