American antiscience and democracy, an old story

Flames. The US elections in November remind us that the entire term of President Trump was marked by attacks against science and scientific research which helped to divide public opinion and fuel anti-science movements (climate skepticism, anti-vaccination , anti-mask). The thing might seem new, but it is reminiscent of the origins of American democracy in the early 19th century.e century when tensions are great between traditionalists and modernists, between scientific authority and charlatanism.

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Back from a study trip to the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville publishes Democracy in America, where he discusses the situation of the sciences. In the part devoted to “the influence of democracy on the intellectual movement in the United States”, Tocqueville takes up again the “quarrel of the New World” which disqualified, since Buffon, the aptitude of the Americans for the sciences, but it shifts the interpretation once linked to the climate to make it the consequence of an egalitarian society turned towards the immediate satisfaction of technical needs. Yet, he writes, democratic values ​​develop scientific practice on the side of an individual competence to be judged: “Equality develops in each man the desire to judge everything for himself; it gives him, in all things, a taste for the tangible and the real, contempt for traditions and forms. “ Tocqueville’s conclusion is final: “The permanent inequality of conditions leads men to shut themselves up in the proud and sterile search for abstract truths; while the social state and democratic institutions dispose them to ask the sciences only for their immediate and useful applications. “

Mermaids and ape-man

Tocqueville projects on the United States the fears and hopes of the Old Continent in terms of the development of science and technology. What he sees is a project for the democratization of science that values, in scientific institutions, a large community of observers of American nature recruited from among the farmers and science enthusiasts that Andrew Lewis has studied well in his book AT Democracy of Facts: Natural History in the Early Republic (Pennsylvania Press, 2011, untranslated). Already Thomas Jefferson and John Madison, third and fourth presidents, praised the civic virtues of naturalistic and archaeological practices.

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