President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty. President Richard Nixon, more cynically, declared a War on Drugs to indirectly target the black and hippie communities. And since taking office, Republican President Donald Trump has stepped up the unofficially declared War on Science.
The American War on Science has been ongoing since the 1925 trial, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, over whether evolution could be taught in schools. After an eight-day trial, it took only 9 minutes for the jury to decide it was illegal to teach the scientific theory in a publicly-funded school. Evolution runs crosswise of religious doctrine and, evidently, the United States is a nation “under God.”
American science, in fact, had always been somewhat paltry since the days of Benjamin Franklin. Sure, the United States was a technological nation with the likes of Colt, Whitney, Goodyear, Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and Ford. But science? Not so much. In fact, in the early part of the 20th century, anyone hoping for a decent career as a physicist was expected to get a graduate degree, or at least a post-doc position, in Europe.
All that changed, however, when science went nationalist in Germany. A “German Science” was suddenly on the continent and a “Jewish Science” was all the stuff not included with those ideas.
Who spearheaded the move for nationalist science? Two über-smart German physicists, Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, both Nobel Laureates. And what did the Germans consider “Jewish Science”? Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.
In the 1930s, as the situation got worse for Jews in Europe, some scientists fled to Britain and, even more, to the United States. Suddenly Americans didn’t have to go to Europe to get a top-notch science education. It came to them. And, with the European scientists as a foundation, the modern study of science in the United States began. Most Nobel Prizes won by Americans in physics are still echos of that brain influx.
All courtesy of Herr Hitler.
Of course, science in Germany suffered greatly from this purge and took decades to recover. Today, many physicists from Europe come to the U.S. for graduate degrees, or at least a post-doc position.
The mix of politics and science also ruined another country, the U.S.S.R. There, in the 1940s with the backing of Stalin, Trofim Lysenko single-handedly stalled the study of genetics in particular and biology in general for decades. Mendelian genetics, and consequently Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, were “wrong” according to Lysenko. Through political means, Lysenko’s own pseudo-scientific theories became literally the law of the land. It was not legally possible to challenge Lysenko’s work. As a result, the biological sciences in the Soviet Union stagnated for years until Stalin died and Lysenko fell out of favor.
Today, climate change has overtaken evolution as the science most likely to upset American conservatives. These climate change deniers use specious arguments to make their case. Some arguments center on elementary mistakes such as confusing climate and weather. Other arguments invoke numerical ignorance such as erroneously assuming a “mere” 50 parts per million extra carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere is not large enough to affect Earth’s ecosystem. (The toxic stench of a good fart is caused by hydrogen sulfide in concentrations less than 5 parts per million. Yet your nose easily picks up this scent. Still think that 50 parts per million, more than 10x the hydrogen sulfide concentration in a fart, is “small”?)
Much of climate change denial is a consequence of a group of people deciding that the health of the planet is less important than the health of their businesses. Yet it is curious how rigid authoritarians always seem to be the ones who have such problems with science in general. It’s as if science imposes an objective reality regardless of how much someone willfully denies it. The scenario originally played out as Galileo’s evidence-based insistence, in spite of Catholic dogma, that the Earth moves around the Sun. However, the same story of reality versus stubborn denial spools out in history again and again. The current Republican rejection of climate science will look as arrogant and foolish to people of the future as the Catholic Church’s denials appear to us today.
There are indications that the Republicans and their President Donald Trump want to remove data from government websites. This is information already paid for by the American taxpayer. Make no mistake: this data deletion is the digital form of book burning. Scientists, in fact, have been moving the precious data, that the politicians would so easily destroy, to places of safety for future generations.
It is an embarrassment to the United States that the government has created a national mood in which scientists, a fairly composed lot, are this concerned. America has, after all, split the atom and sent humans to the Moon. America was the lead partner in mapping out the human genome and is still the leader in exploring the planets of our solar system.
But nothing is guaranteed. Germany was the world center of science right up until it was not. Denying the consequences of science does not get rid of the science, only the scientists. Climate research will not stop because the U.S. stops its research. It will continue in Western Europe and, more importantly, China. The Republican vision will only isolate the U.S. and cede our scientific leadership to other countries.
That is not making America great. That is making America crippled.
For science knows no political boundary. It knows no ideology. The truth is the truth. We are tied to Nature; Nature isn’t tied to us.
We, as a country, must therefore support our science and our scientific freedom. If we lose the War on Science, we will surely lose America.