I can remember from my childhood the waning years of the Left’s ambivalence toward science. Of course, the Left saw itself as the party of Reason, so it couldn’t be openly anti-science. However, in those times, people’s attitude toward science was shaped largely by their attitude toward new technology. Scientists were seen as magicians who had proven that they could do just about anything, and what’s more, they would do just about anything if somebody asked them to and gave them the money. Brilliant but amoral. The shadow of the Manhattan Project lasted a very long time. The Left had already established themselves as the guardians of morality, and they found it hard to forgive scientists giving America all those H-bombs to point at the Workers’ Paradise.
The then-young environmentalist movement at that time had a distinctively Luddite strain (“Split wood, not atoms” as one bumper sticker said, if you can believe it), the idea being that we had gotten into this mess by going against our own place in nature with all this new-fangled technology. Much of this was silly and unrealistic, but it also provided a link to the conservationist sensibility of the early 20th-century anti-capitalist, agrarian Right. That is, it gave environmentalism the potential to be a much broader cross-ideological movement, an opportunity that is now largely past. Today, the Green factions are sure that what man must do is to make his break with nature complete, that for the sake of nature we must abandon our natural impulses to reproduce and favor our own species. Natural law is thus rejected, but at least scientists are back in the movements’ good graces, especially when bearing suitably frightening climate models.
Science’s use of resources, or at least NASA’s, was at least implicitly called into question in those days by social justice crusaders. Perhaps you remember the then-common saying “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we do X?” X was usually something like “end poverty” which people really should have realized is intrinsically much more intractable than putting a man on the moon. Of course, the main point was that we should pay the bill to get X, but plenty of people also plainly thought that space exploration is a frivolous expense in a world where children are starving. Ironically, NASA had found itself in the same position as the Catholic Church, which was always being criticized for building beautiful cathedrals. In a sense, arts, humanities, and sciences are always frivolous, at least when those starving children are kept in view. Should we not end all learning and research and beauty and use those resources to alleviate suffering? Civilization requires that these humanitarian demands not be given an absolute trump.
Alas, professional science and the Left have now been fully reconciled. Scientists are no longer seen as an amoral force that can serve good or evil. Science is not thought of in terms of technological wizardry. This at least might have been a positive development, because applications were never really what science was about. However, in the public mind, science is not, as we scientists like to think of it, identified either with a subject matter (patterns in the natural world) or a methodology (the “scientific method”) but with a worldview, and scientists are its priests and prophets. They are distinguished by their superior faith in the “scientific” part of the Leftist creed, such as that Race Is A Social Construct. Scientists won’t go around making death rays and killer robots. They’ve gone to the opposite extreme of being moralistic scolds who lecture us about global warming, racism, and overpopulation. We accuse people of being unscientific for what they think, rather than how they think.
Ironically, as scientists have secured their image as morally righteous (or, as obnoxiously self-righteous, depending on your opinion of the pet causes), they’ve lost their image as miracle-workers. When I was a kid, it was just expected that scientists tomorrow would be able to do things that seem impossible today. It was expected because that’s what they had been doing for a century. Consider the things we now worry are too difficult for us: controlled fusion, missile defense, manned inter-planetary space exploration. Partly it’s true that we used to be more optimistic about these things because we didn’t appreciate the challenges and costs. However, a better understanding of these things wouldn’t have curbed anybody’s enthusiasm back then, because we would have just expected the scientists to do something extra ingenious to solve such problems.
Actually, I would say experimental science has done, or is on the verge of doing astounding things. To take just my own broader field of astrophysics, I think it’s remarkable that we can now detect Earth-like planets around other stars and even begin to make statements about the atmospheres of hot Jupiters; if LIGO actually sees something in a few years, this will be a stupendous engineering feat; if the Event Horizon Telescope manages to image the black hole at the center of the galaxy, that would be even more awesome. However, one does have to actually be interested in astronomy to be impressed by these things, whereas pretty much everybody saw the interest in airplanes and atomic bombs.
Yes, I know. I’m rambling.
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