Scientists as Modern-Day Prophets

Have scientists become our modern-day prophets?

Scientists as Prophets

Lynda Walsh argues why science advisors are modern-day prophets in “Scientists as Prophets."

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In Scientists as Prophets (Oxford University Press, 2013), author Lynda Walsh argues that science advisors are our modern-day prophets. Walsh demonstrates how scientists resort to prophetic ethos when they need to persuade the public in policy change or funding research. Both scholars and citizens alike can appreciate the roots of scientific authority in debates such as climate change and evolution. This excerpt was taken from the prelude.

“There is no god, and Sam Harris is his prophet.” This comment appeared on an Internet forum discussing a new editorial by Harris, a neuroethicist who has published a series of provocative arguments with titles like “The God Fraud” and The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values. Harris claims in these polemics that human well-being is paramount and we should promote moral systems that increase it and dismantle systems that don’t. If you haven’t read Harris’s work or can’t guess from the above titles, he believes science increases well-being while religion doesn’t, particularly for women and poor people.

While Harris is not presently practicing science, he does hold a PhD in neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles. He promotes science-based morality through his nonprofit, Project Reason, as well as on an active lecture circuit. In his 2010 Technology Entertainment Design (TED) conference talk, Harris was by turns witty, tear-jerking, and caustic as he implored his audience to turn to science as humankind’s only hope for peace, progress, and fulfillment.

It is not surprising, then, that Harris’s performances have triggered responses like the one quoted above. Michael Dowd, a self-identified “evolutionary evangelist” and commentator for Minnesota Public Radio, recently lauded Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens as the “New Atheists” who are not enemies of religion; they are modern-day prophets. Prophets traditionally were those who chastised their people for having fallen out of sync with their time, with “God’s ways.” “Come into right relationship with reality,” they warned, “or perish!” Today’s science-oriented atheists call us scientists as prophets into right relationship with our time, and that means using all of our best information and cross-cultural experience. While Harris has not identified himself as a prophet, neither has he rejected any of these recurring attributions. In fact, he calls himself a “heretic,” and he gave Project Reason the evangelistic motto “spreading science and secular thinking.” He titled one of his books A Letter to a Christian Nation, a phrasing strongly reminiscent of St. Paul’s admonitions to the early Christian church.

What I argue in this book about Harris’s reception as a prophet, he might find vexing given his sentiments on religion: I argue that Harris’s prophetic performances, conscious or otherwise, are far from anomalous; in fact, they’re the norm. When Sam Harris steps up to convince the audience at TED or the readers of the Huffington Post that science is the only rational basis for human morality, he steps up to an invisible bully pulpit shaped by thousands of years of religious tradition. This stance, which I call the “prophetic ethos,” preexisted science as Harris would recognize it by millennia and developed in the inner sancta of the very religions he calls “absurdities.” Yet, without the special rhetorical privileges it affords, Harris would be preaching his brand of salvation to the crickets.

The prophetic ethos is a role that a polity—a group of people who must work together to stay together—authorizes to manufacture certainty for them. Now, given that uncertainty is our perennial and inescapable political condition, certainty—in the sense of absolute knowledge—is a chimera. But there is another meaning of certainty that most of us recognize, and that is a sense of conviction. This kind of certainty, which I call “political certainty,” is very much achievable, at least for short periods of time. Political certainty is an argument that frames a crisis in terms of “covenant values,” which are what I call the values that a polity shares and that distinguish it from its neighboring polities. When we reference American values, scientific values, or conservative values, we are talking about covenant values. It is because we hold these values ourselves (or profess to) and recognize performances of them by those around us that we count ourselves together as a polity of Americans, scientists, or conservatives. These values underpin such arguments as “free markets are best,” “the simplest explanation is the best,” and “preserving our traditional way of life is best.” The temporary political certainty expressed in such arguments can motivate political action or policy.

When a polity encounters a crisis in which right action cannot be ascertained via traditional democratic debate, it turns to its prophets. But while it expects certain knowledge from those prophets, what it gets from them instead is a dialogue that can lead to political certainty. This slippage between the purpose and the result of prophecy will prove crucial to my analysis of our current problems with it in the arena of science advising.

How did scientists come to serve as prophets? Before the seventeenth century, most prophets in the Western tradition were religious intermediaries; they framed dilemmas in terms of covenant values derived from religious authority, thus promoting political action on those grounds. This is the foundation that I examine later in this book. But then, through a fascinating series of events and arguments made in Restoration London, among other places, the prophetic ethos was adapted and adopted by natural philosophers, the forerunners of our scientists. I consider this crucial hybridization of scientific and prophetic ethos in later chapters.

After that, I track the hybrid of scientific-prophetic ethos through three more twentieth- and twenty-first century cruxes: arguments over nuclear weapons and pesticides in the 1960s, the popularization of cosmology and evolution in the mass media in the 1980s, and the controversy over climate change in the 2000s. I conclude by suggesting that if we recognize science advisers as our primary political prophets, this shift in perspective will yield more-practical solutions to the dysfunctions that currently plague our science policy making in areas such as climate change, green energy, and bioethics.

Let me be clear up front about what I am not arguing in this book. I am not arguing that all scientists are all priests in the Church of Naturalism, or that scientists only perform prophetic ethos when they speak to the public, or that they speak like prophets to each other. Neither would I argue that science advisers are the only prophets we recognize in America. Indeed, one of my primary goals in writing this book is to develop a rhetorical definition of prophetic ethos and to suggest that it can be performed by anyone who can (a) demonstrate privileged access to knowledge beyond the public ken and (b) use that demonstration to engage the polity in a dialogue about its covenant values. We love our prophets in the United States, and historically they have ranged from environmentalists such as John Muir, to social reformers such as Jane Addams, to scientists such as Rachel Carson, and, naturally, to religious reformers such as Jonathan Edwards. I am treating scientist-prophets in this book because the majority of our political crises today have some scientific or technological aspect, and scientists are our first resort in these crises.

Reprinted from Scientists as Prophets: A Rhetorical Genealogy by Lynda Walsh, with permission from Oxford University Press USA. © 2013 Oxford University Press.