Why–and When–Did the United States Turn Against Science?: Views from Neil DeGrasse, Bill Nye, Margaret Atwood & More

By Josh Jones

When did Americans lose the ability to think and act rationally? Or did they ever, on the whole, have such ability? These are the questions at the heart of the Big Think video above, a supercut of interview clips from public intellectuals — Neil DeGrasse, Michael Shermer,  Tyson, Kurt Andersen, Bill Nye, and Margaret Atwood — opining on the state of the nation’s intellectual health. Unsurprisingly, the prognosis is not good, as Carl Sagan predicted over 25 years ago.

Of interest here is the diagnosis: How did the country get to a place where it is unable to defend itself against a deadly virus because millions of citizens refuse to take it seriously? How did Americans let Exxon wreck the climate because millions of Americans refused to believe in human-caused climate change? How did a failed mogul and reality TV star become president? How did Qanon, Pizzagate…. How did any of it happen?

The roots are long and deep, says writer and former host of NPR’s Studio 360, Kurt Andersen, who has spent a significant amount of time thinking about the culture of American irrationalism. On the one hand, “Americans have always been magical thinkers and passionate believers in the untrue,” from the time of the Puritans, who were not persecuted refugees so much as fanatics no one in England could stand. And the problem is even older than the country’s founding, Andersen argues in his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History — it dates to the foundations of the modern world.

On the other hand, and somewhat contradictorily, it was those Puritans again who kept the worst of things in check. “We also have the virtues embodied by the Puritans and their secular descendants,” Andersen writes at The Atlantic: “steadiness, hard work, frugality, sobriety, and common sense” — such virtues as helped build the country’s scientific industries and research institutions, which have been steadily undermined by the relativism of the 1960s (Andersen argues), the effects of the internet, and a series of devastating political choices. The delusional irrationalism was built in — but hyper-individualism and profiteering of the last several decades supercharged it. “The United States used to be the world leader in technology,” says Bill Nye, but no more.

Margaret Atwood, who is Canadian not American, talks mostly about the universal human difficulty of letting go of comforting core beliefs, and the uses the example of the outcry against Darwinian evolution. Yet her very presence in the discussion will make viewers think of her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she imagined what lies beneath the supposedly enlightened common sense of the country’s government. The stage was long ago set for a revolution that could easily turn the country against science, she believed.

As Atwood wrote in 2018 of the novel’s genesis: “Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already…. The deep foundation of the United States — so went my thinking — was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the Republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of Church and State, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England — with its marked bias against women — which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.”

Rather than identifying the problems with Puritans or 60s hippies, Neil DeGrasse Tyson — as he has done throughout his career — discusses issues of science education and communication. On both fronts, there has been some improvement. “More journalists who are science fluent… are writing about science than was the case 20 years ago,” he says, “so now I don’t have to worry about the journalist missing something fundamental…. And [science] reporting has been much more accurate in recent years, I’m happy to report.”

But while the internet has amplified our opportunities for scientific literacy, it has also done the opposite, grossly muddying the intellectual waters with misinformation and a competitive need to get the story first. “If it’s not yet verified, it’s not there yet…. So be more open about how wrong the thing you’re reporting on could be, because otherwise you’re doing a disservice to the public. And that disservice is that people out there say, ‘Scientists don’t know anything.'”

There are also those who choose to side with handful of contrarian scientists who disagree with the consensus. “This is irresponsible,” says Tyson. “Plus it means you don’t know how science works.” Or it means you’re looking to confirm biases rather than genuinely take an interest in the scientific process. For all of their insights, the talking head critics in the video fail to mention a primary driver behind so much of the U.S.’s science denialism, a motivation as foundational to the country as the Puritan’s zealotry: profit, at all costs.

Read a transcript of the video here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness