My growing concerns about science's soul have aroused some old, odd memories.
One dates back to 1996, shortly after the publication of The End of Science. My wife (now ex) was out, and I was feeding dinner to my two kids, who were toddlers, when the phone rang. The caller asked if I was John Horgan, the guy who wrote The End of Science. I said, Yes. He said, I'm Jerry Brown. I said, Who? And he repeated, Jerry Brown, you know, the former governor of California. I said, Come on. And he said, No, really.
Brown, who governed California from 1975 to 1983 and was re-elected in 2011, was between political gigs in 1996. He was hosting a radio talk show, "We the People," based in Oakland, and he wanted to chat about my book. I said, Sure, when? He said, Right now. I said, I'm taking care of my kids. Can we do this some other time? He said, I might not have time later. I said, Can I call you back in, like, ten minutes? He said okay.
I'm not using quotation marks because I'm reconstructing this from memory. I didn't take notes at the time.
My biggest concern was finding a place where my kids wouldn't distract me. I wiped the goo off their faces, pulled them out of their high chairs, plopped them in front of a cartoon show on the living room TV, locked myself in a bathroom with a cordless phone and called Brown back.
When we went on the air, Brown started ranting about science's sins. Scientists often pursue their research regardless of the harm it causes, he said, citing Nazi doctors and the Tuskegee experiments. He asked me to comment, clearly expecting me to agree with and elaborate upon his harsh assessment.
Obviously Brown hadn't read my book and had no idea what it was about, beyond being critical of science in some way. As politely as I could, I said my book didn't really address questions about the morality, or lack thereof, of science. I was concerned with what science can do, I said, not with what it should or should not do, and my focus was one pure rather than applied science. [*See Postscript for a possible explanation of Brown's confusion.]
Brown, who seemed surprised and disappointed at my response, reiterated his complaints, and I found myself in the odd position of defending scientists. At the time many scientists, notably physicist and Nobelist Phil Anderson, were accusing me of being anti-science. I became a science journalist, I told Brown, because I loved science; I admired most scientists—even those I criticized.
In 1996, the same year I spoke to Brown, the online magazine Salon posted a revealing interview with him, that offers clues to his state of mind then. Like many old-style environmentalists, Brown seemed to blame science for the ills of industrialized society. "We’re living in an unsustainable situation," he said, "that is taking us in the direction of catastrophe--social, moral and ecological. And it is my interest, perhaps my vocation, to resist that, and to work with others to provide positive alternatives."
The interviewer noted that Brown had seemed "angry" when he ran for President in 1992. Brown replied:
"I don’t know that I was angry enough. I think if we’re talking about indignation at injustice and deception, I would say that I really haven’t attained the level of anger appropriate to the evil that is engulfing the country and the world. The politics of America today is about supporting the continuation of nuclear weaponry and testing, and genetic manipulation, the consequences of which we do not understand, and the continuing isolation of living, feeling human beings in inhuman structures, whether they be jobs or urban clusters. This is going to create an explosion."
So why am I mentioning my 1996 conversation with Brown now? I'm writing an essay for a new edition of The End of Science, which is making me reflect on how my views have changed over the past two decades.
Brown's moral critique of science, which seemed foolish to me in 1996, now appears far more reasonable. Yes, some attacks on science and its products—such as climate-change models, vaccines, genetically-modified food, nuclear energy--are ignorant and unfair.
Brown himself has become more moderate—both in his rhetoric and actions--since his return to the governor's mansion in 2011. He has recently knocked Republicans for denying human-induced global warming, but he has annoyed greens by allowing more fracking in California. And whereas Brown deplored "genetic manipulation" in 1996, he did not support a 2012 California proposition to mandate labeling of genetically modified foods.
I'm nonetheless far more worried today than I was in 1996 about the degree to which scientists have been corrupted by their lust for fame and funding. Many seem more concerned with serving their sponsors--whether the military-industrial complex or the pharmaceutical industry--than the truth or the public. I occasionally fret that I'm too critical of science, always seeing the glass as half empty. But as I said in a column last year, the lesson I keep learning over and over again is that I am usually not critical enough.
In his 1996 interview with Salon, Brown said that, in spite of his fears for the future, he remains hopeful. "I can’t explain why," he said. "Maybe it’s just hormonal balance."
I'm upbeat too, and it's not just hormones. In spite of our immense problems—war, inequality, disease, global warming—humanity over the last century has become healthier, wealthier, freer and even more peaceful (albeit in fits and starts).
Brown's successful return to political office also cheers me. He is a true, unabashed intellectual, who in 1996 bragged about hobnobbing with brilliant malcontents like Ivan Illich, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Ehrenreich, Gary Snyder and Noam Chomsky. If a guy like Brown can repeatedly get elected governor of California, our biggest state, there's hope for America, and all of humanity.
Jerry, after you get re-elected, call any time if you want to chat about science.
*Postscript: It's possible that Brown skimmed The End of Science and conflated my views with those of philosopher Paul Feyerabend. My profile of Feyerabend, who served in the German army during World War II, included his savage denunciation—published in his 1987 book Farewell to Reason—of so-called civilized western nations:
"I say that Auschwitz is an extreme manifestation of an attitude that still thrives in our midst. It shows itself in the treatment of minorities in industrial democracies; in education, education to a humanitarian point of view included, which most of the time consists of turning wonderful young people into colorless and self-righteous copies of their teachers; it becomes manifest in the nuclear threat, the constant increase in the number and power of deadly weapons and the readiness of some so-called patriots to start a war compared with which the holocaust will shrink into insignificance. It shows itself in the killing of nature and of 'primitive' cultures with never a thought spent on those thus deprived of meaning for their lives; in the colossal conceit of our intellectuals, their belief that they know precisely what humanity needs and their relentless efforts to recreate people in their own sorry image; in the infantile megalomania of some of our physicians who blackmail their patients with fear, mutilate them and then persecute them with large bills; in the lack of feeling of many so-called searchers for truth who systematically torture animals, study their discomfort and receive prizes for their cruelty. As far as I am concerned there exists no difference between the henchmen of Auschwitz and these 'benefactors of mankind.'"
Photo of Jerry Brown by Neon Tommy via Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/neontommy/8117052872