American Disasters: distrust in science, the end of optimism, and the rise of fake news

For many in today’s America, 9/11/2001 marks a radical shift in our vision of the future. Supposedly we went from prosperity, productivity, and security to fear, negativity, and insecurity. The beginnings of this process, which lands us in an era of “fake news” and political dysfunction, can be traced to the Challenger disaster, not 9/11.

On January 28, 1986 millions of Americans–young and old–watched as the space shuttle Challenger launched into the air and, some 70 seconds later, exploded. As a child, I watched in horrified awe as our teacher, too stunned for words, turned off the television and moved it out of our classroom. We know now how frozen O-rings and a culture of poor risk assessment led to that moment of collective tragedy (see Diane Vaughan’s classic book on this for more). I’m less concerned, however, with what produced the disaster than what the disaster produced.

Optimistic faith in science and technology exploded along with the shuttle. Oh, of course commercial faith remained. We buy and sell gadgets with ever-increasing fervor. We relish the status of high-priced phones and gimmicked interfaces. But do we believe in the power of science to take us to new heights? The dying gasp of such hope was when Democrats and Republicans united against acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. By the early 2000s, the Republican party had shed any pretense of belief that science was integral to a better future. The Republican struggle against climate science and against environmental regulation, and their continued crusade against the most successful scientific theory of all time (hint: it’s in the field of biology) demonstrate the death of faith that we could raise all the public–not just the wealthy few–to transcendent heights.

9/11 and its depressing consequences were just the distribution of our collective depression deployed as political anomie. Our faith that we could make the world better became a deranged assault on people outside our culture and political borders. Is it surprising that we’ve subsequently applied the same horrific logic to our own neighbors?

These days, it’s possible to be elected to federal office by attacking science and by attacking the optimistic dreams of young people (these are actually connected). One can lead a federal agency with the intent to undermine its institutions–whether these be education, the land, or basic welfare of food and housing–and callously deprive the young of their future. The shuttle exploded: we can’t fly higher so we should take what we can. The disenchanted rally themselves to the call of personal tax cuts, perpetual warfare against “the enemy,” and preemptive exile for the less fortunate. Science is folly, they say, because the shuttle exploded. Sometimes science tells me painful truths, so it must be hidden away and denied: fake news. And if science is fake news, well, then so must be everything else I don’t want to hear.

As a boy, I saw the Challenger explode, but that moment did not define me. Much more important, for example, was reading Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Those books taught me the value of sacrifice, they gave me faith in a world where we transform our losses into a better world of the future. So, in honor of faith, on the eve of the anniversary of the Challenger disaster, I offer a hope that the most shocking day of my young life could itself be a memory–not of unrelenting disenchantment and distrust–but of a clear sacrifice for our better future. Folks died trying to show us all a higher world; let’s not have that be in vain but instead strive–with the aid of science–to a better world for our children and grandchildren. Let’s make sacrifices and make the world better.

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