Ever since Pope Urban VIII condemned Galileo in 1633 for asserting that the earth revolved around the sun, it has been obvious that what people accept as science is influenced by religion and politics. The Pope argued that Galileo’s claims about the solar system, based on the most advanced astronomy, contradicted the Bible, and therefore could not be correct. The political power of the Vatican transformed Urban VIII’s assertions about science into lifelong imprisonment for Galileo.
Science is one way of explaining our universe. The methods of science can be extremely complex, but they are guided by a few simple rules: gather the best evidence; create explanations based on all available evidence; do not allow forces outside of scientific evidence to influence conclusions. No human being can be a perfect scientist. Every step in a scientific investigation is human, meaning inevitably imperfect in design, implementation, and understanding. Scientific method is an admirable goal, impossible to reach.
But scientists have gotten quite a bit better since the 17th century. Relentlessly doubting every discovery, improving every instrument, and broadening their inquiries to cover every facet of the material world, scientists have transformed human society. Science has not just gotten better, it has triumphed over other ways of explaining what we experience, consciously and unconsciously. Magical, mythical, and religious explanations of physical reality have retreated in the face of modern science. If we want to know whether we will recover from an illness or how to feed a baby, we don’t ask a priest or a medium; we seek the scientific consensus.
Political forces, however, can distort science and encourage popular ignorance of the truth. Both the Soviet Communists on the far left and the Nazis on the far right made politics the sole judge of what was acceptable science. To a much lesser degree, every American administration has used political ideology and political muscle to push science in particular directions. Even considering this history, the Bush Administration politicized science to an unprecedented extent. Scientists outside and within the government ceaselessly complained about the misuse of scientific evidence that characterized Bush’s two terms.
There is nothing new here. Conservative political leaders have been using government power to obstruct scientific progress for decades: they denied that pollution of our air and water was dangerous and that tobacco caused cancer. George Bush killed legislation to give the FDA power to regulate cigarettes by threatening to veto it, and Republicans in Congress continue to be the main opposition to the effort to control the sale of tobacco. Conservatives have repeatedly refused to accept the best science about threats to our public health, because only government could then offer remedies. They have fought significant efforts to improve public health, from Medicare to our current health reform debate, in order to prevent the growth of government. And every time their “science” was wrong.
Now we discover that the Republican candidates for governor of Illinois reject the worldwide scientific consensus that humans have significantly contributed to global warming. Conservatives in Illinois and across the country once again line up against the best science, because they fear the political consequences.
I use “fear” deliberately. Ask any of our Republican candidates which country is the world leader in science. I doubt that any would name Germany or China or Japan. But they are afraid to accept the conclusions of American science. They fear that if Americans believed that the health of the earth we will leave to our children and grandchildren is threatened, the populace would demand that we do something about it.
So once again politics trumps science, and our health is the casualty. I wonder what they say when their children come home from school with F’s in science.
Mr. Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).