THE BLOG
10/15/2014 12:37 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

How Did We Become a Society Suspicious of Science?

Thomas Tolstrup via Getty Images

I grew up in the heroic age of American science and engineering. In my lifetime, the space program put men on the moon, the interstate highway system connected the continent, Salk and Sabin conquered polio, and computers went from room-sized behemoths to hand-held wonders. In my youth, America clearly led the world in its ability to conduct large-scale science and engineering projects. True, some of these projects were morally disturbing. The Castle Bravo test of March 1, 1954, a 15-megaton thermonuclear blast at Bikini Atoll, caused radioactive fallout to rain down on unsuspecting victims. Yet the nuclear tests also represented scientific and engineering expertise of the highest order.

When John F. Kennedy said in 1962 that we would go to the moon in that decade, he was not indulging in wishful speculation but was confidently projecting on the basis of proven success. Tom Hanks, playing Jim Lovell in the movie Apollo 13, said that it was not a miracle that we got to the moon. We just decided to go.

Now our infrastructure is crumbling, we have to hitch rocket rides with the Russians, and every few weeks a new study asserts that our students don't know a protein from a proton. Have we lost our scientific mojo? I doubt it. We still have some of the finest science and engineering schools and departments and many outstanding individuals in the STEM fields (though we need more kids going into those fields).

But something has been lost. Fifty years ago science was king. Science had respect; it was bigger than ideology. No longer. Radio blowhards contemptuously dismiss scientific findings and endorse ideological claptrap. Anti-science stalks the halls of Congress and kooky ideas are rife among Boards of Education. Formerly, all parties in public debate, liberal and conservative, displayed deference to science. Now we have Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, openly denouncing the findings of climate scientists as a hoax. The Texas State Board of Education, which is dominated by religious fundamentalists, prefers the propaganda of ax-grinding cranks over the recommendations of hundreds of qualified scientists and scholars.

How did this happen? How did bay-at-the-moon lunacy come to occupy a more prominent place in our public discourse than textbook science? How, indeed, has it ever come to be thought that there is still a scientific debate over evolution, or that pluperfect nonsense like creationism is worthy of a hearing? How did there come to be a multi-million dollar "creation museum" in Kentucky, with full-scale models of dinosaurs fitted out with saddles? (Why saddles? So Adam and Eve could ride them around Eden. Duh.)

The left, like the right, has its own antiscientific ideologies. During the "science wars" debates of the 1990s, members of the "academic left" assailed the objectivity and rationality of science. Radical feminist science critics attacked scientific ideals of objectivity, brandishing the slogan that "objectivity is just what a man calls his subjectivity." Other critics belittled scientific achievements, claiming that so-called scientific discoveries were merely "social constructs." Some historians of science insisted that the course of science is driven by politics, not logic and evidence. Others claimed that scientific methods are nothing more than rhetorical devices to browbeat opponents into agreement. Even some philosophers got in on the act. Berkeley philosopher Paul Feyerabend's critique of scientific methodology caused some to label him "the worst enemy of science."

Paul Feyerabend was not the worst enemy of science. Radical feminists and others of the "academic left" are not the worst enemies of science. Neither are the right-wing radio bloviators. Big money is the worst enemy of science.

Big Tobacco found the way to fight science. What do you do if the science shows that your product is deadly, killing tens of thousands of your customers a year, yet that product brings you profits beyond the dreams of avarice? You deny the science. You hire your own "experts" to do science your way and reach the conclusions you require. It is easy. The comic strip Dilbert shows just how easy. In one strip the evil CEO Dogbert enters a business with the name "Weasels R Us." Dogbert says to the weasel behind the counter: "I need three bitter and unsuccessful scientists and a hundred lazy journalists." The weasel says, "Consider it done!" The final panel shows Dilbert reading the headline "Toddlers Thrive on Pollution." You can always find somebody with "Ph.D." after his name willing to say what you want to hear. So, the way to fight science is to set up an alternative "science" of your own.

This tactic worked wonderfully. By generating doubt about the science, Big Tobacco avoided meaningful regulation for years. What worked for Big Tobacco now works even better for Big Oil and Big Coal. By funding obscurantist opposition to climate science, they have effectively scuttled any reforms that might threaten their profits.

Indeed, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway show in their superb book Merchants of Doubt, manufacturing doubt about science is itself now a big business. Big corporations fund their own "research" institutes and "think" tanks to churn out junk science, skewed statistics, and self-serving disinformation. These institutions pose as communities of scholars, but really they are ideological propaganda mills that serve the agendas of the big money interests that fund them. Such organizations exist to construct a counter-narrative -- a specious alternative to scientific information -- and they are cynically confident that a scientifically ignorant public cannot distinguish their counterfeit from the real thing. Real science hardly has a chance against slick, lavishly funded flapdoodle.

Again, how did we go from a society that once revered science to one suspicious of it? There are many factors we could cite, but to discover the biggest reason, follow the big money.