By Michael D. GordinApril 20, 2021


Science under Fire: Challenges to Scientific Authority in Modern America by Andrew Jewett

TRUST THE SCIENCE, we’re told. Wear masks! Science says so! These injunctions are likely to induce a couple of reflex responses. On the one hand, saying that you are in favor of Science — I’ll keep it capitalized for now — is somewhat like saying that you are all for oxygen and cute puppies and pleasant strolls. It is so straightforward as to be anodyne. But then there is the counter-reflex, with the “pro-Science” mantra sounding like a liberal shibboleth, and the Republican Party (or its voters) cast as Those Who Don’t Trust Science. Recent Pew Research Center data back this up a bit, but there’s plenty of leeriness about Science among Democrats as well.

And it gets messier when you actually drill down into specifics. The masks are an exemplary case. Saying that Science supports mask-wearing is unquestionably true, whether you define that support as a consensus among epidemiologists or as the conclusion reached by meta-studies of the scientific literature. Now consider some other questions: Should we open schools when most of the country is not vaccinated? Is it okay to put this nuclear waste depository in the next county? Let’s ask Science! Turns out this Science entity doesn’t have a single voice, and in many cases hearing what it has to say isn’t straightforward. As intellectual historian Andrew Jewett notes at the end of Science under Fire, “Such blanket injunctions to place our trust in science, or religion, or the humanities, or any other broad framework, offer remarkably little guidance on how to respond to the social possibilities raised by particular scientific or technical innovations.”

Nonetheless, the exhortations continue. This implies that there are quite a few people out there who are anti-Science, or at least cautious about placing unbounded faith in it. Those who are anti-“anti-Science” often portray such individuals as tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists, while the anti-Science people see their detractors as credulous lemmings exposing themselves to myriad physical and spiritual harms.

Enter Jewett, who is anti-anti-anti-Science. Science under Fire tackles the deep and persistent American intellectual tradition we might call Science-hesitant. According to the story he tells, that tradition begins in the 1920s with American intellectuals reeling from the shocks of the Great War and industrialization (he does not mention the influenza pandemic). Philosophers like Columbia University’s John Dewey responded to the uncertainties of the moment with a project called “mental modernization.” If Jazz Age Americans were adrift, it was because they were maladaptively clinging to outmoded intellectual traditions, as marked by “the slowing of Progressive reform after 1920, the postwar Red Scare, the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, a swelling antievolution campaign.” Espying opportunity, contemporary universities were quick to present themselves as incubators of the ideas that would guide Americans into the future. To learn about that trend, you should turn to Jewett’s first book, Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War, whose cover is graced by Dewey. Science under Fire examines Science-hesitant types who held the line against these mental modernizers. It takes them seriously, arguing their vision was no less “modern” for ranking Science lower than other human values, such as religious faith. (For some reason, the cover of this book features a noncommittal robot.)

Science under Fire is a sweeping tour of a vast array of intellectual trends — the New Humanists, the Southern Agrarians, the fusionists among them — but since Science, and Science-hesitancy, is integrated into so many components of 20th- and 21st-century Society, many are also missing. (I particularly regretted the absence of the Weathermen and the Nation of Islam.) Jewett’s history is broad in its approach, but narrower in its selection of venues and thinkers: mostly monographs or highbrow journals (more Commentary than Newsweek), and almost exclusively authors who analyze science without being themselves members of the scientific community (a point I will return to later). One of the strengths of his approach is how ably he demonstrates the existence of this Science-hesitant tradition as a tradition, showing the cross-pollination of ideas across an array of politically, confessionally, and culturally disparate actors. Another is his tracking of the intertextual conversations that happen among the elite journals reviewing intellectuals’ books and then sparking polemic wars back and forth. Yet his limited attention to other genres such as movies feels like a lacuna — Stanley Kubrick’s nuclear farce Dr. Strangelove (1964) receives only a passing reference, and his 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with its killer computer HAL 9000, none. More radio, television, and film (not to mention video games) could democratize the narrative, but, to be sure, at the potential cost of losing focus.

You could say the focus is very much on Science with a capital S — though that is my conceit, not Jewett’s — an abstract notion that can in this book float unmoored from specific examples. His protagonists grapple with big questions of method, modernity, tradition, tolerance, values, and violence. That is not to say that Jewett doesn’t mention many particular instances. Darwinism appears at the outset, but then is shunted to the background as Jewett tracks thinkers who were tangential to the creationist world. A whole string of other infamous bugbears of the sciences strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then are heard no more, especially in the latter chapters of the book, where we find the CIA’s MKUltra mind-control program, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Tuskegee syphilis study, and the Milgram and Zimbardo psychology experiments. Somewhat surprisingly, eugenics is not a central strand in the story. Given that racist and classist attempts to control human reproduction were (and still are) classic examples of the abuses of science across political allegiances and time periods, it could provide a through-line of sorts. But Science under Fire is not a book about the sciences, but rather about science. By his own telling, this distinguishes the midcentury conversation from the present day’s:

Despite the fiery statements of combatants and worried onlookers, the scientific enterprise as a whole is not at stake in debates over vaccination, genetic engineering, or climate change. Rather, these controversies involve particular scientific findings, theories, techniques, devices, and practices, as they relate to the deeply held (and often directly conflicting) values of many different groups.

This is a book about the deeply held values.

What do we learn from the stream of philosophers, pundits, and polemicists? Jewett’s historical actors are intriguingly nonhistorical, if one understands history as change over time. Although he points out how the conversation changed in the age of McCarthy’s anticommunism as opposed to 1970s stagflation, most striking to me is how much continuity I found in chapter after chapter. One important reason for this is the cross-pollination mentioned above. There seem to be a limited number of moves in the game of Science-critique, and individual thinkers mix and match from that repertoire, often attaining novelty with a specific combination even while, across the political spectrum, they all resonate with common tropes. For example, anti-Science thinkers often decry “elites” or “technocrats,” but this is also a charge you hear from those on the right who oppose the New Deal in the 1930s and then — in strikingly similar language — from the New Left who want appropriate technology and small-scale agriculture. Once you identify the elites you dislike, the anti-elitism tropes are available to you. Also interesting is how the underlying economic conditions display constancy even as they inexorably mutate. Technological unemployment permeates this book, for instance, even though the technology putting Americans out of work shifts from the assembly line to factory automation to artificial intelligence. At the root of each of those trends are scientific and technical developments — or, if you like, Science.

That in itself is a big lesson to take from Science under Fire, but there are quite a few others. Setting aside an important story about the “decline of the humanities” across this period, I will briefly stress two of them.

The first concerns the classic Doppelgänger of Science: Religion. Although Jewett cautions us in an endnote that “[s]cience and religion do not divide the entire world of thought between them,” the fact is that most of the salient critiques he documents emerge from either religious actors or those who draw from religiously inflected arguments. (Reinhold Niebuhr appears in so many chapters that he comes to seem an old friend; you miss him when he drops out.) To a certain extent, the challenges to the authority of Science in this book are less episodes in the history of American science than episodes in the history of American religion, and readers drawn to those questions will find much to interest them here.

The mainline Protestant establishment began losing its stranglehold on American culture in the 1920s, partly due to secularizing trends associated with modernization. At first, most of the thinkers Jewett tracks were members of this Protestant establishment, seeking allies with other groups — small government conservatives, anticommunist Catholics, non-secular Jews — to shore up a particular vision of traditional values as the bulwark of democracy and American life. Attacking Science helped bind this fragile coalition together. But even here, it mattered very much which sciences one had in mind. As Jewett writes:

These Protestant critics, like their counterparts in the humanities, demonstrate clearly that scientific authority is not a pill one swallows whole. They never questioned the legitimacy of physics, chemistry, or even evolutionary biology as interpretations of the natural world. But they rejected associated forms of philosophy and social science — above all, modern psychology.

That is the second big lesson of the book. When intellectuals attacked Science throughout the 20th century, they were more often than not focused on specific sciences: the social sciences. One way to read Science under Fire is as a counter-history to the rise of the social sciences-as-framework for organizing American intellectual life. For his science-hesitant actors, “the social sciences” usually meant psychology, with a soupçon of sociology thrown in. Psychology’s importance as a trigger for conservatives and traditionalists can hardly be overstated, especially in the heyday of B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism, which disavowed all access to internal mental states, including values and spirituality. In one richly detailed section, Jewett juxtaposes the explosive reaction to Skinner’s novel Walden Two (1948), about a utopian community organized on behaviorist principles, with Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopia Brave New World, which was reissued in multiple American editions starting in 1946. Although it remained a bogeyman for many years, by the 1950s behaviorism was eclipsed by the similarly named but completely contrary behavioralism, which foregrounded values and beliefs as drivers of people’s preferences and actions, and made analysis of those values central to fields like political science and sociology.

If conservatives remained mostly fixated on psychology, over time they would actually come to find some of the other social sciences to their taste. Science-hesitancy was selective, in other words. For example, in the 1970s, they often endorsed what Jewett aptly calls the “sciences of inaction”: evolutionary, economic, and sociological theories that demanded deregulation or non-intervention in the face of the absence of knowledge. Identified most strongly with economists and thinkers at the University of Chicago — Friedrich Hayek most prominent among them — these positions suggested that the state should bow out of many sectors of society, cease “social engineering,” and let nature take its (politically conservative) course. This hardly amounts to “challenging scientific authority” but seems more like cherry-picking which sciences happen to work for you. Still, Jewett is right to point here to an important theme that continues to animate the American right.

For all the impressive scope of Jewett’s research — shelves worth of books, supplemented by newspapers, magazines, and archival gleanings (especially of important right-wing figures like Russell Kirk and Henry Regnery) — there is one set of actors that he excludes from his purview: scientists. That the omission is deliberate is clear from Jewett’s introduction: “Historians should also widen their scope beyond scientists’ own public representations of their work. We would never look back at a particular moment and assume that Catholics alone determined the cultural meanings of Catholicism, or baseball players alone the meanings of their game.” No doubt he is right that any cultural history of American science that treated scientists as the only source of information would be woefully inadequate. But just as we would not want a history of the cultural place of baseball that relied only on the reminiscences of center fielders, surely it couldn’t hurt to include Willie Mays.

This decision to omit scientists’ own perceptions of their authority (or lack thereof) is clearly related to Jewett’s emphasis on what I have called capital-S Science rather than specific episodes or disciplines in the sciences, although it is hard to tell whether it is the chicken or the egg. That is, you are more likely to get birds’-eye views of Science as a whole from non-practitioners, and simultaneously less attention to this or that aspect of, say, molecular biology. One cannot help but think that one is missing out on some of the reflective auto-critiques that come from the pens of Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Barbara McClintock. (The first two are mentioned a few times.) Most regrettably, Jewett’s filter excludes Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley (1885–1972), who was one of midcentury America’s most famous public commentators on science and religion as well as a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

That non-scientists play a large — perhaps even the largest — role in determining Science’s meaning in popular culture is likely true. But without tracking the emergence of the scientists themselves as both advocates and critics of Science, we are ill-equipped to understand the significance not just of lions of the 1980s and 1990s like Stephen Jay Gould and E. O. Wilson, but also the Steven Pinkers and Jordan Petersons of today. They all fall somewhere on the spectrum from Science to Anti-Anti-Anti-Science.


Michael D. Gordin is a professor in Princeton’s history department. His latest book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience.

LARB Contributor

Michael D. Gordin is a professor of history at Princeton. He has done research on the early development of the natural sciences in Russia in the 18th century, biological warfare in the Soviet Union, the relationship of Russian literature to the natural sciences, Lysenkoism, Immanuel Velikovsky, pseudosciences, the early history of the atomic bombs and the Cold War, Albert Einstein in Prague, the history of global scientific languages, the life of Dmitri Medeleyev, and the history of the periodic table.


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