The myth of scientific exceptionalism

Over the past year or so the paleoconservative blogger Daniel Larison has taken aim at American exceptionalism, a term he finds sloppy and poorly defined (see here, here, here, and here).  The third post in particular makes an insightful point:

Confidence in America and respect for our actual, genuinely considerable accomplishments as a people are natural and worthy attitudes to have. Understanding the full scope of our history, neither airbrushing out the crimes nor dishonoring and forgetting our heroes, is the proper tribute we owe to our country and our ancestors. Exaggeration and bluster betray a lack of confidence in America, and strangely this lack of confidence seems concentrated among those most certain that mostly imaginary “declinists” are ruining everything.

While Larison leveled his critique at the American right, scientists are guilty of similar behavior.  As we just discussed, exaggeration and bluster is typical behavior.  And like some on the American right, scientists perpetually harp about an imaginary decline despite evidence to the contrary.  Ironically, mostly liberal scientists mirror the the extreme right in their rhetoric.

I wonder if more of Larison’s analysis can be applied to scientists.  Any STS scholars out there with some papers on this?  I bet that a lack of confidence and an outsider mentality (along with the fact we’re just another special interest group!) contribute to our routine exaggerations.  Me feels that the topic cries out for more research.


  1. There are at least a couple of types of uncritical scientific exceptionalism to consider here.

    First, the exaggeration you’ve discussed, though I think care needs to be taken to distinguish between knowing exaggeration and predictions that don’t come true, or take longer than expected. It’s not at all uncommon to overpredict the long term and underpredict the near term. Scholarship focused on the epistemology of science and technology can address some of this (when is it a lack of understanding of how complicated the problem is vs. overpromising benefits)

    Second, the ‘airbrushing of crimes’ to use Larison’s term. There are the ethical issues (Tuskegee, eugenics research, etc.). For reading I’d point you in the general direction of most feminist STS literature, along with scholarship focused on science and development, as well as material on science and other underrepresented groups. Even some of the foundational work in sociology of science could be related to this as it makes some interesting, and misguided claims about a ‘natural ideology’ of science. Merton’s essay – a Note on Science and Democracy – where he argues that science is, in its bones, very simpatico with democracy, is an example of this. Here the conflicts are usually between models that describe the idealized form of science and the realities of practice. That kind of conflict can contribute to the ‘airbrushing of crimes’

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