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Following the Science

From contraception to climate change, the quest to master nature will always put autonomy first.
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President Barack Obama poses for a selfie with Bill Nye, left, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the Blue Room prior to the White House Student Film Festival, Feb. 28, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

In 2008, Sens. Obama and Clinton fell over each other with promises to “follow the science.” They were speaking particularly in criticism of President Bush’s ban on stem-cell research and Republican resistance to the widespread findings regarding anthropogenic climate change. By “following the science,” they promised, policy would no longer be the prisoner of “political” considerations—it would be decided based upon scientific findings.

Supporters of candidates Obama and Clinton knew exactly what was implied by that phrase—“following the science”—thus short-circuiting any real discussion of what, precisely, that phrase meant, and whether there was in fact any such thing as “following the science.” Obama and Clinton’s supporters knew exactly what policy prescriptions were implied in that phrase, and never stopped to ask questions such as, “should moral and ethical considerations guide decisions in the application of scientific research?” or, “should scientific research itself be subject to ethical and moral limitations?” or, “isn’t there a reason that public policy decisions are made by elected leaders who represent a variety of constituencies, and not scientists who may have a blinkered view of what their findings entail?” Does the fact that some sick people could benefit from kidney transplants justify opening a market in kidney purchases? What of signing up poor people to engage in risky medical research for significant compensation? What of using clones for organ harvesting? How does one, in such instances, “follow the science”?

Or, consider the most recent findings that add to a bevy of research conclusions regarding oral contraception—“the Pill.” Research shows decisively that oral contraception is linked to increased risks for various forms of cancer, particularly breast cancer, which is the second leading form of cancer overall (following prostate cancer), and is estimated to be responsible for 40,000 deaths this year alone, or about 7 percent of all deaths resulting from cancer in the United States. “The Pill” is listed by the CDC and the WHO (through its International Agency for Research on Cancer) as a Group 1 carcinogen. An article this summer in The Atlantic—hardly a publication of the conservative religious right—highlighted a recent study that confirmed again what many previous studies have shown—a link between the estrogen that is ingested in the Pill, and an increased incidence of breast cancer, among other cancers.

Yet, unsurprisingly, there was no cry from President Obama or Secretary Clinton to “follow the science!” Indeed, Olga Khazan, the author of the Atlantic article, acknowledged that the usefulness of the Pill to many people (women and men alike, presumably), complicated what exact conclusions are to be drawn from the science.

As with most things OB-GYN related, that’s frustratingly confusing. The pill is essential; not getting cancer is too. How do you choose what’s more important—a lifetime of easy reproductive autonomy, or ratcheting down your risk of a deadly disease by marginal amounts?

Based on “what the science says,” the answer is presumably easy: stop taking the Pill. But based on what people actually want —indicated in the admission that the “science” needs to be considered alongside the benefits of a “lifetime of easy reproductive autonomy”—then we should not be surprised that it’s not so easy to “follow the science.”

But notice how easily these very arguments can, and doubtless someday will, be marshaled on behalf of maintaining a steady diet of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels. The Right has spent considerable effort on the activity of simply denying the validity of climate change, or even where they admit it, resort to suggesting that it’s something other than a product of human consumption of petroleum. Their main response to accumulated scientific evidence is to deny its validity, rather than to confront its implications.

But imagine if we just slightly altered a few of the phrases from the Atlantic article on the link between contraception and cancer. One can well imagine conservatives eventually saying, for instance, “As with most things energy related, that’s frustratingly confusing. Fossil fuels are essential; not making the globe warmer is too. How do you choose what’s more important—a lifetime of easy energy-assisted autonomy, or ratcheting down your risk of climate change by marginal amounts?” Or, in the slightly-altered words of an OB-GYN expert cited in the article, “For the vast majority, the usefulness of fossil fuels outweighs the risk by a huge margin.”

Here is my prediction: we are as likely to cut back on fossil fuels in order to stop climate change as women are to cut back on their consumption of oral contraceptives to avoid certain cancers and to cease the pollution of the environment. This is because when “following the science” runs squarely against “a lifetime of easy autonomy” of any form, “what the science says” will lose.

This is not simply coincidence: when we moderns speak of science, we are speaking of a specific kind of activity aimed at a specific end. We can contrast our understanding to that which preceded modern science.  Among ancient thinkers, Aristotle (for instance) engaged in “science” (though many would accuse of him of being at times a poor scientist), a form of inquiry aimed at understanding phenomena—whether “natural” or human. For a long time, this form of inquiry was understood to be an extension of philosophy, or the effort to understand phenomena, and was often called “natural philosophy.”  Thus, his “political science” was the effort to understand human nature, just as his natural science was an effort to understand plants or animals or the movement of the stars. To the extent that there was a practical implication of these studies, it was generally to understand how humans could conform to that natural order—including our own nature.

The moderns altered the meaning of the word science, particularly through the work of Francis Bacon. Bacon fiercely criticized the Aristotelian and scholastic understanding of science, instead arguing that science should not only seek to “understand” nature, but when possible, to command, alter, and master it. “Let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest,” he wrote in Novum Organum, urging that science be undertaken for the sake “of works.”  The hope, as he expressed in his utopian fantasy The New Atlantis, was to enlarge the “bounds of Human Empire.” America’s greatest Baconian—and architect of Progressivism and still-beloved philosopher of the American left—John Dewey, invoked Bacon in his recapitulation of the task of modern science:

Scientific principles and laws do not lie on the surface of nature. They are hidden, and must be wrested from nature by an active and elaborate technique of inquiry. [The modern scientist] must force the apparent facts of nature into forms different to those in which they familiarly present themselves; and thus make them tell the truth about themselves, as torture may compel an unwilling witness to reveal what he has been concealing.

(Reconstruction in Philosophy)

Both the employment of fossil fuels to power industrial and mobile modernity, and the discovery and widespread use of The Pill are legacies of this project of modern science—to extend human mastery over nature, even, when necessary, to “torture” nature. The right and the left might engage in many battles, but they agree in essence over the nature of the project of modern science; their disagreement about that project mainly lies in what constitutes the “nature” that should be conquered.

For the right (following early-modern lead of Bacon, his student Hobbes, and Locke), the conquest of nature should be aimed at “external” nature, the natural world, for the benefit of humankind. There is a residual respect for the creatureliness of humans, conceived within a frame in which humanity is radically separate from nature “out there” (an idea that Aristotle could not have conceived).

For the left (influenced by Rousseau), only through the overcoming of human “nature” (appearing always in just such quotes) can human liberation and true autonomy be achieved. The Pill is just one way that human nature is to be mastered; so, too, the ability to safely and surgically extract a fetus; to engage in embryonic stem-cell research; to redefine marriage without regard to considerations of reproduction; and, for a growing number, the hope of immortality through the project of “transhumanism.” However, the natural world is regarded as inviolable, a space that should bear no imprint of human exploitation. Like the right, the left reflects the modern divide between nature “out there” and human nature, but now it favors “the environment” over human “nature.”

In both cases, the aim is what Bacon described as “the relief of the human estate,” which has become tantamount to the securing of the greatest expansion of human autonomy. While the left and right appear to fight titanic battles over issues such as the size of the national deficit, both engage in a deeper fundamental shared project of expanding the scope of human autonomy with the assistance of applied science, or “technology.”

And if one finally considers the record, it is the advance of this shared commitment that has proven to be the heart of success of both the right and the left. The right has generally “won” in the economic realm, expanding trade and globalization, while generally losing in the realm of “social issues.” The left has generally won (and continues to gain ground) on these same “social issues,” without decreasing a jot the production and consumption of fossil fuels around the world. There is a reason why a growing number of millenials exhibit a consistent ethic of libertarianism, describing themselves in growing numbers as “socially liberal and economically conservative.” They are the progeny of the marriage (feigned as a battle) between the modern left and the right, Baconians all.

We do “follow the science”—the path laid down by the modern scientific project to master nature—down the path to ever-increasing human autonomy, which in fact requires the architecture of massive government for its achievement. And down this path lies finally the mastery of ourselves, which is also our ultimately complete subjugation. Living autonomously through technology on a ravaged planet might not have been Bacon’s hope, but it is our destiny if we continue to “follow the science.”

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.



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