Science/Non-Science

SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, THE JAMES E. WEBB SPACE TELESCOPE arrived at Lagrange Point 2, its final destination in a desirably cold and dark region of space nearly a million miles from earth. And there the telescope now roams, lazily transcribing an orbit governed by the gravitational forces of earth and sun while readying its mirrors and instruments to gaze into impossibly distant places and events in space and time.

The science and technology that delivered Webb to its extra-celestial home, and that will now guide and interpret its work, are awe-inspiring. I mean the fundamental science–astrophysics, optics, cosmology–but also, perhaps especially, the applied science and the machinery it produced — the Ariane 5 rocket that lifted the telescope into space, and the thing itself, the telescope, with its myriad and complex membranes, antennae, mirrors, and instruments, unfolding like some giant chrysalis on its flawless journey to L2.

Along with millions of other people around the world, I watched the launch and kept on watching as the telescope followed its intricate and risky deployment choreography, cruising past more than 300 points of potentially catastrophic failure along the way. The captivating spectacle reminded me how far space exploration has come since the Project Mercury missions a little more than 60 years ago, the Apollo program a decade later, and even since Hubble, Webb’s less complex and capacious predecessor, with its famously flawed mirror that needed (and got) a new set of glasses.

It also prompted me to think again about how saturated our lives have become with the fabulous, almost surreal successes and products of science and technology since the 1960s. This computer on which I followed Webb and now write. The vast communications network that connects it (and me) to Medium and those who might tune in to this blog. The cell phone that lies next to me on the desk, periodically chattering with personal and commercial messages and alerts. The household machines that blink and buzz in the near background of my apartment. The satellites that will guide me when I venture out in my networked and computer chip-dependent car. The messenger RNA vaccine that has provoked the anti-bodies now circulating through my body, protecting me from COVID-19.

Even as these successes and influences pile up, public trust and confidence in science are evolving in a more erratic fashion. According to a recent Gallup poll, public confidence in science has declined since 1975, when 75 percent of Americans reported “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in science, compared to 64 percent now. A recent Pew poll has modestly more encouraging results, suggesting that public trust in medical scientists has actually improved a little since the onset of the pandemic. But both of these studies include a significant and depressing caveat. Levels of confidence and trust in science and scientists diverge significantly along political party lines. In the Gallup poll, confidence in science has fallen dramatically among Republicans since 1975, with only 45 percent now expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in science. The Pew poll demonstrates similar divergences. These results are wholly consistent with party divergences around the efficacy and safety of COVID vaccines and with public attitudes toward climate science. They are also consistent with the broader, pervasive sensation that Americans increasingly occupy different and competing worlds. Different facts. Different truths. Different realities.

There’s a lot of discussion now regarding how these stubborn incompossibles might be reconciled, including the hope that Reason will descend and clear things up. I think that hope is in vain. The place where our political beliefs, commitments, ideas, and passions are formed does not operate according to the script that sent Webb to L2. It’s a different and far messier place of conflict, desire, violence, culture, history. Mountains of history. The modes and products of scientific rationality influence this place, but they do not coincide with it, or even comprehend it. For that, we need different kinds of thinkers and ways of thinking–novelists, poets, philosophers, witnesses, historians, ethnographers–more attuned to this strange and bewitched realm. And even more important, we need actors, people who represent and fight for ideas and values in the public places where they live and who will build institutions that embody them. If there is a reconciliation of incompossible worlds out there somewhere, a political metaphorical L2, it will be discovered by political means.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Philosophy and Non-Philosophy,” The Possibility of Philosophy: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1959–1961. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2022.

Jeffrey M. Jones, “Democratic, Republican Confidence in Science Diverges,” Gallup, July 16, 2021

Carry Funk and Alex Tyson, “Trust in America: In the age of COVID-19, do Americans trust science?” The Pew Research Center, January 5, 2022.

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William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine, and Puyloubier, France. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of NEH from 2014 to 2017.

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William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine, and Puyloubier, France. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of NEH from 2014 to 2017.

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