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Wang on PSAC, Pt. 3: Attitudes and Ideas in the History of Policy August 16, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
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In Pt. 2 of this look at Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow, I critiqued Wang’s adherence to a central analytical rubric pitting an “enthusiasm” for technological “fixes” against a more reserved “skepticism”.  I argued that the rubric led to misleading interpretations of selected quotes.  It modified, rather than moved beyond, a questionable narrative of 20th-century ideas about the relationship between politics and science.  Finally, the narrative mainly seemed to function as a way of explaining why good reason often fails to prevent bad outcomes — as might be expected given the narrative’s origins in historical polemics.

Nevertheless, readers of this book who are prepared to disagree with certain aspects of it can and should still find a great deal that is useful.  My more pressing concern is what aspects of history are simply forgotten because they can only be found by probing beyond what the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric can parse.

One key issue is the characterization of the importance of the President’s Science Advisory Committee as fulfilling an almost unique role as scientific skeptics in a government apparently otherwise enamored with the prospect of technological fixes to policy problems.  However, this creates the impression that those whose general attitudes are labeled enthusiastic held a belief in something like what we might call “technology without policy”.


Wang on PSAC, Pt. 2: Enthusiasm, Skepticism, and Theodicy August 8, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
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In Part 1 of this look at Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America, I suggested Wang’s use of a dichotomy between technological enthusiasm and technological skepticism as his central analytical rubric held the book back from being as illuminating as it might have been.  Part 2 explains how it does so.

As I noted in Pt. 1, the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric clearly has a moral resonance: enthusiasm is bad, skepticism is good.  Once a moral dichotomy has been established, historiography easily fades into “theodicy” — an explanation for why there is evil in the world.  The theodicy of science basically goes like this: if science, or indeed knowledge, is supposed to make the world a better place, then why does it fail to do so?  Why does it sometimes seem, or threaten, to make the world worse?  A common mid-to-late-20th-century version is: why did scientists fail to stop the Cold War?

No sane historian would actually phrase the question this way, but using the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric more-or-less implies the question, simply because the rubric’s terms are one answer to the problem of theodicy.  Blind enthusiasm for science and technology as a simple “fix” can result in evil.  Skepticism can prevent that evil.  Where skepticism fails, enthusiasm may prevail.  This line of reasoning rose in reaction to Enlightenment thought, often to reinforce the legitimacy of religious ethics and tradition-based government in the face of an idolatry of reason (see, for example, Chris’ post on Maistre, or Schaffer and Golinski on attempts to constrain scientific “genius”, or Schaffer on the criticism of Whewell).  Importantly, though, this critique is mainly just a modification or inversion of the Enlightenment argument.  Where the Enlightenment pitted the potential of rational governance against superstition and arbitrary authority, the enthusiasm of rationality and technology is simply recast as an impostor, a new form of “faith” to be overcome by those purporting to represent a truly rational response to the evils of the world.

What this rather elaborate critique has to do with PSAC is that the instantiation of a group scientists at the highest level of power, the White House, becomes the scene for an  important confrontation of good and evil, or reason and blindness.  Historiographically, this rubric translates into mundane, but still very important, consequences that manifest themselves in style and composition: it defines what questions are worth asking, which explanations and descriptions of historical events and ideas suffice, and which ones will suggest the need to ask other questions and bring in additional context in order to feel satisfied that an adequate understanding of past events has been reached.