The War on Science Part 2 - Chapters 3, 4 & 5 Summary

Otto begins Part 2 by describing the founding of the United States, specifically that the US was founded not as a Christian nation, but rather one based on the ideals of freedom — including freedom of exploration and religion. The founders of the US, as well as European and other scholars, believed that science was to be used to assist in the study of God’s creations and that its purpose was to shed light on the wonders of the world created by God. They felt that Nature, unlike divinity, was knowable and understandable and humans could understand God’s will by studying nature. “If the cause of everything was God, then God was the only answer.” Muslim scholars, much more so than Christian scientists, propelled forward scientific thought centuries before their works were translated to Latin by English scholars. 

Otto goes on to discuss how science demands intellectual honesty. There can be no logical leaps or opinions that infiltrate the sanctity of scientific discovery. Francis Bacon proposed an inductive reasoning approach to science (i.e. building logical steps to reach a general conclusion). In the realm of politics, many of America’s founding fathers were scientists by trade and all of them were intellectuals. Jefferson, for example, declared himself a scientist first and a politician second. Science, at this time, was not politically motivated or motivating. Otto emphasizes that the United States was built on the notion of choice and liberty, the right to choose for oneself what to believe. Science is apolitical because it is simply ‘truths about the world’. However, the American emphasis on practical science rather than knowledge for the sake of knowing may necessitate mixing of science with political agendas and economic gain. This may not be a positive thing, in fact both the Chinese and Roman Empire intellectual decline can be linked to the undervaluing of basic science in favor of relevant practical scientific exploration. And while science is not intrinsically linked to a particular school of political thought, it may become politicized when one party becomes authoritarian and anti-science. 


“In fact, by its very nature, science is both progressive and conservative. It is conservative in that it is retentive of knowledge and cautious about making new assertions until they are fully defensible. But it is also progressive and that it is, and must always be, open to wherever observation leads, independent of belief and ideology, and focus on creating new knowledge.” (pg. 84)


Einstein’s theory of relativity was heavily politicized and deemed anti-religious because it insinuated that there was more to our existence than is outlined in the Bible. The 1920s authoritarian/anti-science Democrats fought against alcohol and evolution, the two largest ‘evils’ in America at the time. 


In Chapter 5, Otto discusses the weaponization of science during World War II. He emphasizes how Hitler used innovative technologies to win favor and how it was believed that whoever had the best scientific/technological superiority would have the best war defenses. In the early 1940s, Roosevelt approved the NDRC (National Defense Research Committee) which later became the National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency for organizing research efforts. This group assembled specifically to design the Atomic Bomb. However, after the bombing of Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists and Americans felt the emotional and ethical weight of their decisions. At this time, an attitude of ambivalence toward science was formed: we needed it to keep us safe, but what was the cost? “Had scientists unlocked a power whose use crossed an ethical boundary?”

After the war, when the NDRC became the NSF and science was primarily funded by the government, rather than private investors, the wonderment agenda of scientific exploration was forgotten. Research became motivated by political agendas and the fear of another war. Fear of nuclear attack from the Russians spurred the creation of suburbs and decentralization of the population. General Motors and other financially powerful automotive-related industries supported this idea, in part because it was good for car sales. The intersection of the economy and politics was apparent. Actions such as building large-scale highways to protect against atomic attack displaced minorities and uprooted communities rich in culture - exploiting poor minorities specifically. Lasting social and financial issues were created out of bomb fear, and by association: science. Growing up in this environment of fear had psychological consequences for young Americans (i.e. the Baby Boomer generation) that did not become apparent until the 1960s and 1970s when they began to show the effects of psychological trauma. Scientists in recent times, however, have excluded themselves from political conversations and do little to engage with the public, creating an ivory tower problem that leaves our citizens under-informed.

Lindsey Mooney is a graduate student in the UC Davis Psychology Department.

Clara Skaug is a fourth grade teacher and Davis community member.

For more content from the UC Davis science communication group "Science Says", follow us on Twitter @SciSays.

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