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By ROBERT N. PROCTOR NOV. 19, 2016
Stanford, Calif. — THE good news got pretty much drowned out this month: Yes, 2016 is on track to become the hottest year on record, but thankfully also the third year in a row to see relatively flat growth in global greenhouse gas emissions. With global economic growth on the order of 3 percent a year, we may well have turned a corner toward a sustainable climate economy.
The bad news, of course, is that the world’s wealthiest nation, home to many of the scholars scrambling to reverse global warming, has elected a new president with little or no interest in the topic. Or an active disinterest. Donald J. Trump is surrounding himself with advisers who are likely to do little to challenge his notion of climate change as a Chinese hoax. People like to think of us as living in an age of information, but a better descriptor might be “the age of ignorance.”
How did we get into this predicament? Why are we about to inaugurate the most anti-science administration in American history?
As a graduate student at Harvard in the 1970s and early 1980s, I was astonished to find how little concern there was for the beliefs of ordinary Americans. I was in the history of science department, where all the talk was of Einstein and Darwin and Newton, with the occasional glance at the “reception” of such ideas in the larger literate populace.
I had grown up in a small town in Texas, and later in Kansas City, where the people I knew often talked about nature and God’s glory and corruption and the good life. At Harvard, though, I was puzzled that my professors seemed to have little interest in people outside the vanguard, the kinds of people I had come from, many of whom were fundamentalist Christians, people of solid faith but often in desperate conditions. Why was there so little interest in what they thought or believed? That’s Point 1.
Point 2: Early in my career as a historian, I was further bothered by how little attention was given to science as an instrument of popular deception. We like to think of science as the opposite of ignorance, the light that washes away the darkness, but there’s much more to that story.
Here my Harvard years were more illuminating. I got into a crowd of appropriately radicalized students, and started to better understand the place of science in the arc of human history. I learned about how science has not always been the saving grace we like to imagine; science gives rise as easily to nuclear bombs and bioweapons as to penicillin and the iPad. I taught for several years in the biology department, where I learned that cigarette makers had been giving millions of dollars to Harvard and other elite institutions to curry favor.
I also started understanding how science could be used as an instrument of deception — and to create or perpetuate ignorance. That is important, because while scholars were ignoring what Karl Marx dismissively called “the idiocy of rural life” (Point 1), tobacco and soft drink and oil companies facing taxation and regulation were busily disseminating mythologies about their products, to keep potential regulators at bay (Point 2).