The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 3 (Fall 2014)

Scientific Democrats

Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War

Andrew Jewett

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.3 (Fall 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 3)

Andrew Jewett, a professor of history and social studies at Harvard University, has written a book recovering—and commending—past attempts to make science a means of generating moral consensus in American politics. In the midst of a national crisis over the diminishing authority and prestige of the humanities in higher education, particularly in relation to the sciences, this might seem a perverse ambition for a historian. Jewett puts that apparent contradiction to rest by historicizing the word science, pointing out that it has not always referred primarily to the natural or physical sciences. Nor, he notes, have scientists always seen themselves as dispassionate discoverers of absolute truth. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, science referred more to a cast of mind, an approach to consensus building. Its practitioners systematically collected evidence regarding our world, both physical and social. Then they engaged in democratic conversation with others—including the general public—as to the best interpretation of that evidence and, ultimately, as to how society ought to proceed in light of it. But such an understanding of the meaning and uses of science has largely been lost in our time.

Jewett calls the champions of that forgotten understanding “scientific democrats.” They first articulated their ideas in the late nineteenth century out of distress at the apparent impotence of culturally dominant Protestant Christianity to prevent growing divisions in American politics—most violently in the Civil War, then in the nation’s widening class fissure. Scientific democrats anticipated educating the public on the principles and attitudes of scientific practice, looking to succeed in fostering social consensus where a fissiparous Protestantism had failed. They hoped that widely cultivating the habit of seeking empirical truth outside oneself would produce both the information and the broader sympathies needed to structure a fairer society than one dominated by Gilded Age individualism.

Questions soon arose: What should be the role of scientific experts versus ordinary citizens in building the ideal society? Was it possible for either scientists or citizens to be truly disinterested when developing policies with implications for their own economic and social standing? Jewett skillfully teases out the subtleties of the resulting variety of approaches in order to “reveal many of the insights and blind spots that can result from a view of science as a cultural foundation for democratic politics.”

Starting in the early twentieth century physical scientists largely bowed out of the discussion by applying their research primarily to building American industry. Meanwhile, those whom Jewett calls “human scientists”—psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, linguists, philosophers, historians, and some biologists—split into two camps. One embraced a “value-neutral” approach to investigating social phenomena with policy implications. Its adherents pursued dispassionate motives along with elaborate checks and balances within the scientific community to compensate for any residual bias. Because average citizens could not be expected to act according to consistently disinterested motives or even to compensate for their biases, this approach encouraged deference to scientific “experts” regarding policy decisions. The second, or “consequentialist,” group of human scientists—most famously John Dewey—believed that disinterested motives were unnecessary as long as one cultivated the habit of including an informed view of how to help others in policy calculations. Average people could reasonably learn to inform themselves of basic social scientific findings and then consider others’ good alongside their own. Consequentialists therefore sought to facilitate democracy by popularizing this use of science through college courses and writings for the general public—so as to encourage citizens to formulate the nation’s policy themselves.

Going against the received wisdom, Jewett asserts that the value neutrality advocates did not win a clear victory in the 1920s. Rather, they and the consequentialists coexisted until the seemingly unending political emergencies that consumed the nation from the 1930s through the 1950s shifted the balance. Fighting the Great Depression, fascism, and then communism put some of the nation’s most pressing political priorities, such as economic recovery and the achievement of technological supremacy, beyond contention, obviating any need to inform or promote public debate. Human scientists largely ceded the task of facilitating democracy to humanists, who would presumably use the canon of Western art and literature to foster general commitment to the values of individual freedom and democracy. The former then remade themselves as “behavioral scientists” whose findings would indicate the best means for the government to reach predetermined ends such as building up America’s strategic nuclear arsenal and winning the space race. Radicals of the 1960s would dismiss such “RAND Corporation” scientists as lackeys of the military-industrial complex and a state that autocratically directed the lives of a passive citizenry.

Jewett fears that the Left’s subsequent habit of writing off science “leaves progressive scholars and activists interpretively impoverished amid a massive resurgence of theistic modes of conservatism.” Modern conservatives formulate policy in areas such as medical ethics and the environment with explicit reference to science (opposing some forms and embracing others); therefore, when progressives reject science as a form of political discourse, they fail to effectively engage their opponents. Jewett is commendably frank about his own preferences: He clearly favors the Deweyan approach. But he subjects even his heroes to thoughtful criticism. For example, Jewett argues that scientific democrats underestimated differences among groups of Americans and overestimated citizens’ ability to voice their views effectively without training. Despite the shortcomings of past manifestations of scientific democracy, Jewett hopes that “the twin scientific tenets—that we must simplify and abstract in order to think, and that we stand to gain by comparing our abstractions to comparatively concrete forms of experience”—offer a political way forward: All Americans can advance wise political decision-making by pooling their theories and experiences.

It is unclear how Jewett proposes to incorporate Americans of faith into his vision of a more richly informed and deliberative public sphere. As scientific democrats realized, all social perceptions are mediated by individual perspectives. So can religious experiences constitute “comparatively concrete forms of experience”? A genuinely deliberative democracy would not require those Americans who take some ethical guidance from divine revelation (a majority, according to Gallup polls) to speak as if they did not—any more than it would require their nonbelieving compatriots to speak as if they embraced such revelation. The most practical of Jewett’s insights may be that both scientific and religious philosophies have historically contained ethical resources that could ground deliberative democracy, but that both have also nurtured anti-democratic streams. Perhaps, then, a pluralistic political culture that consciously strives to appeal to the democratic values held in common by both systems—and many Americans draw from both—could help knit together a country rent by divergent ethical impulses.

Collective systematic observation and experiment go a long way toward helping us understand each other and live together. But understandings of certain aspects of life, including some religious experiences, are often better achieved through literature, art, and, yes, history. No single scientific, humanistic, or religious system can form a discourse within which all Americans will find a full voice. The humanities, whether religious, secular, or both, offer a space in which people can grapple with aspects of the human person and human communities that elude quantification and quantitative analysis. Like science, the humanities help us to better understand one another and ourselves.

It is hard to ignore the fact that men dominate the pages of this book, in part because they so dominated the American university in the period under discussion. Expanding analysis to include female-dominated arenas like settlement houses could recover an even greater breadth of interaction between politics and the human sciences. That quibble aside, Jewett succeeds admirably at elucidating the perils and promise of scientific democracy, and I commend the book to those seeking to think through the options for fostering democratic culture.

Andrea L. Turpin is assistant professor of history at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas. She is working on a book that examines how the entrance of women into American colleges and universities in the nineteenth century shaped ideas about the moral purposes of higher education.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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