The Nation and the Scientist

, former analyst, Center for Science & Democracy | May 3, 2013, 1:19 pm EDT
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Over the last year or so since the launch of UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy, my colleagues and I have been thinking a lot about what science meant to America’s Founding Fathers and why we should care today in 2013.

Thomas Jefferson: Courtesy Department of StateOur first presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, along with other major figures like Benjamin Franklin, all had tremendous respect for science and spoke about it as an integral part of our democracy. They saw a free society as essential to the pursuit of knowledge and an educated citizenry as essential to the preservation of liberty.

These thoughts are timely and worth reflecting upon as the sequestration’s belt-tightening measures threaten the progress of basic scientific research in the United States by slashing the budgets of science agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Evolution of a Word

The Founding Fathers lived during an age of great change. With its emphasis on reason and its revolutionary developments in society, politics, culture, and science, the Enlightenment laid the groundwork for the world we live in today.  Even the word “science” was undergoing a transformation in the wake of the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. People needed a more precise way to talk about the specific kind of knowledge gained from empirical, evidence-based study.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), common usage of “science” in the English language traces back to the Middle Ages, but back then it had a much broader meaning than what we understand today. In those days, science primarily meant simply a state of knowing. In particular, it meant knowledge acquired by study, but that could be ANY kind of study. For example, the fields that comprise the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) were together referred to interchangeably as “the seven sciences” or “the seven liberal arts.”

Not until the Enlightenment did “science” come to mean primarily what we understand today—namely, according to the OED, the brand of study “concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and…brought under general laws, and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truth within its own domain.”

Birth of the Scientist

Incredibly, given how often we apply the term to historical figures, the earliest recorded usage of “scientist” didn’t occur until 1834! Members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1831, “felt very oppressively” the need to be able to “designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively.” And so they coined a new term. By analogy with artist, economist, and atheist, they arrived at “scientist”—and thus the term was born.

While the Brits may have beat us Americans to the punch in coming up with “scientist,” the word itself was born in our common language out of the growing importance of scientific discoveries and the need to distinguish the practitioners of science from those possessing other kinds of knowledge—the poets, the philosophers, the statesmen, and the theologians. At a time when human civilization seemed to be progressing more rapidly than it ever had before, people recognized the unique contributions an empirical, evidence-based approach to understanding the world could make to the future.

And nowhere was that vision more paramount than in the United States, a nation Jefferson referred to as itself “an experiment […] which we trust will end by establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth.”

What Would Ben Franklin Say?

Science grew up as our nation did, as our founders imagined it would. In a letter to Joseph Priestley written in 1780, Ben Franklin regretted having been born too soon to witness the “rapid progress true science now makes.” In a thousand years, through the achievements of science, Franklin speculated: “Agriculture may diminish its Labour and double its Produce; all Diseases may, by sure means, be prevented or cured, not even excepting that of Old Age, and our Lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian Standard.”

Hardly more than a mere 200 years later, how much would Franklin have marveled at the eradication of smallpox, space flight, the decoding of the human genome, the Internet, flush toilets, or any of the innumerable other gifts of science? Today, as we grapple with the problem of elected leaders denying facts, defunding research, and denigrating the importance of empirical data, we would do well to remind them of the vision of our founders.

When we deny science, we not only deny our past as a nation but the possibilities of our future.

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