It’s Not a War on Science
Know your enemy, Sun Tzu reminds us in The Art of War. Science is in a war, but not the one many think. To avoid costly mistakes, scientists and those who support them need to know and understand the forces in the field. Those forces are not engaged in an attack on science—or the truth.
To be sure, it often seems as if they are. Researchers now expect federal science budgets to be cut significantly by Congress. Government scientists have seen their ability to speak in public curtailed. The president has issued executive orders rescinding recently promulgated rules supported by environmental scientists on climate change and water quality. Activists nationwide are busily downloading government data out of fear that government officials will remove access to it as they already have in a small number of cases. Surely, this is all the evidence one needs to conclude that there is a widespread attack on science under way in the United States—especially given the attackers’ admitted willingness to embrace #alternativefacts.
Counting the number of times that President Trump has lied may be good politics. So may labeling him antiscience. President Obama ran a powerful 2008 campaign on the slogan of restoring science to its rightful place in US society. His branding of George W. Bush as antiscience played on Bush’s history of fumbling decisions about research in areas such as climate change and embryonic stem cells. Obama’s tactics worked because a significant majority of the public believed in 2008 in the virtue and value of scientific research. Since most still do, similar tactics may work well again today.
But Sun Tzu’s axiom to know your enemy is a warning not to confuse political strategy with winning a war. Winning requires true understanding of your opponents, their resources and capabilities, and especially their motives and objectives.
What appears to be a war on science by the current Congress and president is, in fact, no such thing. Fundamentally, it is a war on government. To be more specific, it is a war on a form of government with which science has become deeply aligned and allied over the past century. To the disparate wings of the conservative movement that believe that US strength lies in its economic freedoms, its individual liberties, and its business enterprises, one truth binds them all: the federal government has become far too powerful.
Science is, for today’s conservatives, an instrument of federal power. They attack science’s forms of truth-making, its databases, and its budgets not out of a rejection of either science or truth, but as part of a coherent strategy to weaken the power of the federal agencies that rely on them. Put simply, they war on science to sap the legitimacy of the federal government. Mistaking this for a war on science could lead to bad tactics, bad strategy, and potentially disastrous outcomes for both science and democracy.
Conservative opposition to science-based government is rooted in American history. For most of the first 100 years of the United States, everything was small except US territory. Government was small, and so were businesses. Indeed, all organizations were small. The US state was tiny when measured by the budget and employment of the federal government today. Until the Civil War, for example, the federal government imposed minimal taxes and had almost no budget. The US Army was modest because we had few enemies.
Then came the railroads. Building the railroads required extensive capital and resources, and above all their construction and management required massive organization. In a few decades, the businesses that made steel and railroad cars, that laid rail lines and operated railroads, that provided the wood and coal to run them, and that financed all of this activity became gigantic, nation-spanning enterprises. Oil came next, fueling an enormous industrial boom. By the turn of the twentieth century, names such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Mellon, and John D. Rockefeller were well known in most households. To run their business empires, these industrialists built organizations that dwarfed anything ever seen before on the planet, inventing modern notions of economies of scale, organizational management, and business administration. It is not an accident that the first business schools were established at the University of Pennsylvania in 1881 and Dartmouth College in 1900 to train a new cadre of professionals in managing modern business behemoths.
To their critics, the nineteenth-century industrialists were the “robber barons” of a new age, profiteering to the detriment of many and creating profound and destructive new forms of inequality in a nation committed to its opposite. In the early 1900s, this inequality found its voice in two populist movements: the Progressives and the Conservationists. The Progressives sought to end what they perceived to be the economic monopolies created by the industrialists. The Conservationists sought to reduce what they perceived to be the waste and inefficiencies of corrupt natural resource exploitation. Both found a staunch ally in the Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who took over after President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901 and whose political actions as president from 1901 to 1909 helped to remake US government into a radically new form.
Roosevelt dramatically upgraded the power of the federal government. He created the Federal Bureau of Investigation to establish a professional national police force that would empower the Department of Justice to fight economic and political corruption, as well as the anarchist movement—the terrorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He signed the Food and Drug Act to regulate the use of chemicals in food and medicine, paving the way for the later creation of the Food and Drug Administration. He hired Gifford Pinchot, the famous Yale forester, to reorganize and upgrade the power of the US Forest Service to regulate the lumber industry in federal forests. He established the Reclamation Service and later upgraded it to the Bureau of Reclamation to manage the nation’s rivers. He reorganized federal land laws, significantly altering the ways that western lands were managed for settlement, grazing, mineral rights, and other uses. Roosevelt also radically upgraded the federal government’s knowledge agencies. He established the first permanent Bureau of the Census, in 1902. He established the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903, giving it control over the Bureau of Statistics, to ensure that the federal government had the social and economic knowledge it needed to pursue its policy goals.
In all of this, Roosevelt drew heavily on two key concepts of governance. The first was the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and the second was the power of the expert to sort out just how to achieve that goal. Conservation meant ending the waste of scarce economic resources, such as water, wood, and land, to serve narrow private interests. Roosevelt sought to put resource extraction and use in the service of the nation by ending monopolies, expanding production, and significantly reducing prices, so as to boost national economic growth. Eliminating waste also meant ensuring that the government had the power to set and enforce standardized weights and measures, and in 1903 he established the National Bureau of Standards. To make all of these ideas work, his new agencies hired significant numbers of experts and lawyers to rewrite policies and put them on a sound legal and scientific foundation. Along the way, he significantly upgraded the Bureaus of Chemistry, Soils, Entomology, Fisheries, and Biological Survey.
When his carefully groomed successor, William Howard Taft, began undoing his policies, Roosevelt ran against him in 1912, splitting the Republican vote and returning a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, to the White House. In 1913, Wilson completed Roosevelt’s Progressive legacy, overseeing the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the establishment of the Federal Reserve Board to regulate the national economy, and the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment allowing the creation of a national income tax. New powers to collect data were granted to diverse federal statistical agencies to provide key knowledge for the Federal Reserve Board, creating the impetus for the development over the subsequent three decades of measures of industrial activity, unemployment, and the national income and product accounts.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the prominence of experts in legitimizing federal government power have persisted and deepened. At the end of World War II, Vannevar Bush’s Science, The Endless Frontier helped to justify the shift of scientific research from private to public financing, at the same time accomplishing what was likely the largest overall increase in scientific funding in human history. The wartime successes of the Manhattan Project, radar, proximity fuses, and operations research created a new appreciation for the power of science to deliver valuable tools for national defense and, incidentally, for the growth of the defense industries. Similarly, the wartime development of penicillin gave rise—with a little help from Congress in the form of new intellectual property rules—to the modern, scientific pharmaceutical industry. With its new funds and newfound economic relevance, scientific research quickly shifted from a minor university backwater to a key driver of an enormous upgrading of higher education institutions.
The war also brought scientists into government service in much larger numbers than ever before. Rising conflict with the Soviet Union further exacerbated this trend. In 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik months before the United States was prepared to launch its own first satellite, the nation responded with the Defense Education Act, which funneled massive new funds into scientific and engineering education to train a new generation of scientists who could help keep the country ahead of its rivals. President Dwight Eisenhower also established the office of the president’s science advisor, endorsing the notion that independent scientists would “speak truth to power” and advise the federal government on the proper policies to pursue to safeguard the nation.
The idea that science advice could improve government grabbed the imagination of postwar policymakers. Within 15 years, the federal government had created so many new scientific advisory committees that Congress felt compelled to regulate them in the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act. Indeed, so powerful was this new policy apparatus that new regulatory agencies created in the 1970s were given the authority to act only on the say-so of science and saddled with complicated new scientific advisory bodies that oversaw their core activities. By 2000, the federal government had literally thousands of scientific advisory bodies working in virtually every policy arena.
Of the new regulatory agencies, the most prominent may well be the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Established in 1970 by President Richard Nixon under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), EPA was required by its authorizing act to publish in the Federal Register the scientific justification for any new regulatory rule. At the same time, EPA was required to establish a Science Advisory Board to oversee its research and the application of that research in rule-making processes. Together, these two rules turned EPA into a magnet for scientific controversy. The fact that NEPA allowed EPA rules to be enforced or challenged by lawsuits meant that those controversies quickly spilled over into the courts. For over a decade, the Supreme Court supported a “hard look” doctrine that encouraged courts to further scrutinize agency science. The courts also insisted that other kinds of government acts, such as takings, be justified by science. Meanwhile, Congress continued to act, and each new major environmental law—the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, among others—more closely aligned EPA’s fate with science.
Given this history, it should hardly surprise us that the major environmental controversy of the past quarter-century has largely played out as a battle over science. Climate change is a phenomenon knowable only through science. Even prodigiously warm February months are but a statistical anomaly absent a scientific model of the Earth’s climate system through which to interpret them as signals of globally shifting weather patterns. Scientists put climate change squarely on the global diplomatic agenda in the late 1980s, arguing strenuously for policy attention to an issue that they had first highlighted for politicians in the 1950s and 1960s and calling for deep, planetwide regulation of several of the world’s oldest, richest, most powerful, and most important energy industries. In doing so, they drew heavily on the history of science advice to government and the organization of powerful government agencies to regulate the economy built up over a century of transformation of US government.
But even in 1990, as the United Nations was launching its first climate negotiations that would lead to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the tides of US politics were already shifting. Coming into office a decade earlier, Ronald Reagan had gutted EPA, signaling the strength of a new conservative movement founded on concerns about the perceived excessive size and power of the federal government. Fueled by money from the carbon industries, conservatives rallied against federal regulation designed to slow climate change and what they perceived to be an even more insidious threat: the organization of a new and powerful form of political globalization that put the power of the US state in the service of a planetary ideology. Climate change became a cause for conservatives to fight at all costs. Meanwhile, scientists continued to become more convinced of its long-term catastrophic potential. The spiraling politics put the two groups ever more squarely on war footing.
Republican efforts today to dismantle Obamacare, the Environmental Protection Agency, and federal climate regulation are one and the same. As Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief policy adviser, acknowledged at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference, the overarching goal is the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” In the early 1900s, numerous groups, from business lobbies to rural landowners to proponents of states’ rights, opposed Roosevelt’s and Wilson’s upgrading of the power of the federal government. They watched in horror as Franklin Roosevelt built the New Deal State out of the ashes of the Great Depression, as the federal government created Social Security and Medicare, as Lyndon Johnson passed his Great Society legislation, as Congress created new forms of social and environmental regulation in the 1970s, and as Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in the depths of the Great Recession. Each new expansion of the federal government grew the terrain over which federal experts administer rules and regulations governing markets and private life.
It is not an accident that “experts” have become the enemy of those who feel left behind in the United States and Europe. The twentieth century’s most powerful forms of government have been built on the backs of experts. When that trend began, experts provided a powerful service for democratic publics, helping to create new government agencies that could balance the power of the massive new business organizations created by industrialization. Science and expertise created the appearance of taking issues out of the realms of politics and onto more neutral terrain. The recognition that this was largely illusion—and that politics remained central to the exercise of science-based government—took a while to register. Today is a different world. Authorized and powered by science, data, and expertise, the US federal government is now arguably the most powerful institution on the planet. Many on the left joined the right in feeling deeply uncomfortable with the massive new surveillance powers of the National Security Agency, authorized by Congress after the 2001 terrorist attacks and amplified by advances in technology.
Writing in The National Review after Bannon’s speech to conservatives, Jonah Goldberg observed, “The CIA is not the ‘deep state’—the FDA, OSHA, FCC, EPA, and countless other agencies are.” It’s a telling remark. Writing a decade ago from the other end of the political spectrum, I made the same observation. Scientific expertise provides legitimacy to governments to apply a strong hand in regulating our increasingly techno-scientific world. The only question is: How comfortable are we with that fact?
There is no war on science. For scientists, climate change has become a litmus test for belief in science. Responses to the skepticism expressed by the new director of EPA, Scott Pruitt, about climate change have called him ignorant, anti-science, and in the pockets of the oil sector. But for conservatives, the refusal to acknowledge climate change is a direct response to the success of scientists over the course of the twentieth century in putting science to work justifying the exercise of federal power. Under this model, acknowledging climate science would mean another significant upgrade in the power of government to regulate the economy not just in the United States but across the planet. For conservatives, the enemy is not science itself but the further expansion of powerful, centralized, science-informed government. For them it’s as much a crisis moment as it is for climate scientists: win now or lose the war for another century.
There’s only one catch. Conservatives have their eyes set on the power of science-based government as the problem. But for the past century, businesses have also tied their fortunes to science, creating massive techno-economic powerhouses and techno-human complexes that straddle the planet. Today’s science-based industries are no more intuitively allies of freedom and equality than their government counterparts. The logic of capital has become so tightly interwoven with technology that today’s businesses cannot openly acknowledge that their transformative agendas pose serious ethical, moral, or political risks. Tesla cannot admit the possibility that a rapid shift to driverless vehicles may not be a good idea any more than Google, Facebook, Intel, or Cisco can admit that the Internet has opened up individuals and countries to massive challenges of cybersecurity, surveillance, manipulation, and corruption any more than Exxon can admit that every day its activities are slowly, inexorably pushing the climate system over the brink.
Science is not some magic force for progress and democracy. It is a powerful agent of global social and environmental change. Our choices are stark and not entirely happy. We can continue to place the full burden of supporting social values on government, further centralizing power to regulate technology, industry, and society. Alternatively, we can reject the claims that modern technological enterprises are “too big to fail” and seek to dismantle them.
There is one other path. Much as we have sought over the past two decades to put sustainability at the heart of technology, business, and policy innovation, now is the time to do the same for social responsibility, and to redouble our efforts in support of both objectives. Science, business, and government have together made the modern world what it is. All three must step up to ensure that future societies are worth inhabiting—and they must do so in concert with global publics. None of the three can any longer pretend that they stand outside politics. Democracy depends on it. So does the future our children will inherit.