Never before has it been so urgent to incorporate so much science into decisions about energy, pollution, environment, infectious diseases, and other issues as a prerequisite for progressive action. But the required scientific input, in political circles, has been routinely sabotaged, undermined, and ignored. Instead of a tool for envisioning new possibilities for navigating a complex and dangerous world, science seems to have become a tool for persuading people to navigate that world in an ideologically pre-determined way.
Both left and right engage in elements of science-denial. On the left, the fear is that to admit the authority of technical information in certain social areas means that the technical will replace the social and will disable critique: our moral drive will be stilled, our values watered down, our moral dimension lost. On the right, the fear is that science is being used as a bludgeon used to advance certain ideological agendas. It is tempting to blame the low authority of science in government circles on villains: the press, scientific illiteracy, or what sociologists call “amoral calculators,” people who know the good but cave to economic or political pressures. But there’s a hidden history behind these dynamics. That hidden history consists of the long story of how science was formed, promoted, and came to take on a life of its own. This paper reviews some elements of that history, from Bacon and Descartes onward. The danger nowadays is not that the technical will replace the social, but just the opposite: by it ceasing to inform practical action, ceasing to provide the basis for critique of a situation. The danger cannot be headed off without knowing the history that provides the deep currents behind prevailing attitudes about scientific authority.