Science in the U.S. is under assault by postmodernism, political partisanship, and trial lawyers. Without a change in the direction of our culture, American technological supremacy is facing an existential threat.
I've always been bullish about American scientific and technological supremacy, not in some starry-eyed, jingoistic way, but due to the simple reality that the United States remains the world's research and development engine.
This is true for at least four reasons, which I detailed previously: (1) Superior higher education; (2) A cultural attitude that encourages innovation; (3) Substantial funding and financial incentives; and (4) A legal framework that protects intellectual property and tolerates failure through efficient bankruptcy laws. There's a fifth, fuzzier reason, namely that smart and talented people have long gravitated toward the U.S.
But while Americans believe in unalienable rights endowed by our Creator, we are not similarly guaranteed everlasting technological supremacy. China is already challenging the U.S. in computer science, chemistry, engineering, and robotics. Without a consistent and relentless pursuit of excellence, the eagle risks losing its perch.
Unfortunately, there are a confluence of factors that, when combined, constitute an existential threat to American science: Postmodernism, political partisanship, and trial lawyers.
Postmodernism. Though nobody can actually define postmodernism, it is characterized by a rejection of objective truth. This toxic ideology is rampant in academia and gaining popularity in the broader culture. Its most nefarious manifestation is Critical Theory, which derives from Marxism and posits that society is nothing but a hierarchy of oppressors and the oppressed. Out of this nonsense comes the absurd belief that the scientific method and even knowledge itself are tools of the white patriarchy.
Does this all sound too ridiculous to be real? Alas, it is. Until it received a public backlash, the Smithsonian published a web page claiming that an "emphasis on the scientific method" and a focus on "objective, rational linear thinking" are examples of "white culture." Investigations into the biological differences between men and women (of which there are many) are deemed sexist. Information of any kind that offends the listener is labeled "fake news." In reality, a nation that can no longer tell the difference between truth and lies may be facing societal decline.
Political partisanship. There was a time when scientists knew better than to deal in politics. That time is now gone. Openly cheering for one side of the political spectrum over the other, scientists and science media outlets are gambling with their reputation.
For the first time in its 175-year history, Scientific American foolishly endorsed a presidential candidate, apparently blind to the fact that the once esteemed magazine avoided politics for nearly two centuries for a very good reason. Not to be left behind, the editor-in-chief of the internationally renowned journal Science penned an editorial about why he doesn't like President Trump. 314 Action, a political group that seeks to elect scientists into public office, doesn't even bother reaching out to the other side of the aisle.
This will all backfire. One of the quickest ways to destroy one's credibility is by being overtly political, yet more of the scientific community is doing precisely that. Once credibility is lost, trust and funding often go along with it.
Trial lawyers. Like vultures hunting for a carcass on a desert highway, trial lawyers lurk in the background, swooping down to win jackpot verdicts against large firms, often those in the agricultural technology and pharmaceutical industries. The pattern is always the same: Activists blame chemical X for causing disease Y, usually based on very flimsy evidence, and then lawyers sue the largest multi-billion-dollar company they can find in the hope of making it rain money. Because of this, we have termed this cabal the activist-legal complex. Its arsenal of pseudoscientific tricks often works. Just ask Monsanto or Johnson & Johnson.
Worse, trial lawyers undermine the integrity of science by pitting one scientist against another. Usually, one of them is correct and endorses the scientific consensus, while the other is spouting nonsense. (As it turns out, you can find a crackpot on just about any given topic. There are a handful of biologists who deny that HIV causes AIDS, for instance.) This gives juries and judges (and the public) the impression that scientific analysis is simply one opinion among many.
Self-Inflicted Wounds Cut the Deepest
Societal decline is a choice. So is the coming decline of American technological supremacy. The good news is that, though these self-inflicted wounds are substantial, they are not irreversible. Postmodernism could be an intellectual fad that evaporates in the coming years. Likewise, political partisanship has waxed and waned over the decades and will hopefully wane once again. Laws can be implemented that put a leash on trial lawyers.
But these things require effort and a change in mindset. Barring a substantial shift in the cultural winds, we may be witnessing the slow suicide of American science.