What Attacks on Science Get WrongRoundup
tags: history of science, Science, culture wars, cultural history
Andrew Jewett is the author of Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2012). He has taught at Harvard, Yale, NYU, Vanderbilt, and Boston College and held fellowships from the National Humanities Center, the Cornell Society for the Humanities, the National Academy of Education, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Back in 2013, another in a long line of tussles over scientism broke out. Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, told humanities majors at a Brandeis University graduation ceremony that they represented “the resistance” in a society dominated by “the twin imperialisms of science and technology.” Wieseltier sounded all the familiar themes — the enslavement of human beings to machines, the tyranny of numbers, the depredations of “technologism,” the unchallenged dominance of “utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience” in modern culture. The antidote, he claimed, was the humanities.
The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker fired back. Petulant humanists, he charged, welcomed science when it cured disease but not when it impinged on their professional fiefdom. The march of science and the Enlightenment had vastly improved the human condition. Only science, Pinker insisted, could address “the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives.” Humanities scholars would remain irrelevant until they embraced the scientifically informed humanitarianism that constituted the “de facto morality” of the modern world. The ensuing controversy stretched through that summer and fall.
Today a global pandemic grips the world. Societies face immediate, practical, life-or-death questions about how to incorporate science and expertise into their collective decisions. And yet the old refrains can still be heard. In Commentary, the conservative commentator Sohrab Ahmari argued that “the ideology of scientism” has plunged the world into “a half-millennial funk.” In the face of a deadly virus, Ahmari wrote, moderns lack any sense of why “life is worth living and passing on”; they cannot even assert that “being is preferable to nonbeing.” Pinker chimed in as well, arguing that political decisions favoring economic well-being over bodily health reflected the “malignant delusion” of evangelicals’ “belief in an afterlife,” which “devalues actual lives.”
And so the tired, decades-old pattern continues. Bitter public controversies swirl around climate change, intelligent design, genetically modified foods, vaccines, data mining, and dozens of other issues. In response, cultural critics reiterate their familiar positions — usually the lament that a soulless science dominates modern life or the fear that a rising tide of unreason will return humanity to the dark ages. Abstractions abound, as commenters invoke science, scientism, rationalism, the Enlightenment, the humanities, humanism, religion, faith, irrationality, the West, and modernity.
Such large-scale abstractions have proven remarkably unhelpful. Each of the issues we face has its own distinctive contours, its own complex interrelations among science and social norms, practices, and institutions. Despite the fiery statements of combatants and the worries of onlookers, the scientific enterprise as a whole is not at stake in debates over vaccination, genetic engineering, or climate change. Rather, these controversies involve particular scientific findings, theories, techniques, devices, and practices, as they relate to the deeply held (and often directly conflicting) values of many different groups.
This essay is adapted from the author’s new book, Science under Fire: Challenges to Scientific Authority in Modern America (Harvard University Press).
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