Recycling Science Denial

Photograph Source: Becker1999 – CC BY 2.0

Science denial is alive and well in the United States, and the mainstream media are often complicit with it. “I represent science,” Anthony Fauci, the anti-science movement’s favorite whipping boy, was recently quoted as having said. “GOP Anger with Fauci Rises,” The Hill exclaimed, as if the frenzied Fauci-blaming were a legitimate visceral reaction to scientific overreach and not part of a calculated campaign that, to quote Fauci himself, “you’d have to be asleep” not to recognize at such. And the Washington Post gave airtime to Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru, who, in a finger-wagging opinion piece, informed Fauci that he can’t “use science to excuse his missteps.”

The science deniers have become so comfortable these days that they don’t even try to hide their tracks. Even some of the most staunchly conservative outlets quoted Fauci’s remarks in full, which should have made it clear to all mildly attentive readers that the offending statement had been deliberately taken out of context. What the chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases had in fact said was that, to anti-science Republicans, he represented a more convenient target than science itself, a constantly evolving, fuzzy thing, the concerted effort of many people at arriving something like a temporary agreement on the truth. Which is, undeniably, harder to criticize than an identifiable human being, and who’d be a better punching bag than Tony Fauci from Brooklyn? It helps that Fauci, with his close-cropped hair, wire-rimmed glasses, constantly raspy voice, and a tendency to speak off the cuff, looks less like a modern Alexander Fleming fresh from the lab than your bank’s local branch manager about to deny you an extension of your credit line.

Context is not what matters to GOP politicians, especially Senator Rand Paul, who immediately shouted that Fauci, in his obvious arrogance, was like the medieval church. Which, to complete the analogy, also means that science deniers like Paul (whose claim to scientific expertise comes from the fact that he once worked as an eye doctor) represent progress, the forces of light battling the encroaching darkness.

That’s not an unfamiliar narrative, alas. Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana and now president of Purdue University, in a recent op-ed, also published in the Washington Post, defended contrarian physicist Steven Koonin, one of the new darlings of American climate skepticism, as the new Galileo, brave enough to withstand the onslaught of the ideologically benighted scientific establishment, which Daniels, not a scientist himself, pegged as the modern equivalent of papal Rome.

Engaging with such narratives is tiresome, a waste of precious time. And it is intended to be precisely that. Remember Steven Bannon, Trump’s chief ideologue even after he was half-heartedly dismissed from White House, who early on defined his strategy as wanting to “to flood the zone with shit.” Ten months after Trump had to be dragged out of the White House, that flood shows no signs of subsiding. Recently, the City Journal published a piece titled “In Defense of ‘Misinformation’” by the multiply credentialed Brendon Patrick Purdy (the proud holder of, his byline tells us, “degrees in philosophy, mathematics, the mathematical behavioral sciences, and data science”). Dr. Purdy’s message is a simple one: science—especially when used by the authorities to justify public health measures such as the wearing of masks—has long become ideological and authoritarian, the enemy of reason and logic. Fortunately, those things (reason and logic) still count for something with the likes of Dr. Purdy. The online version of his article puts a face on that corrupt scientific establishment: a Brown person (our current Surgeon General, Dr. Murthy, though he’s not identified as such) holding up a brochure titled “Confronting Health Misinformation,” the epitome of everything Purdy’s article sets out to ridicule.

As Hannah Arendt pointed out a long time ago, the authoritarian’s ultimate disguise is the appearance of utter rationality. The playbook for that was written a long time ago. Consider the Swiss-American scientist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), who, as I showed in my biography, was instrumental in creating American science as we know it today. In his desperate fight against the onslaught of Darwinism, Agassiz, a staunch segregationist, perfected the technique still used by science deniers today. Despite the fact that he himself had no proof that, as he never tired of repeating, all living beings (and especially the human races) had been created by God to stay in their assigned places, following a divine plan worked out from the beginning of time, Agassiz sought to hammer into the minds of Americans that Darwin’s theory was “merely conjectural,” and not even “the best conjecture possible in the present state of our knowledge.” Ironically, in an unguarded moment, the great Agassiz once told one of his duly shocked students that he’d long written his scientific descriptions from memory only.

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Stanford student Perry Blodget with the fallen Agassiz statue after the 1906 earthquake (Collection of Christoph Irmscher).

Even if modern science deniers have lost some of their battles (the most visible reminder of that are the “no smoking” signs in public places today), they still are, I fear, winning the war. For decades now they have been instilling a parody of science in the minds of the public. Scientific truth, they suggest, requires a 100 % consensus, facts that have been firmly established for all time. And until there is consensus, everything is inquiry and open debate. And if nothing is settled yet, why act now? And thus, we see science deniers everywhere mimic the language of supposedly disinterested scientific inquiry, as if they really meant it, as if all they, too, were doing is long for that perfect consensus. Even Trump knows the rules of this game. One of the lowest points in the recent history of science denial came during that infamous press conference last year when Trump proposed, that one should “test” the effect of sunlight on the virus.

At a more elevated level, Steven Koonin, himself a trained physicist, has suggested in his recent book that the climate science was still “unsettled”: “I would wait,” he concluded, “until the science becomes more settled–-that is, until the climate’s response to human influences is better determined or, failing that, until a values consensus emerges.” In their brilliant refutation of Koonin’s argument, the physicists Tim Londergan and Steven Vigdor point out that we already have what is needed for action, “a preponderance of evidence.” But action is precisely what Koonin and others want to forestall. His recommendation to do nothing, at least for now, will surely please the fossil industry. But it’s a luxury, as Professors Londergan and Vigdor rightly emphasize, the world can no longer afford.

As depressing as the story of American science denial is, it still offers some opportunities, too. If, as I understand them, the strategies used by Paul et al. are not primarily about the facts, let’s not waste any time debating them. Let us focus instead on identifying the absurd, fake scientific framework they employ and call out their enablers, including the Washington Post. We don’t have to be scientists to do that. Almost sixty years ago, Rachel Carson, demanded an end to “false assurances” that everything was fine and reminded us that good science, like the survival of our species, is a shared, public responsibility, a collective effort involving all of us. It’s an endless task, to be sure. For science denial might be the only product its proponents use that is fully and infinitely recyclable.

Christoph Irmscher is the editor of the Library of America edition of Audubon’s Writings and Drawings and the co-editor, with Richard King, of Audubon at Sea, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.