January 31, 2006

Lecture Debates Role of Science in Politics

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“Positivism is the scientific truth and is both politically and religiously neutral,” explained Andrew Jewett, Society for the Humanities Fellow, during a lecture, entitled “Science, Democracy and the American University,” yesterday in Rockefeller Hall.

Jewett focused on an examination of the evolution of ideas about science and democracy from the American Civil War through the Cold War. Two conflicting ideologies – technocracy and deliberate democracy – battle for approval by scientists, the public and the state.

“There is much evidence that deliberate democracy was preferred rather than technocracy,” Jewett said. “Deliberate democracy is when folks have free and open deliberation whereas technocrats believe that politics could be reduced to science.”

The lecture analyzed the morphing of scientific ideas through historic events, such as the Great Depression, and how they changed and were accepted by the public.

Jewett described how scientists began their rise against traditional views (revolving around religion and laissez-faire economic policies) with the dawning of Darwinism. By the middle of the Cold War, these technocratic views had become dominant.

“The technocrats saw science as the best source of information and, by the mid twentieth century, technocracy had replaced deliberate democracy in the United States,” Jewett explained.

Throughout the twentieth century many prominent individuals, including respected philosopher John Dewey, hotly contested the technocrats’ visions. Dewey argued strongly in favor of laissez-faire hegemony and against the rising of technocracy in the United States. However, with the onset of the Great Depression and the government taking part in the country’s economic and social policies, the technocratic science-based understanding soon became pervasive.

Over the next two decades the United States saw a shift from laissez-faire to Progressivism and technocracy.

“Many officials went to work for New Deal institutions during and after the Great Depression,” Jewett said. “While many scientists were skeptical of New Deal policies promoting government-run science labs, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave money to universities instead to allow scientists independence to continue on their own projects.”

Donations to private institutions are precisely what scientists desired. Fearing ultimate government intervention and control, scientists preferred to have control over their own independent projects at their own workplaces.

Yesterday’s lecture marked the inaugural lecture of 2006 in a Spring Colloquium Series sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology Studies. The series will consist of nine different lectures from either Cornell professors or visiting or guest lecturers in fields relevant to the integration or overlapping of science and technology.

“The Colloquium will consist of bringing in outside scholars who work in anthropology, sociology or the history of science to present a topic,” said Prof. Suman Seth, science and technology studies.

Archived article by Carl Menzel
Sun Staff Writer