Peter Gleick: New McCarthyism: Fear of Science and the War on Rationality

Fear of Knowledge and ScienceAs more and more of the world looks to knowledge, education and science as the routes out of poverty and conflict, parts of America seems to be slipping back toward the Dark Ages, when fear of knowledge and science led to an impoverishment of civilization that had lasting effects for centuries.

I’ve recently returned from two weeks in northern Europe, and a series of scientific water meetings and discussions with people from over 130 countries. They read the news from the United States with incredulity. America is still seen as the place to come for aspiring students and scientists around the world. Our public universities, despite assaults on budgets, independence and knowledge, still struggle to maintain their excellence. But my friends and colleagues from overseas are increasingly shocked, as are many of us in the U.S., by the expanding efforts of home-grown extremists to undermine rational discourse, eliminate the use of fact and science in policymaking, and shut down public debate over the vital issues of our times through hate, vitriol, and ad hominem attacks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Peter Gleick
Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an internationally recognized water expert and a MacArthur Fellow.

Looking through the eyes of my overseas colleagues, what do we see?

We see a debate over providing health care to every American that is based — not on facts or civilized discourse — but on screaming mobs shutting down public discussions and the use of straw man arguments to promote fear among the public and policymakers. Yet every major country of Europe provides basic health care for its population.

We see President Obama appoint one of the nation’s best scientists in the areas of energy, environment, and national security — Dr. John Holdren — to be his Science Advisor, and then have right-wing mouthpieces like Glenn Beck spread ad hominem lies about him because of their fear that facts and actual science may once again inform presidential action. This should be a recognizable tactic to us — lying about a person to diminish their effectiveness. In fact, these extremists want to undermine the forward-looking policies that would prevent the very draconian measures they say they deplore.

We see unambiguous evidence that climate change is already affecting human health and the global economy — evidence often collected by world-leading American scientists and scientific institutions — while public opinion polls show that the American people continue to be misled about the risks facing us by conservative pundits who ignore, misunderstand, or intentionally misuse that science to mislead the public into fear of change. Yet we already see huge economic and environmental opportunities in adapting to the reality of climate change.

Fear is an effective tool — as hate groups and extremists know. It is no accident that repressive regimes of all kinds — fascists, the Nazis, Stalin, religious states, madrasses — use tools of hatred, anti-intellectualism, and fear to control knowledge, universities, and intellectuals. Fear grows best when sown in fields of ignorance, while science, rationality, and education are the greatest weapons modern societies have against irrational fear. No wonder Beck and his ilk have intellectuals in their sights; so do the leaders of Iran, and Burma, and the Taliban, and North Korea, for similar reasons.

What does this have to do with water — the ostensible focus of my blog? Nothing and everything. I try to focus on numbers here and what they mean for international and local water issues. Yet water policy, or any policy, must also be based on rationality,facts, and civil discourse. Similarly, solving any bad water contamination problem requires one of two approaches: don’t let the contamination into our water supply in the first place, or apply the right filters to clean it up when it does. The same rule applies to those who would pollute our public discourse with hate and noise: don’t let their vitriol into our media supply or filter it out before it can poison our democracy.


Dr. Gleick’s blog posts are provided in cooperation with the SFGate. Previous posts can be found here.

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4 Comments
  1. An interesting synopsis. It seems to me that the assault on rationality has also come internally in the academy, from those research programs that dismiss rational discourse in favor of interpretations based on power, hegemony and the like. Such programs preclude water policies,and public policy writ large, based on rationality due to the many competing influences and biases found in political processes. There are no doubt problems and limitations with what counts as “rational” in policy making and the types of knowledge, beliefs and customs considered legitimate but it is high time we recaptured an understanding of rationality congruent with the complex systems we are a part of.

  2. Another problem is that many Universities are dropping on the quality of education because they can make more money by graduating more students. The Bachelors of Science degree is becoming easier and easier to achieve but the people who get it, know less and less; all so the Universities can get more students and make more money.

  3. I believe that the Glen Becks, Rush Limbaugh’s, Sean Hannity’s, etc exist to make those of us in the middle take our focus off the daily grind and look around at the world, decide there might be something wrong and try to do something about it. They are out there (as in waaayyy out there). It doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say.
    John Holdren may be all you say. But with the dramatic social restructuring that is being pushed down the general public’s throat the way we perceive it to be today, regardless of what the above critics do or don’t say, when a man like Holdren spouts ideas of how to control race and population by selective birth control or putting chemicals in the water to limit births, it frightens people. Now those statements may have been made in jest or at a time in his life when his ideology was different. But to have a person who has ever thought that a member of the leadership would frighten any sane individual.
    It is all about power and who has it. Those people in government appear to not represent the other 50% of the country. What I mean is, the powerful will make sure they don’t drink the water with the birth control chemicals in it while the unknowing and unwashed will do it out of ignorance.
    Careful…were not all as ignorant as many would believe.
    If we want to change our society, it takes time. We as a culture have developed over thousands of years and many experiments in government and interacting as one person to another over time. Thousands of years of time. If there is change to be made in our society it shouldn’t be at the hands of the powerful but as a thoughtful, time consuming, trial and experiment period. Unfortunately we have gotten so used to all our problems being solved in 60 minutes (with commercials) that we want all our change neat and complete.
    Life is a messy, brutal business (I’m an ER nurse, I know). It takes time to pass ideas on from generation to generation and incorporate them. Slow down.

  4. A couple of things,
    The Environmental Defenders Office, New South Wales, Australia did report on its newsletter yesterday about a world-first climate-change judgement made by a US Court. So, as has happened in many other countries, in America too, judical arm might try and bring in the changes that its populace demands but gets side-tracked due to dishonest politics. But I am just giving you hope, not contradicting you.

    Secondly, water has everything to do with climate change and if the politians do not and the bureaucrats are not allowed to accept that reality and work on it, we would have policies that spiral down into a sticky sticky situation.

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