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Culture, history and society

Culture, history and society

What the storming of the US Capitol tells us about science

13 Mar 2021 Robert P Crease
Taken from the March 2021 issue of Physics World, where it appeared under the headline "Beneath the rotunda". Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

Robert P Crease reflects on the US Capitol’s invasion from a unique perspective

The Apotheosis of Washington

If you stand in the Great Rotunda in the neoclassical US Capitol Building and look up, you’ll see high above a concave fresco entitled The Apotheosis of Washington. Painted in 1865 by the Greek–Italian artist Constantino Brumidi, it shows the first US president surrounded by six allegorical scenes. The details are hard to make out from 50 m below, but with binoculars – or Google – you can spot George Washington gesturing towards a scene representing science.

The central figure in that particular scene is the Greek goddess Athena. Neither looks at the other; Washington has other things on his mind, while Athena is teaching people – including Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Morse and the steamboat pioneer Robert Fulton – about a spark gap. Brumidi knew that Washington, like America’s other founding figures, believed in an association between effective democratic institutions and science.

I thought of Brumidi’s fresco on 6 January this year as I watched live TV footage of domestic terrorists in the Great Rotunda assaulting police, smashing artefacts and splashing blood on a sculpture (Brumidi’s painting, high up in the oculus of the dome, was unharmed). The carnage was incited by leaders who (amplified by social media) were warring against both democratic institutions and science. I wondered about the connection between the two wars.

The three Cs

Each war is associated with a “grand story”. The grand story of the war on democracy is that the 2020 US presidential election was fraudulent; the grand story for science is that evidence for things like climate change, the pandemic and vaccines is false. Each story provides justifications for rejecting contrary evidence, with the key elements being that the evidence has been faked, that a group of people plotted that fakery, and that attacking it is moral and just. I think of these elements as the “three Cs”: conviction, conspiracy and community.

Let’s start with the first C, that adherents are firmly convinced of their beliefs. Such convictions insulate belief against the doubt that might inspire need for further inquiry; contrary evidence must be wrong or was manipulated.

“If my friends lose the election, ballots were stolen,” say believers of the first story; “Scientific evidence against my view was faked,” say believers of the other. Alternative “experts” are found to reassure believers. The Capitol invaders, for instance, swear by certain disaffected politicians, while science deniers turn to the likes of Bjørn Lomborg (for his views on climate change), Peter Duesberg (AIDS) and Andrew Wakefield (anti-vaccination).

If contrary evidence persists, the reason must be a conspiracy – an organized effort to produce falsehoods. In one grand story, the conspirators are socialists, political opponents, those of other races, and the “deep state”; in the other, foreigners and the medical and scientific establishment. Conspiracies explain contradictory evidence and strengthen buffers against it.

The trouble with conspiracies is that they’re non-falsifiable, because any evidence against them is dismissed as manufactured by the conspirators.

The trouble with conspiracies is that they’re non-falsifiable, because any evidence against them is dismissed as manufactured by the conspirators. Conspiracies are also comforting, as they tell believers that the truth is not difficult and that they already know what’s really happening. Believe in a conspiracy theory and you don’t need to understand, say, climatology, epidemiology, demographics, physics or voting machine technology.

The third element bolstering grand stories is that they make believers feel spiritually and morally uplifted. Grand stories provide an apparent moral clarity, dividing the world into a blameless “us” and a wicked “them”, with the former representing the community as a whole and the latter a malevolent minority. To keep the group from splintering into sub-tribes with different views and aims, grand stories maintain unity through pageantry and entertainment.

I’ve seen anti-nuclear protests against research reactors that were picnics, with folk singers and dancers and people dressed as mushroom clouds and skeletons, while pro-science groups also have slogans and symbols. The Capitol’s invaders shared a mix of anger and celebration. Some painted their faces in patriotic red, white and blue and dressed as bald eagles or revolutionary war figures, while others carried iconography of racism and antisemitism such as Confederate flags.

Antidotes such as “better communication”, “science literacy” or “more dialogue” are ineffective; the messier and more difficult truth is harder to explain.

The three Cs reinforce each other in a way that makes them propagate easily. Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t need to investigate complex issues involving your health and welfare? Which would you rather watch: a parade of invaders smashing the halls of government, or broadcasts of a legislative session or scientific conference? Don’t you wish truth and moral clarity were easier?

Grand stories aim to spread enough distrust so that the most persuasively and vividly presented position seems the truest. This is why commonly suggested antidotes such as “better communication”, “science literacy” or “more dialogue” are ineffective; the messier and more difficult truth is harder to explain.

Democracies have ways of tolerating grand stories without suppressing them or letting their members dominate headlines, affect decisions or invade buildings. These ways involve a sifting process in which experts and institutions exercise judgment by weighing evidence, consulting experts and repeated inquiry.

This is not elitism, but democracy trying to make itself work. In the US at least, this process broke down well before 6 January. There’s a long-term danger if we allow grand storytelling to metastasize in social life and become normalized in politics, disconnecting beliefs from reality and blurring the distinction between fact and fiction.

The critical point

I have no idea what George Washington and Athena would have thought about the rampage taking place beneath them. The kind of battle occurring was not one each had to fight. To keep it from recurring will involve rebuilding trust and creating an even grander and still more uplifting story whose key elements are periodically rechecked facts, discerningly chosen experts, respect for irritations of doubt, and messier truth and moral vision. This is painstaking, frustrating and never-ending work, but the price of effective democracy.

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