The Crisis of the American Sciences

On the day Americans march for science, let us move beyond our theological history.

Natalie Smolenski
Apr 22, 2017 · 16 min read
Winifred Knights, The Deluge (1920)

In medicine, a crisis signals the turning point of a disease: a moment of inflection in which the course of the illness turns either for better or worse. Yet a crisis can also be developmental; it can signal the transition from one state of being to another. Sometimes this is referred to as a “maturational crisis.” In this piece, I argue that the United States is facing precisely such a maturational crisis. Moving through it to a better future requires nothing less than a re-founding of the republic on terms different from the theological inheritance that characterized our Enlightenment-era establishment.

This may seem radical, but in fact it follows from the transformational implications of science as the methodological pursuit of answers to well-defined questions from an attitude of sustained ignorance. For the United States, as for most countries, science has mostly functioned as a gloss or a graft onto existing social structures, transforming them very indirectly and even imperceptibly over a long period of time. Yet this mode of “doing science” as a people is limited because it leaves scientific institutions in a state of permanent vulnerability to the vicissitudes of inherited political forms. These forms privilege outcomes, such as the defense of existing social hierarchies and military rivalry, which incalculably set back the course of scientific progress with great historical regularity. To become a society that can truly call itself scientific, we must not only preserve scientific institutions but “bake” the practice of science into our social structures so that they are the norm rather than the seemingly expensive and rarefied exception.

Our social structures must be able to carry and sustain the evolving and transformative practice of science, or the United States will go the way of another historical scientific power: early 20th-century Germany. This doesn’t necessarily mean destruction in a fiery world war; it could simply mean a slow slide into postimperial inertia and obsolescence. In the piece that follows, I first describe the crisis of the German sciences and then move to the crisis of the American sciences. I use these examples not only because of the historical connection between them (via the transfer of German science to the United States), but because they are both examples of countries which led the world in scientific discovery but whose political life was unable to sustain that leading position for long. Of course, the future is an open field, so both countries may yet recover the commitment to science which made them hotbeds of discovery and new ideas. My aim here is to facilitate such a future by framing the obstacles facing it historically.

The Crisis of the German Sciences

In May of 1935, the mathematician and philosopher Edmund Husserl presented a lecture to the Vienna Kulturbund. The lecture was entitled “Philosophy in the Crisis of European Mankind,” which he later expanded into a book entitled “The Crisis of European Sciences.” Husserl was responding to a crisis, indeed — the rise of the Nazi party in his home country, Germany, made it nearly impossible for him to publish or lecture there. For despite his conversion to Protestantism, he was of Jewish heritage. With the rise of Mussolini in Italy and the widespread popularity of fascism in other European countries, the situation of not only Jews and other minorities but also of scientists was becoming increasingly precarious. Husserl’s ability to deliver his lecture in Vienna was not a foregone conclusion.

In his lecture, Husserl described “the crisis of the sciences as an expression of the radical life-crisis of European humanity.” What he meant by this was that the practice of science is never separate from the communities of scientists who embody it and carry it forward. And the societies of Europe, which in earlier generations had produced so many luminary scientists, were now in deep distress. The scientists they were producing were either alienated from the social lives of their communities, retreating into the presumption that their objectivity would naturally triumph over falsehood, or they had succumbed to fascist pseudo-science, colluding with the oppressive regime by producing politically useful science.

The solution, for Husserl, was not a further retreat from science into politics and mysticism, but rather a more rigorous and honest application of science to broader areas of social life. He wrote,

“How does it happen that no scientific medicine has ever developed in this sphere, a medicine for nations and supranational communities? The European nations are sick; Europe itself, it is said, is in crisis.”

The “Europe” that was in crisis was not simply the continent of Europe, a geographical location, but the very love of reason which he considered to be the essence of the European idea. In other words, for Husserl, Europe was another term for science, for philosophy, for rational life itself. Despite calling it “Europe,” however, he considered it a universal idea — available to all people, anywhere in the world.

But what had happened to the geographical Europe, the historical grouping of so many different cultures and societies? During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Germany was Europe’s ascendant scientific power. It dominated theoretical breakthroughs in just about every area of the natural and human sciences. However, its devastating experiences during the First World War, especially the punitive sanctions imposed upon it by the victorious Allies, led the German people into economic misery. Society was still riven by rigid class differences between the aristocracy and the rest of the people. Many saw the solution to their poverty and struggle in reinvigorated national strength based on a rigid and exclusive notion of German identity.

The undercurrents of fascism had been gathering strength for a long time. Even during the late 19th century, some German scientists had opted to leave the country for less restrictive pastures. Husserl’s Vienna lecture was written after a generation of German scientists had already fled the country — many for the United States. The luminaries of my own field, cultural anthropology, included German immigrants such as Franz Boas and Edward Sapir, who joined a vibrant community of first-generation German-American social scientists such as Alfred Kroeber.

Franz Boas was a particularly outspoken opponent of the so-called “race science” which was prominent both in Germany and in America at the time. He tirelessly wrote popular articles and gave lectures separating biological heredity from culture and language. And he was heartbroken by the descent of German education into demagoguery. As the son of freethinking, secular parents who traced their political commitments to the 1848 Spring of Nations, Boas considered the German educational tradition to be about forging a path to intellectual freedom, which repels all attempts at tyranny. He was personally devastated by what he saw as the betrayal of this tradition.

By the early 20th century, the German academy was in crisis. Calls to break down the isolation of the “ivory tower” from the rest of society were heard with increasing frequency. After all, schools were seen not only as places where knowledge was imparted, but as the incubators of model citizens, individuals actively engaged in the world. Youth movements began to spring up everywhere, privileging the combined pedagogy of body and soul to shape “the whole person” — in a way that would render young men fit for military service. As these movements gained social influence, they also came to closely influence academic curricula. Schools were soon swept up in the wider political currents of German society, in which encouraging young people to “change the world” became a way of imparting rigid ideals of gender and race, often modeled on popular perceptions of classical Greece and Rome. The “revitalization” of German schools and universities became a way of recruiting young people into fascist movements.

By the 1930’s, the demise of the German university had become clear simply from immigration data: German emigration to the United States increased dramatically, particularly after the passage of a 1933 law forbidding all “non-Aryans” from teaching at Universities. As a result of this law, 25% of German physicists lost their jobs and sought refuge in other countries. Luminaries like Albert Einstein, Theodore von Karman, and John von Neumann immigrated to the US during this “first wave.” Later immigrants included physicists such as Neils Bohr and Lilli Hornig, who worked on the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb. Finally, after Germany’s surrender in 1945, American forces secretly brought 88 Nazi scientists to the US as part of “Operation Paperclip.” These scientists built weapons for the United States and worked on the Apollo Space Program.

In other words, German scientists — whether Nazis or their would-be victims — contributed to a real birth of science in the United States. A Stanford economist has recently shown that US patents increased by 31% in the years after 1933 in fields common among fleeing Jewish scientists, like chemistry. Although the work of physicists was often done in secret or did not lead to patents, these scientists not only won Nobel Prizes but trained an entire generation of young American scientists. The American defense industries and space program were transformed. In short, the collapse of one civilization led to the flourishing to another.

The Crisis of the American Sciences

Today we may describe something like a “Crisis of the American Sciences.” Like early-20th century Germany, the United States has also seen attempts to break down the divide between academic knowledge and social life — to make learning more engaged, and to recognize the ways in which schools form citizens. There is, of course, nothing inherently sinister about such a commitment. In the process, however, knowledge often becomes deeply politicized — as it has in the US. And the nature of that politicization has a lot to do with the history of the specific polity in which knowledge is being placed in the service of social aims.

When I taught undergraduate classes at the University of Michigan, my students readily claimed that “everyone is biased” and entitled to their own opinions, but fewer came to class knowing how to analyze evidence to make a solid argument, or how to evaluate the merits of someone else’s argument. This wasn’t their fault; they had been raised in a media culture of “fair and balanced” reporting in which resolving conflicts between differing opinions tends to happen politically: allow each “side” to express its opinion, then either come to a compromise or fight it out with strength. Rather than evidence-based assessment, feelings dominate this approach to conflict, and its resolution occurs via the political mode. The political mode is not, however, a scientific method, and its “resolutions” should never be confused with scientific results.

This is both the promise and difficulty of science: its goal is not to leave everyone comfortable, or to assure everyone that they have a “right” to their opinions, or to find politically acceptable solutions to social problems. Science is the rigorous pursuit of truth using methods that are shared and reviewed by a community of practice. Science is a peer-based practice, but the scientific collective is not a democracy or a republic. Rather, it is (ideally) a meritocracy built around a shared purpose, often employing objective metrics of success and failure.

Perhaps counterintuitively, this type of meritocracy tends to offend American sensibilities. In America, as in other places, “meritocracy” is often mapped onto social hierarchies: The wealthy are so because they are more skilled and more deserving than others. Those who gain access to prestigious universities are more skilled and more deserving than others. Yet wealth, power, and prestige — even prestigious education — don’t index the practice of science. As a result, scientific merit is either illegible or offensive to the karmic moral universe characterized by the hierarchies of value which the meritorious ascend.

A characteristic aspect of the American karmic moral universe is the level playing field from which every individual supposedly begins. As an aspiration, this belief reflects a commitment to equality that has prompted some of the most remarkable progressive social reforms in human history; however, as a posited fact, it ideologically conceals the very need for those reforms. Although historians, social scientists, and commentators have often remarked upon the vast disparities in opportunity faced by people of different socioeconomic classes, races, religions, and genders, the “level playing field” has less often been analyzed with regard to the approach to knowledge that it engenders. I suggest here that the “flatness” of access assumed by the level playing field leads many Americans to feel that they must have an opinion about every topic, and this imperative is often expressed as an entitlement: “I have a right to my opinion; I have a right to believe whatever I want.”

Such a sentiment echoes the theological roots of the founding of the American republic in religious freedom for people from many different confessional traditions and their presumed equality before the law. While imperfectly practiced, the political modus vivendi established in the early years of the republic has included not only channeling expressions of theological difference into arenas less violent than the battlefield (federated governance, the “public sphere,” and the courtroom), but the cultivation of what sociologist Robert Bellah called a shared “civil religion.” Most modern political polities have something akin to a civil religion (a term first coined by Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau). The American civil religion borrows from themes of the dominant American religion, Christianity, but is ultimately more abstract. Those acting in its idiom invoke “the will of God” which transcends and subsumes any particular state formation, and from which individual human beings derive their rights and their purpose in the world. Bellah is worth quoting at length here:

The words and acts of the founding fathers, especially the first few presidents, shaped the form and tone of the civil religion as it has been maintained ever since. Though much is selectively derived from Christianity, this religion is clearly not itself Christianity. For one thing, neither Washington nor Adams nor Jefferson mentions Christ in his inaugural address; nor do any of the subsequent presidents, although not one of them fails to mention God. The God of the civil religion is not only rather “unitarian,” he is also on the austere side, much more related to order, law, and right than to salvation and love. Even though he is somewhat deist in cast, he is by no means simply a watchmaker God. He is actively interested and involved in history, with a special concern for America. Here the analogy has much less to do with natural law than with ancient Israel; the equation of America with Israel in the idea of the “American Israel” is not infrequent. What was implicit in the words of Washington already quoted becomes explicit in Jefferson’s second inaugural when he said: “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.” Europe is Egypt; America, the promised land. God has led his people to establish a new sort of social order that shall be a light unto all the nations. This theme, too, has been a continuous one in the civil religion.

From a religious standpoint, such an approach affords a type of tolerance that has been historically rare. The providential American God could be understood to shepherd any individual willing to live in accordance with its ethos. Bellah’s essay was written in 1967, however, and since that time the civil religion has come under increasing contestation from both right and left: while the religiously unaffiliated challenged the invocation of deities in public spaces and ceremonies, right-wing evangelical factions challenged the abstraction of traditional civil religious symbolism with demands to more explicitly include Christ and allegedly “Biblical” laws as part of American statecraft.

One of the contradictions of this late-20th century contestation has been that the nonreligious have felt compelled to challenge the civil religion by donning the garb of an aggrieved religious community themselves. The right, on the other hand, has held out against social liberalization by asserting the right to “free exercise.” A powerful tendency resulting from this ongoing battle over what religion is and how it pertains to American public life has been the flattening of real differences between religion (or any moral worldview) and science into the level playing field of “belief” — sometimes also referred to as “the marketplace of ideas.” The American tradition of envisioning the marketplace as a kind of Edenic State of Nature, presided over by a benevolent God who rewards virtue and punishes vice, dovetails with the tradition of imagining electoral democracy as a mode by which the meritorious are rewarded and the corrupt punished. The highly constrained and manipulated conditions of actual markets and actual elections are simply unbelievable to many Americans. Although most would say that politicians in general are corrupt, for example, that corruption is treated more like theological evil than as the promiscuous result of systemic incentives: it is usually located on the side of political opponents, and electoral victories are experienced as cathartic moral dramas in which the evil is “expunged.” In other words, the supposed equal access afforded by the level playing field functions as the setting for real wins and real losses, which in turn become vindications of the hierarchical moral universe itself.

Yet the existence of wide-reaching, systemic, and objective phenomena like global climate change, which develop independently from the cathartic dramas experienced by individual Americans, are difficult to assimilate into this moral universe. Climate change doesn’t occur on the level playing field, but rather is happening to the entire nonhuman earth. Strangely, it is so long in the making and so far-reaching in its consequences — so truly godlike in its power — that politicians functioning in the theological mode don’t know how to coopt it as a function of their own ephemeral electoral victories. The Biblical story it most brings to mind is the Flood of Noah, God’s punishment of a licentious and greedy humanity, rather than the providential God of Israel leading his people to the land of milk and honey. Yet the prospect of victors in the “marketplace of ideas” leading humanity to its doom is so narratively dissonant to American political theology that it is met with all manner of deflection — much of it, of course, a self-interested ploy by the very same victors. The “Crisis of the American Sciences” is, therefore, the crisis faced by a nation founded upon finding political solutions to theological differences in the idiom of its own exceptionalism as it encounters a world that exceeds the parameters of its sacred stories.

The appropriation of German science by the United States occurred largely in service to those stories: the “self-evident” theological superiority of American capitalism and democracy had to be defended against the atheist, totalitarian communism sponsored by the USSR. The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, prompted the hunt for another theological enemy. This has been (temporarily) found in Islam, although the Muslim countries overrun by American small wars are treated more as theaters of impunity than as serious threats to the American moral universe as such. The “Muslim threat” certainly has not spawned the type of civilizational projects engendered by the post-World War II American presidencies (Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson) — “Great Society” projects intended to stave off the appeal of the Enemy (always bearing the cast of the theological Enemy) to America’s large swaths of poor and disenfranchised. Today’s Enemy is simply another “bad object” in America’s internal economy of polarized self-destruction — more racialized criminal than Luciferian anti-Heaven. In contrast, the rival empire of China, the world’s largest ascendant power, is illegible to inherited American political theology.

The crisis of American sciences spans the political spectrum: the multiculturalist, interfaith, even “unbelieving” left and the “Christian Nation,” white nationalist right both have trouble moving out of the political mode and its theological arena as the privileged mode of conflict resolution. If we are to place America’s presence in the world on a robust scientific trajectory, what is needed in practice is the “un-flattening” of American epistemology: the making-room for ways of knowing open to expert practitioners whose engagements with their fields bypasses the surface-level value judgments and political logics of force, negotiation, compromise, and popular appeal. While the implementation of science-based policies will no doubt rely on skillful political practitioners, the methodological distinctions between the politician/judge and the scientist must be foregrounded.

In other words, science is not simply another denomination or Church to be separated from the State so that all can coexist within their own confessional enclaves, freely exercising. Rather, it is humanity’s best hope for a future that has moved beyond the imagination-destroying exigencies of sectarian conflict. The Enlightenment-era forms of governance which allowed Europeans and their colonies to move beyond the wars of religion that had devastated their societies for centuries now call for a further evolution. But how can we begin approaching what is next?

Beyond Crisis

I began this piece by describing the conservative tendencies which tend to jettison the practice of science in favor of the preservation of the known moral universe as it is instantiated in existing social systems. The remedy called for under such circumstances is the scaling of pedagogies which privilege the rigorous, collective pursuit of truth, wherever and whatever it may be. That means a formal and informal education system that operates from a foundation of provisionality — working from the best knowledge we have, until we know better — rather than the imparting of settled knowledge from authorities.

Yet from a historical standpoint, social hierarchies with their attendant authority discourses are highly scalable forms of human organization. They are easy to scale because they are characterized by clear role demarcations and nested logics. Social anthropologists looking for less hierarchical alternatives to kingdoms and nation-states, however, have located other organizational logics. These include cross and parallel kinship, which can form grids of relatedness across entire continents. Although in practice frequently inflected by pervasive gender hierarchy, the structure of cross and parallel kin as such exemplifies a complex decision-making domain characterized by a set of binary differences. As one example of these effects, aboriginal kinship systems split totems between moieties so that the totems and the social characteristics and roles organized around them complement and balance each other.

In recent years, developers of the blockchain have introduced a “trustless” social infrastructure in which anyone with write capability can cryptographically log immutable transactions on the chain, which is then reproduced across thousands of nodes. This distributed network is designed to prevent highly-leveraged actors from hijacking the transmission of information across time. Like kinship, it has no central point of failure and functions as a trust technology and as a witness to the historical record. Unlike kinship, it is far less susceptible to the fallibility of human memory or fabrications motivated by self-interest.

Source: On Distributed Communications Networks, Paul Baran, 1962.

These examples demonstrate that alternatives to prevailing systems are possible and workable; however, what they are optimized to achieve varies. The challenge for scientists, in all their variety, is to work together to come up with political forms that make the practice of science a base social presupposition rather than an exotic achievement or denominational ghetto.

The social technologies of yesterday cannot lead us indefinitely into the future; the time has come for new forms to arise. May today’s march for science be the impetus to begin intentionally navigating into this future.

Natalie Smolenski

Written by

Cultural Anthropologist & Business Development at Learning Machine.

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