Book review: The Tragedy of American Science-From Truman to Trump


In the Time of Covid-19 and runaway Global Warming, interest in science is no longer considered either passé or purely the realm of so-called nerds. Enhanced by the existence of high production-value television programs on science and a newfound love of celebrity scientists, interest in science is certainly on the rise.

Of course, the counter-forces are powerful. An administration and general population that is increasingly anti-science, a trend towards autonomous irrationality, and the recrudescence of pre-Enlightenment thinking has certainly created a retrograde motion that could very well blunt this newfound interest in science. Perhaps there is no more important battle for humankind than to restore science to its rightful place and to heed its warnings lest it’s simply too late.

What a difference a century can make! The decade that started a century ago witnessed some of most revelatory and sublime advances in Science the world has ever seen- after all, the 1920s was the decade when Quantum Mechanics was invented. Physicists cut the most charming and respected figures. By then, of course, Einstein was a household name.

Fast forward to the Age of decolonization when Science represented a universal hope for the deliverance of societies kept in poverty by the rapacity of imperialism. As Nehru so aptly put it,

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people… Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid… the future belongs to science and those who make friends with science.

Indeed, science not only offered a glimmer of hope to the newly liberated world, but also was seen as a bond between all peoples, for science did not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or class. This, the “universality of science,” was a clarion call to generations of idealistic and intelligent youth who flocked towards science as a way to nation-build and serve humanity.

Idealism of course can be thought of as naïve. Such a conception is the perfect backdrop for Clifford Conner’s “The Tragedy of American Science.” After all, the naiveté with which we behold science is belied by the greed-driven and grisly things done in the name of science- or with the veneer of science.

The Tragedy of American Science From Truman to TrumpConner correctly connects the tragedy with the corporatization of science and proceeds to uncover the nefarious ways in which science in used, quoted, and “created” in the service of a variety of industries: food, agricultural, pharma, tobacco, and the like. This takeover of science comes in a variety of forms including bending scientific results to fit corporate needs, outright bribes to produce “scientific” results, privatization of public research, and a host of other systemic pathways. He points out correctly that American science policy favors private, market-led forces and is ideologically bent towards capitalism and not community, thereby resulting in both the creation of and bungling of abominations like the Flint water crisis.

Conner brings to bear this enormous moral authority when he discusses the destructive manifestation of science- from H bombs and missiles to the use of torture. Backed by think-tanks and a propaganda-drenched public, the military industrial complex uses science for warfare as a matter of course.

Why did science go bad? Conner delves into the sordid history of the scientific edifice including what he refers to as the “Nazification of Science,” the execrable influence of the RAND Corporation, and the creation of “Big Science”- a collaborative efforts of government, industry, and academia. Here, one would have liked to see a more detailed discussion of both the complicity of the scientific elite and the effects the vast technology industry has had on destroying what was one referred to as “the scientific spirit.”

Conner ends with a clear call to action around “fixing” the problem. His proposals are deliciously sensible and far-reaching– including nationalizing science-based industries and ensuring 100% public ownership of the fruits of science. We need an entire book, even a playbook, on how to reclaim science and Conner’s last chapter certainly helps frame the issue.

I grew up in a household in which science reigned supreme. Though I had no particular skills in that arena, I was always animated by the idea of science not only as ontology and method of thought but as a liberatory force and a binding one. Such are the thoughts of children, indeed, and certainly ones I’d like to have again as an adult. Clifford Conner has framed the issue well; the time is now to heed his admonitions. And the thoughts will return.

The Tragedy of American Science-From Truman to Trump
Clifford D. Conner
Haymarket Books, 2020

Romi Mahajan in an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist




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Romi Mahajan

Romi Mahajan is an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist

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