The American Association of University Professors has issued a short thunderclap of a report accusing President Trump of undermining the natural sciences. By itself, this would be pretty bad, but according to the AAUP, Trump’s hatred for science extends by means of foreign policy to damaging intellectual inquiry, economic prosperity, and human health worldwide, and maybe also planetary survival. This sort of breathless denunciation may be the sort of thing one expects from soapbox speakers at Climate Change rallies, but the AAUP usually aims a little higher.
This is first of three essays in [read Part 2 here and Part 3 here]which I will examine the background, meaning, and import of what the AAUP has done in “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom.” In this part I present the historical context, namely the left’s attempt to brand conservatives in general as “anti-science.”
The AAUP’s route to this destination is the claim that science is at risk.
On this general point I and my organization, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), actually agree with the AAUP. We disagree, however, on a few details. Is the patient at risk of drowning or incineration? Should we assist the drowning man with a life preserver or a 200 pound anvil? Is the conflagration to be met with a fire extinguisher or a good soaking in kerosene?
I exaggerate perhaps a little. Science doesn’t really face mortal danger. No one is trying to kill it, and even if the Armies of Darkness were laying siege to all the shrines of science from Aristotle to Newton, and Francis Bacon to Stephen Hawking, science as an enterprise would continue. Darwin and Einstein wouldn’t vanish, and people would still attempt to plumb the mysteries of DNA, exo-planets, and superconductors. The thirst for knowledge cannot be drowned or burnt to cinders. Moreover, the NAS and the AAUP do agree substantially on a key point: one threat to the integrity of scientific inquiry is the politicization of science.
We just disagree over the location of the podium from which the politicizing proceeds. Stage right? Or stage left?
On December 7—a date presumably chosen because it is Pearl Harbor Day and thus resonates with general alarm—the AAUP issued its thirteen-page statement, “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom.” The statement attacks the Trump administration for politicizing science and thereby undermining progress, prosperity, and, somehow, national security. The AAUP more generally blames conservatives for undermining science. Trump is the local and immediate embodiment of what the AAUP sees as an old problem.
The NAS for its part has been warning of several quite different threats to science. These include several that have little to do with politics: the crisis of irreproducibility and the too-cozy relationship between government agencies and outside researchers. But also high on the list are also the close-mindedness that results from progressive groupthink, and the increasing willingness of universities to compromise academic standards in student admissions and faculty hiring in the sciences in order to advance racial and “gender” goals. As long ago as 1994, NAS held a national conference on the politicization of science, and we have continued to address this issue, including a new report soon to be released that focuses on the underlying causes of the irreproducibility crisis.
I mention all this to establish that I’m speaking from a long-standing interest in the topic built on the recognition that politics is not the only thing bedeviling the sciences. The occasion of this essay, however, is what the AAUP says in its new report. Because the AAUP is among the most prominent organizations representing American higher education, its mistakes can have far-reaching effects, not least of which is the diversion of attention from more serious problems.
The AAUP Weighs In
“National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom” is the work of a five-member subcommittee that includes the celebrated climate scientist Michael Mann (he of the hockey stick graph) and radical feminist Joan Wallach Scott, who holds an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study. The other members are California State University historian Henry Reichman, National Academy of Sciences biologist Mary Jane West-Eberhard, and Temple University physicist Xiaoxing Xi. Their report was endorsed by the AAUP’s “Committee A on Academic Freedom” and by the AAUP’s Council, which is to say it comes with the full force of the organization.
The AAUP report combines two complaints reflecting disparate concerns. It chastises the U.S. Government for leaning too heavily on Chinese and Chinese-American researchers accused of espionage, and it attacks “climate deniers” for undermining wholesome climate science. The report frames these as a recrimination against President Trump for his sabotage of academic freedom. Most of the content of the report, however, deals with matters that occurred before Trump was elected. The authors are not bothered by this inconsistency. For the AAUP, Trump appears to stand as the summation of all that is misguided in American attitudes and policies affecting the sciences.
To make sense of the AAUP’s rather strange pronouncement, we have to consider the context of the left’s long-standing claims that conservatives are “anti-science.”
The last time the Left raised this particular alarm was the “March for Science” on April 22, 2017, timed for Earth Day. Billed as “non-partisan,” the march drew crowds in Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, and other cities around the United States and the world. The organizers said they drew 100,000 people to the main event in Washington, and over a million world-wide. The non-partisan pretext, however, was as hollow as a bass drum. The “March for Science” was a straightforward anti-Trump rally based on the assertion that the Trump administration (then barely three months into it) was “anti-science.”
I watched the New York portion of the march for 90 minutes as it passed through Columbus Circle. There were surely some scientists among the marchers, but they were lost amid the flamboyant anti-global warming activists and women recycling their garb from the January 21 Women’s March. Science is based on disciplined inquiry, testable hypotheses, patient gathering of evidence, rigorous analysis, and reproducible results. Marching in mass? Not so much.
Warriors, Merchants, and Yahoos
The idea that conservatives are anti-science has flattered the vanity of the progressive left for generations. In 2005, the journalist Chris Mooney published a best-seller, The Republican War on Science. It gave birth to a small genre of polemics, perhaps the best known of which is Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, an elaborate effort to compare people who are skeptical of the “global warming consensus” to the tobacco companies that tried to downplay the risks of smoking. The grandfather of all these books is Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 study, Anti-intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter was a man of the Left and he prosecuted the case that many of the ills of democracy—fervent irrationalism in religion, politics, and popular life—have roots on the right.
The culture war, of course, has many fronts. Americans can argue vigorously over the role of race in society, the differences between the sexes, the meaning of disparities in wealth, what role religion should play in public life, how much freedom of expression should be allowed, and a great many other things down to the level of which pronouns should or should not be used. There is no reason why “science” should be exempt from these pervasive disagreements. After all, science is conducted by ordinary human beings who are subject to the same passions as everyone else and are divisible into the same identitarian categories as everyone else.
The vulnerability of the sciences to ordinary human folly ought to be the cornerstone of any serious attempt to assess contemporary risks to the integrity of scientific inquiry. Somehow that vulnerability escapes the notice of the AAUP. We’ll see why in Part II.