Discussing Lynda Walsh’s book Scientists as Prophets: A Rhetorical Genealogy (2013) with the author, focusing on Robert J. Oppenheimer. We also read a speech from 1950 he gave called “The Encouragement of Science.”
What is the role of the science adviser? Should scientists just “stick to the facts,” or can only someone with technical knowledge make decisions about what to actually do? After leading the atomic bomb project during WWII, Oppenheimer thought that scientists needed to become politicians themselves to make sure that the power of technology wasn’t abused. His views about openness (sharing weapons tech with other governments) didn’t go over well with the Eisenhower administration, and he was stripped of his security clearance.
Lynda’s book is not philosophy, exactly, but about rhetoric. Her thesis is that the social role of preacher-scientists like Oppenheimer is comparable to that of ancient prophets like the Oracle at Delphi: they serve to bring about political certainty by providing knowledge inaccessible to ordinary citizens. Insofar as we can’t ourselves analyze the data, we’re taking them on faith as authorities.
Lynda tries to get Mark, Seth, and Dylan to talk about the difference between philosophy and rhetoric. There’s some talk of Bill Nye, Neil Degrasse-Tyson, Rachael Carson, Stephen Jay Gould, and others. Listen to Lynda’s introduction and get more information about the topic, as well as Lynda’s book.
End song: “Request Denied,” by Mark Lint, recorded in spurts between 2000 and now.
Thanks to Corey Mohler for the picture of Oppenheimer.