Master of the subtle shout-out

Obama manages to hide a Scriptural allusion in his paean to science.

In many ways, BHO’s science-staffing video isn’t one of his best performances. It seems to be a very strong team, with both strong scientific credentials and the right policy commitments, and of course it’s good to hear a President commit himself to respecting “the integrity of the scientific process,” supporting “free and open inquiry,” and listening to scientific advice “even when it’s inconvenient.” (Nice little shout-out to Gore.)

But the speech reinforces the impression I got from reading The Audacity of Hope: scientific discovery is not one of the things that floats Obama’s boat. His worldview is shaped by history and law, and he thinks of science (which he barely distinguishes from technology) in almost entirely practical terms: protecting the environment and curing disease, for example. There’s no sense that it’s a thrill to be alive in what future generations will recall as the heroic age of biology, the moment when the fundamental processes of life began to be elucidated. Nor does the President-Elect seem to get much satisfaction from the suddenly explosive developments in particle physics and cosmology, where physics meets metaphysics, or the terrific advances in cognitive neuroscience that are revolutionizing our ideas about how the human mind works.

It’s also clear that “science” means “physical and biological science.” Economics has its place, of course, but it’s a purely practical place, and it’s not thought of as a scientific enterprise. (And no, despite all the jokes, the fact that macroeconomists can’t predict recessions doesn’t prove that they’re not engaged in science; physicists can’t predict earthquakes or hurricanes, and aren’t expected to.) And the other social sciences don’t even rate a mention, though both social psychology and evolutionary psychology are producing fascinating new knowledge. (I don’t get the sense that there’s much of interest happening in sociology or anthropology or political science, but that may reflect my ignorance or the narrowness of my range of intellectual sympathy. But in any case, if I had my choice, I’d like to have a President, and a Science Adviser, who cared, at least a little bit, whether those disciplines were healthy or stagnant.)

All in all, then, something of a disappointment for those of us who regard science as part of the high culture rather than as merely a machine for producing material progress.

However, it wouldn’t have been an Obama speech without one insanely great rhetorical flourish:

I am confident that if we recommit ourselves to discovery; if we support science education to create the next generation of scientists and engineers right here in America; if we have the vision to believe and invest in things unseen, then we can lead the world into a new future of peace and prosperity.

My guess is that most of the people who read or hear that passage won’t notice anything special. But Bible-reading Christians will hear an echo of Hebrews 11:1:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Will this have any impact on the anti-science bias of the fundamentalists? Not much, surely. But maybe a little. And it’s a cheap reminder to them that, whatever else he is, Obama is a Bible-reader. Very, very nice.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: