Disdain for Science in Perspective
Utter disregard. Unmitigated disdain. These are fair descriptions of Donald Trump’s attitude toward any science that leads to conclusions he disagrees with, whether it be the science of climate change, or that of pandemics. But Trump is not unique; he is rather the culmination of decades of cultural change in Western civilization.
What we now call the West was, a thousand years ago, called Christendom. There was one Catholic Church with strictly defined doctrines of what was true or false, and priests to tell us which was which.
Then came the Protestant Reformation to question the authority of the Church and its priests, setting in its stead, in Luther’s memorable phrase, “the priesthood of all believers.” During about the same period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Renaissance broke the constraints on both artistic creativity and intellectual inquiry. That in turn led to the emergence from the 17th to the 19th centuries of modern science (e.g., Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin) and its offspring, industrial technology.
It was the immense productivity of this creative complex that made our modern, affluent Western civilization. The affluence was of course aided by the imperialistic conquest of the rest of the world, but that in turn was only possible because of the West’s newly superior industrial and military technology.
Science was our new orthodoxy; scientists were our new priests. The edifice we built with their guidance was as imposing as any medieval cathedral.
We became a society grounded on science and technology. Whatever problems confronted us, we turned to the scientists and engineers to show us the solution. Sociologists and economists claimed similar authority, as social scientists, making proposals for social and economic engineering.
Science was our new orthodoxy; scientists were our new priests. The edifice we built with their guidance was as imposing as any medieval cathedral. This secular, scientific civilization was close to hegemony in the West from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries.
Then came the nay-sayers, in many guises. William F. Buckley, a leading mid-century conservative and founder of The National Review, famously declared, “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” The initial attack was on the “softer” social sciences, pushing free-market economics and a general skepticism about social engineering. We can see in retrospect that this conservative political economy gained the upper hand in American politics with the rise of Ronald Reagan, and still has it. The result over the last 40 years has been a steady erosion in the capacity of the American state to manage the economy and engineer the society. That in turn has meant an inexorable transfer of wealth from the middle class to the very rich.
Parallel to the counterrevolution in political economy was a cultural reaction touched off by the turmoil of the 1960s (civil rights and antiwar movements) and by the Roe v. Wade abortion decision of the US Supreme Court. The main thrust of this reaction, spearheaded by conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, was to take the country back to a mythical time when all was well in (white) America and we didn’t have all these people claiming new rights.
The challenge to the hard sciences was initially also rooted in conservative religious convictions. Unlike religious belief, science depended on continual revision of theory based on empirical observation. There is no final, definitive truth. This gave the Christian Right an opening to question any scientific conclusion. Whether on biological evolution or modern cosmology, if a scientific consensus conflicted with a religious conviction, religion would trump science.
Lately, in the last decade or two, we’ve gone beyond the religious challenge to science. Take Trump’s rejection of the science of climate change, or that of pandemic management. In neither case is he basing his objection on religious doctrine. Rather, it’s just a matter of opinion. Trump has as much right to call climate change a hoax as thousands of climatologists have to affirm the results of their research, and as much right to prescribe treatment strategies as trained epidemiologists.
A thousand years ago, Christendom had one truth, Christianity. A hundred years ago, The West had one truth, science.
Now, there are as many truths as there are opinions. Or no truth at all.