Antiscientists are leading America down a dangerous road
These eerie echoes from the past show nations that placed ideology ahead of science - like America is now - have come out losers
By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jul 15, 2011 | Comments (72)
Today's GOP antiscience fervor is somewhat new for America. The last time it got close was about a century ago, when the Democrats went antiscience under the leadership of three-time presidential candidate and anti-evolution campaigner William Jennings Bryan. Back then, the Republicans were the party of science, reason, finance, environmentalism and progressivism.
But even then, things weren't as virulent as they are now, because the push was coming mostly from Southern social and religious conservatives, while today those conservatives are joined by the vested interests and deep pockets of big business. This is driving almost all of the new GOP freshmen lawmakers to take positions that are vehemently anti-climate science, pro-creationism, pro-abstinence only education, and seeking to personally vilify, harrass and attack scientists for their own political gain.
This has never been a successful strategy, and today's GOP should abandon it. Americans should support Republican candidates that are pro-science. Nations that have strayed too far down the path of placing ideology ahead of science have come out losers, both economically and in terms of global power. Consider these examples from history, that are eerily echoed in today's antiscience politics:
Italy: it is "vehemently suspect" that an opinion can be held as probable after it has been decreed contrary to the Holy Scripture
Galileo simply wrote about his observations through a telescope, which proved that Copernicus had been right 67 years earlier: Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. The Church responded by indicting and imprisoning Galileo, writing that
1. The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.
2. The proposition that the earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but that it moves, and also with a diurnal action, is also absurd, philosophically false, and, theologically considered, at least erroneous in faith.
Therefore . . . , invoking the most holy name of our Lord Jesus Christ and of His Most Glorious Mother Mary, We pronounce this Our final sentence: We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo . . . have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world; also, that an opinion can be held and supported as probable, after it has been declared and finally decreed contrary to the Holy Scripture.
The poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, visited Galileo at Arcetri, the hilly area to the South of Florence where he was under house arrest. Milton said that he was counted by the “learned men” he met there “happy to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom as they supposed England was.” The “inquisition tyrannies” of the church’s crackdown had “dampened the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been there written, now these many years, but flattery and fustian.”
The Church's action echoes in today's efforts by creationists and abstinence-only sex education proponents. The enlightenment shifted to England, and Italy faded as a world power.
Soviet Union: fly lovers and people haters - I kid you not!
The charismatic peasant Trofim Lysenko ingratiated himself to cpmmunist party leaders and wound up forcing an ideologically driven agriculture contradicted by science. Presaging Sarah Palin, he denounced and suppressed scientists who questioned his odd schemes as “fly lovers and people haters” (because geneticists were doing fruit fly research – I kid you not!) but his uneducated methods decimated soviet agriculture.
Soviet scientists who opposed him were persecuted, jailed and shot. Similar to Palin's characterization of climate science as “junk science” by an “environmental priesthood,” Soviet geneticists, physicists and chemists were dismissed as “caste priests of ivory-tower bourgeois pseudoscience.” Soviet agriculture, biology and genetics were held back for forty years, greatly weakening the Soviet Union and helping to lead to its eventual downfall.
Weimar Germany: Relativity is a hoax with economic motives
Einstein first visited America in 1921, and his welcome stood in stark contrast to the treatment he was getting at home. There, right-wing relativity deniers were mounting personal attacks against Einstein and his theory, which they loudly branded as a “hoax,” presaging modern attacks on climate science, and criticized Einstein for having economic motives, just as today's climate scientists are often accused of having. The relativity-deniers were anti-immigrant right-leaning nationalists led by an engineer named Paul Weyland, who formed a small but well-funded group that held antirelativity rallies around Germany, denouncing the theory’s “Jewish nature,” and culminating in a major event at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall on August 24, 1920. "If I were a reactionary nationalist wearing an anti-foreigners badge instead of being a Jew of liberal international ideas I might have been treated quite differently by those gentlemen," Einstein said.
The political animosity motivating the denialism grew so bad that Einstein decided to leave Berlin. “This world is a strange madhouse,” he wrote a friend three weeks after the rally. “Currently every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” Even prominent physicists were getting into the denialism, largely along political lines. 1905 Nobel Laureate Philipp Lenard, who had previously exchanged flattering letters with Einstein, had since become bitter about the Jews and jealous of the popular publicity Einstein’s theory was receiving. He now called relativity “absurd” and lent his name to Weyland’s group’s publicity brochures, and as a Nobel laureate he worked behind the scenes to make certain Einstein would be denied the prize.
Nazi dittoheads versus degenerates
Science was one thing but its fruit, technology, was a different matter. Adolf Hitler was an early adopter of the latest technology, which he used to great political advantage. He barnstormed twenty-one cities by airplane – a first – in his 1932 campaign for president against Paul von Hindenburg, an effort the campaign called “Hitler über Deutschland.” The Nazi party mounted a relative novelty – gramophones – on vehicles and used the public’s attraction to them to broadcast a uniform political message, presaging today's AM talk radio jocks and "echo chambers" of right-leaning news media and think tanks that use technology to repeat uniform messaging to create "dittoheads." Hitler lost the presidential election, but won enough publicity to be named chancellor in 1933. That year, the Third Reich introduced another weapon with which to spread uniform Nazi ideology. They underwrote the Volksempfänger, or “people’s radio,” and offered it to the public at low cost, with great success. It had no international short wave bands, only domestic, which the government filled with propaganda and patriotic music. The world’s first regular television broadcast was instituted in Germany beginning in March 1935, with similar goals, and the Third Reich pioneered the use of the classroom filmstrip to inculcate uniform Nazi ideas about politics and racial pseudoscience in students.
Hitler’s Minister for Armaments, Albert Speer, recounted the effects of the use of new technology to deliver a uniform message in his trial in Nuremberg. “Hitler’s dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history. It was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country. Through technical devices like the radio and the loudspeaker, eighty million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man ... Earlier dictators needed highly qualified assistants even at the lowest level - men who could think and act independently. The totalitarian system in the period of modern technical development can dispense with such men; thanks to modern methods of communication, it is possible to mechanize the lower leadership. As a result of this there has arisen the new type of the uncritical recipient of orders."
Germany also made great strides in mechanized warfare and made key technological advancements to the submarine and ballistic missile. But the intolerance and uniformity of the Nazi regime and the elevation of ideology and propaganda over knowledge and science began to work against the ideals of freedom that lie at the foundation of science. Berlin was the capital of world art, culture, and science in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but the Nazis considered the city’s artistic and scientific cross-pollination degenerate. Among their early targets, aside from the Jews and liberal scientists, were the disabled, homosexuals and modern artists and jazz musicians, who were banned and persecuted while traditional conservative artists were celebrated. As they elevated rhetoric and ideology over science and tolerance, Germany’s intellectuals began to either conform to Nazi ideology or flee. Within a decade, German scientific and technological progress ground to a halt as the Third Reich lost many of its most creative minds to Britain and the United States. These immigrants helped to fuel the post-war boom in the American economy, half of which was driven by science and technology.
China's "Great Leap Forward" after rejecting the "technical elite"
Suppression of knowledge weakened China during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forwad. Mao prided himself on his peasant roots and considered intellectuals arrogant, dangerous antirevolutionaries. Similar to Eisenhower, who warned America of an emerging scientific-technological elite, Mao was concerned that scientists could take over as a “technical elite,” so he demanded that ideology take precedence over science, effectively silencing scientists, not unlike several American antiscience conservative radio commentators today who complain of a "scientific dictatorship."
In 1957 he set forth a plan to transform China into a modern industrialized society. It would overtake Britain in fifteen years while simultaneously feeding its own people and exporting grain to other nations. Mao had no knowledge of metallurgy but, based on a single demonstration, he pushed millions of peasants to smelt steel in “backyard furnaces.” They burned trees, doors and furniture as fuel and melted scrap metal like their pots and pans. Peasants were given outrageously optimistic grain production quotas based on Lysenko’s assumptions.
Because ideology and appearance of success mattered more than the facts of their meager harvest, the peasants gave more grain to the state for export than they could spare. At the same time, millions of other peasants were diverted off farms into large scale public works projects needed to industrialize the country, and grain crops were left to rot in the fields. Scientists and others who suggested that Mao’s plans were unrealistic were "struggled against" or executed. The furnaces failed, the steel was unusable, and forty million Chinese people died in the greatest famine in human history.
Today, America's highest profile antiscience elected leaders are calling climate change a hoax, harrassing and trying to intimidate scientists they disagree with, saying that creationism should be taught in science class, arguing that homosexuality is "personal enslavement" and that abstinence-only sex education works, opposing the arts, and passing resolutions that say that astrology controls the weather.
It's difficult to see how any of this is good for America. If fact, it's the kind of thinking America has usually stood against. And in a global economy increasingly dominated by science, it's hard to imagine how this can position us for economic success in the coming decades.