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Science and Democracy in Political Crises, 1900-2024

More 'Science and Democracy in Political Crises, 1900-2024'

Image: Maksim Kabakou / stock.adobe.com

Conference to examine the interactions between social crises and science in the 20th and 21st centuries

Date: Thursday, 5 to Friday, 6 September 2024
Location: German Historical Institute Washington, 1607 New Hampshire Avenue, NW Washington DC 20009, USA

Inflation, energy supply, global warming, pandemics: science-based assessments and recommendations have long been an important resource for political decision-making in dealing with global crises. Yet, the role of science in politics has not been unchallenged as science and scientific processes have become contentious in many the public sphere of several nations on both sides of the Atlantic. Both the endorsement and dismissal of science are part of a broader historical pattern. While skepticism towards science existed well before 1900, the twentieth century has witnessed a strengthening of both “scientism” and “anti-scientism” (Joseph Ben-David), an unrestrained belief in science as well as its outright rejection.

The strong belief in science was particularly pronounced in the first half of the twentieth century given the contemporary political ideologies and the technological imperatives of war. World War I witnessed the politicization of science when prominent researchers, as scientists, publicly took sides in the global conflict. The mobilization of science for political and military ends transformed both science and democracy. Before and during World War II, eugenics helped to legitimize sterilization programs around the world, as well as mass murder in Germany. After 1945, key military technologies, such as radar and the atomic bomb, turned some physicists into public celebrities in the United States. Before Lysenkoism, the Soviet Union appeared to share a commitment to scientific universalism.

From the 1960s, though, public perceptions of science and of science-derived technologies changed significantly. Increasingly, large segments of the public engaged critically with science. Anti-nuclear movements in North America and in Europe produced experts and research institutes of their own. Environmental activists such as Rachel Carson pointed to the “fallout” from the use of pesticides. The Asilomar International Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules in February 1975 brought together biologists and journalists to assess the opportunities as well as the dangers associated with the new technology.

Beyond a productive engagement with science, the period also witnessed its rejection. During the Cold War, the alliance of science and liberal democracy promised to deliver technological innovation, economic growth, and political justice. From the 1970s, the fruits of this alliance seemed much less certain, and many blamed science for these developments. Social movements on the left and right dismissed the scientific project and its rationality. Some academic intellectuals also came to dismiss science, emphasizing not only its limitations but the futility of trying to identify coherent explanations. Most recently, conspiracy theories and fake news have bolstered the rejection of scientific research by denying the existence of climate change and of Covid-19. “Follow the science” may have appealed as a slogan to some, but for many, it either did not resonate or depoliticized and oversimplified the contested nature of scientific processes.

Similar dynamics have also had an impact on international relations and science policy. In the context of the recent Covid-19 pandemic, experts and scientific methods increasingly were questioned. In many countries, critics have cast doubt on assessments based on scientific methodologies, which they perceive as being driven by special interests and political ideologies. Against the backdrop of global crises, science has been brought in as a political intermediary. Most recently, science diplomacy has entered international affairs, providing new opportunities for diplomatic contact and dialogue. Such developments build on a history of researchers and their networks providing avenues of communication for nation-states at times when political channels were closed.

“Science,” in other words, has come to be invoked to herald solutions or to contest findings when societies are in crisis. For this workshop at the German Historical Institute Washington, contributions by historians, sociologists, political scientists, and colleagues in related fields that explore the relationship between societal crises and science in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries will be invited. Papers may, for example, focus on one of the following aspects:

  • “Alternatives” to science: What are the conditions and historical contexts for the evolution of movements that endorse ideologies supposedly legitimized by science, or movements that seek to provide alternatives to “established science”? What are the ideological roots of such movements, and what are their aims? Under what conditions do such movements advance scientific work, and when do they obstruct it?
  • Science and democracy: What is the role of science-based expertise in enabling politically responsible decision-making in a democracy? What effects does science-based expertise have on scientific institutions and their practices? Why have populist critics frequently targeted such experts alongside democratic institutions? Why and how did historically marginalized communities contest the legitimacy of Western science and scientific processes? What is the relationship between a lack of trust in science and a rejection of democracy, and how does the role of experts differ between democratic and non-democratic societies?
  • Science and crises: Over time, how has science (broadly construed to include academic fields in the humanities and social sciences) evolved as a key interpreter of crises? How has science sometimes advanced crises in societies? What is the role of scientists in the international and supranational handling of global crises? Given the cost of a university education in the US, the politicization of science during the recent Covid-19 pandemic, and cultural fights with and within academia, is science in crisis today?

We look forward to proposals for papers that discuss the complex relationship between science, crisis, and democracy from a social scientific and/or historical perspective. The workshop will provide an opportunity to reflect on, and to provide context for, the recent public role of science. We are also planning to include a panel with practitioners in science policy, policy advice, diplomacy, and communication. The conveners aim to publish contributions to this conference as a special issue in a peer-reviewed journal or as an essay collection in book form.

The conference will be held at the GHI Washington. The deadline for proposals is January 7, 2024. Please upload a proposal of up to 300 words and a brief CV of 1 or 2 pages in one single PDF document via this link. Successful applicants will be notified in February 2024. Presentations at the workshop will be 25 minutes.

Accommodation will be arranged and paid for by the conference organizers. Participants will make their own travel arrangements; funding subsidies for travel may be available upon request for selected scholars, especially those who might not otherwise be able to attend the workshop, including junior scholars and scholars from universities with limited resources.

Please contact Nicola Hofstetter (hofstetter-phelps@ghi-dc.org) if you have any difficulties submitting your information online or if you have other questions related to the event.

Further Information

The conference is a cooperation between the German Historical Institute and the Center for Science Studies at the Leopoldina.


Ronja Steffensky
Department Center of Science Studies
E-Mail: ronja.steffensky@leopoldina.org