Op-ed piece on the Alignment of Science and Other Truth-Tellers

Out yesterday in The Scientist is an op-ed piece by yours truly. The basic thrust is that, in an era when facts and expertise and the very nature of reality are under attack, scientists need to recognize that they are part of a larger community of truth-seekers and truth-tellers that includes social scientists, artists, journalists, and others.

You can find the full piece by following the link above, but here’s the core of the argument:

As scientists, our role in society is to act as guardians of truth. Our mission is to discover things that are true, to share that truth with society, and to protect it from corruption and preserve it for future generations. But here’s the thing: we are not alone in that. Discovering and defending truth is also the mission of our colleagues in the arts, social sciences, and humanities, as well as journalists. Many of these fields have long been targets of scorn and derision from the most regressive elements in society, and the culture wars of the past few decades have engendered distrust of the media and resentment toward those who embrace social justice. It may be tempting to think that these groups represent softer targets, and that if we distance and differentiate ourselves from them, we can maintain the status quo in science. But if we are to defend science, we must stand together with the other truth-tellers, including our non-scientist colleagues.

[snip]

It seems that every week we are presented with a new attack on facts. If we focus on preserving our own funding, on defending some narrow definition of science, we will lose.

We must fight the impulse that says that we can preserve science if we stay in our lane, that we’ll be safe if we leave our non-scientist colleagues to their own devices. Those who silence artists and journalists don’t embrace a well-funded system of free scientific inquiry. If we focus our defense narrowly on science, the best we can hope for is a politically compromised field no longer worth defending.

Timothy Snyder on American Democracy

Discussion of politics and policy tends to be dominated by journalists and partisan political operatives. However, scholars often have a different set of insights that come from deep study and that are less distorted by market and ideological pressures. Of particular relevance at this particular moment in American history are scholars of authoritarianism.

Last week, the German newspaper SZ published an interview with Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. The whole thing is worth a read. Here, for example, is his discussion of the dangers arising from the erosion of our understanding of mid-20th century authoritarianism in the post-Cold War era.

You would argue that this knowledge had existed before but it was forgotten.

Scholars knew much more know about the 1930s – whether we are speaking of National Socialism, fascism, or Stalinism.  But publics are much less interested.  And we lack, for whatever reason, the concepts that we used to have that allowed us to connect ideas and political processes.  When an American president says “America First” or proposes a political system without the two parties or attacks journalists or denies the existence of facts, that should set of a series of associations with other political systems. We need people who can help translate ideological utterances into political warnings.  Thinkers of the middle of twentieth century are now being read again, and for good reason. The American canon included native and refugee ex-communists who came to this country of the 1930s, refugees from fascism and National Socialism in the 40s, and the Cold War liberals of the 1950s. There was this time where we engaged in political theory and history, where people thought about what fascism and communism meant for democracy. Now, one reason why we cannot forget the 1930s is that the presidential administration is clearly thinking about them – but in a positive sense. They seem to be after a kind of redo of the 1930s with Roosevelt where the Americans take a different course. where we don’t build a welfare state and don’t intervene in Europe to stop fascism. Lindbergh instead of FDR.  That is their notion. Something went wrong with Roosevelt and now they want to go back and reverse it.

And here’s the wrap-up of the interview, part of which you may already seen as a pull-quote:

On Facebook there are a lot of countdowns: 3 years, 11 months, 1 week until President Trump’s first term is over. How is your mood, do you see hope?  

The marches were very encouraging. These were quite possibly the largest demonstrations in the history of the US, just in sheer numbers on one single day. That sort of initiative has to continue.  The constitution is worth saving, the rule of law is worth saving, democracy is worth saving, but these things can and will be lost if everyone waits around for someone else. If we want encouragement out of the Oval Office, we will not get it. We are not getting encouragement thus far from Republicans. They have good reasons to defend the republic but thus far they are not doing so, with a few exceptions.  You want to end on a positive note, I know; but I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less.  What happens in the next few weeks is very important.