Rober Nisbet on American Academic Culture

Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) was Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, and the author of several books in the field of sociology and intellectual history, including The Degradation of the Academic Dogma: The University in America, 1945-1970, The Quest for Community, Twilight of Authority, History of the Idea of Progress. One subject often treated in his books is the extreme politicization of academic disciplines in American universities—a problem which has been growing constantly since the 1930s, and has now reached scandalous proportions. In the politically-charged climate of the American academy, a great pretense of ideological independence and objectivity is made, while fallacies and outright lies which tend to favor a liberal political agenda are carefully fostered and protected from criticism. In the following extracts from his book Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), Nisbet discusses prevailing falsehoods and hypocritical pretensions of liberal ideologues, who profess to be engaged in objective study of history and human society, "but all the while making certain that their assorted hypotheses, principles, and conclusions emerged in a fashion that would make them presentable at any liberal caucus."


(pp. 190-196)

For more than two hundred years one myth has dominated secular and much religious thought on the historical relation between the Roman Catholic Church and science in the West. During the French Enlightenment Galileo was adopted as the crowning symbol of ecclesiastical despotism over science. Finding Newton, however great, almost fanatically religious, especially in his final years, the Enlightenment chose Galileo as hero martyr. Less was known about his religious commitment, and there was his trial in Rome whereby, the story ran, he had been condemned for his espousal of Copernican cosmology, his development of the telescope, and sundry other views. Cowed by a monolithically hostile church, Galileo was forced to recant, with the result that he was barred from again prosecuting scientific problems for the rest of his life, with a consequent setback to the growth of modern science. From Diderot to Brecht, the myth of Galileo the rationalist-scientist-martyr dominated Western thought, and even today it shows few signs of abating.

This myth reflects the truth as would a badly cracked mirror. As to Galileo's paralyzing intimidation by a single-minded, avenging church, leading to an utter dearth of work afterward, there is not a grain of truth. Probably more scientists have been adversely affected—estopped altogether from a given line of research, guided, shaped, propelled, decelerated, forced into nonpublication secrecy, turned down for funds or promotion, and barred from access to laboratory space or archives—because of defiance of conventional wisdom in America since World War II with its accompanying bureaucratization and politicization of science than existed in the whole of the world in Galileo's day. What Galileo endured is as nothing compared with what bold, intrepid, original young minds face in today's scientific circles, where a given paradigm or program brands all simple difference of viewpoint as "idiosyncratic," "nonsensical," "futile," and "trouble-making"—the modern synonyms for medieval heresy.

The first censorship on Galileo was his own, the result of fear not of ecclesiastical but of scientific-scholarly opinion. In a letter to Kepler in 1597 Galileo confessed his own belief in the Copernican view of the planets, including the earth, moving around the sun, but declared his fear of ridicule from Aristotelian scholars in the universities were he to make his belief public. When in 1609 Galileo first heard of the invention of the telescope, he immediately commenced his own development of this instrument for the express purpose of gazing at the sun and the planets. Honors quickly followed. He was offered a life chair at the University of Padua, but he chose instead to accept a grand duke's offer to become the first philosopher and mathematician in the region, thus gaining full time for his research. Acclaimed by all, proud of his accomplishments in astronomy and mathematics, Galileo was persuaded to go to Rome in order to lay before the highest councils of the Vatican the results of his work. He did this in 1611, and the response was overwhelmingly laudatory and encouraging. There seems to have been not a whisper of reproach for the patently Copernican implications of much of what Galileo reported to the Pope and assembled ecclesiastical authorities. While in Rome for a year or two he also published several papers, with unlimited circulation, establishing the superiority—on the basis of his telescopic view of sunspots—of Copernican to Ptolemaic views of the relation of the earth to the sun and universe. There were no protests whatever from the church at that time.

Such protests began after his triumphal visit to Rome, and they were not in the first instance ecclesiastical at all. They came from jealous and apprehensive university professors, the majority Aristotelian and fearful of the effect of Galileo's loud and boastful teachings. Galileo, who was aggressively egoistic from all accounts, was also not above using without acknowledgment works of contemporaries. From professors, in short, came the first attacks on Galileo and with them attempts to silence him lest his destructive effect upon their Aristotelianism should lose them status and even jobs in the long run. Obtaining the cooperation of the Dominican preachers, always in search of some form of heresy or delinquency to thunder about from pulpit and street corner, the assault upon Galileo soon reached the point where he felt it necessary to go again to Rome for reassurance and thus a silencing of academic and Dominican voices.

Galileo had received instant support in Tuscany from high church officials as well as from the grand duke and others of the nobility, all of whom took pride in Galileo's work. Nevertheless Galileo went to Rome, where also he found supporters of highest rank within the Vatican. Galileo argued that for many centuries there had been a canon in the church that made it possible to read any passage in the Bible as allegorical instead of literal, provided a conflict between it and "established scientific truth" were found. This argument was well known to and, in Galileo's case, accepted by a substantial number of churchmen, but not, alas, by the Pope, nor by the chief theologian Cardinal Bellarmine. A decree was issued "suspending" the De Revolutionibus "until certain corrections were made," and Galileo was enjoined from teaching the forbidden views. There were rumors that he had been forced to abjure, but Galileo procured from Cardinal Bellarmine himself written assurance that such had not been the case.

This experience in Rome scarcely dampened Galileo's scientific ardor. Along with some striking discoveries by telescope in connection with the sudden appearances of three large comets, he wrote his celebrated The Assayer in which, in direct riposte to a Jesuit's sneers at him, Galileo set forth the vital necessity of doubt in all scientific research, taking the opportunity to restate some of his early astronomical views and pointing to works of science all over Europe which were employing Galilean hypotheses and conclusions. Galileo even dedicated this book to his old and devoted friend Cardinal Barberini, who had just succeeded to the papal throne. Galileo's book found great favor with the new pope and the considerable number of other Galilean ecclesiastical supporters who were now in high places in the Vatican.

Galileo was in frequent contact with Pope Urban VIII, and in the course of their private discussions, Galileo not only received permission but was encouraged to commence work on a magnum opus that would lay out clearly and decisively all that could be properly said for both the Copernican and the Ptolemaic theories. All that the Pope added was a recommendation that Galileo be as "hypothetical," that is, dispassionate and objective, as possible. There followed his epochal Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, a remarkable enough accomplishment and publication for someone in fear of his faith and life as the myth solemnly declares. Dissent, tergiversation, catcalling there was indeed, for Galileo had his enemies, lay and clerical. But the blunt fact is that this master treatise was approved by Catholic authorities and given churchly imprimatur.

In Rome, however, academic and clerical assault on Galileo's character, mind, and conclusions began to mount once again, notwithstanding the strenuous efforts made by his friends in the Vatican. Galileo's chief enemy was no churchman at all but a fellow-scientist, deeply jealous of Galileo and convinced that Galileo had stolen from one of his own scientific works. The scientist, Schreiner, and his friends managed an attack, overt and covert, sufficient to bring Galileo once more under suspicion, and a reluctant Pope felt finally obliged to order a trial under the Inquisition. Moreover, an unsigned memorandum was found in the archives stating that its author would never again engage in Copernican discussions. This was attributed to Galileo, despite his protests that he knew nothing of it, and on this dubious and controversial basis, the trial began.

When Galileo had reached Rome, he was treated with greatest courtesy and indulgence, allowed to live where he chose, unsupervised by the church. The head of the Inquisition, a Galileo supporter, sought from the beginning to end the trial with a simple reprimand, allowing Galileo, then an old man, to return to his estate and his work. But the anti-Galileo forces prevailed. He was found "guilty" of Copernican teachings and ordered to recant by a special, long-existent ritual-creed of abjuration, one apparently held in about as much regard by all concerned as are the varied oaths of the courtroom today. He could have been imprisoned, and no doubt his academic and scientific enemies devoutly wished it, but instead he was ordered into "house arrest," which meant that he could return to the villa and estate within which so much of his scientific work had been done.

The trial, far from blighting Galileo's spirit and quenching his science, could arguably be declared a stimulant to work. For during the remaining years of his life he spent much time with his telescopes, until blindness ended that pursuit; he wrote his immensely important and influential Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences, printed in Leyden in 1638; he was in constant communication with the leading scientific lights of Italy and all Europe; he conceived the application of many older principles to new problems or perspectives; and he had as many students as he wished. When he died, indeed, two of his favorite students, Viviani and Torricelli, were with him, each destined to carry on and enlarge Galileo's works.

Such is the skeleton of one of the richest scientific careers in modern history. It needs, however, to be supplemented by additional, somewhat speculative observation. An important question is whether Galileo, through association or correspondence with Bruno, was a member of that heretical underground cult of the Hermetic, Egyptian, Magus orientation which the church understandably sought to extirpate with all possible force, given its deeply anti-ecclesiastical revolutionary aspirations. As yet the answer is not known. All that is known is that Bruno himself was incontestably a member, a very prominent one. Moreover, the Copernican doctrine of heleocentricity was a dogma within this heretical faith, derived presumably from the anti-Christian espousal of sun worship that the humanist Ficino had propagated. Bruno, despite another ascendant myth, was not condemned and burned because he was a scientist. He was burned as a religious heretic of deepest dye, which he was. It is not beyond reason that scholarship will yet show some connection between the death of Bruno and the trial of Galileo.

The one overriding conclusion about Renaissance science, the science of Copernicus, Kepler, Bruno, and Newton, is the enormous role of religion in the minds of these men, whether Catholic, Protestant, or aberrant, as were Copernicus and Bruno in their faith in the Hermetic and the Magus. Newton made plain that the laws he had discovered were the laws of God. Galileo was no less convinced that it was the divine order he was exploring. No church can be blamed for vigilance against true heresy, and Bruno's vision of Copernicanism as an element of a religious reform movement could well have caused the inquisitors to suspect similar objections in Galileo's system of the world.

Whether or not Galileo was in fact being investigated for religious heresy, for linkage with the condemned Bruno, is not known. The fact is, though, that suspicion of heliocentricity had little if anything to do with astronomy as such. After all, heliocentric doctrines had lain in abundance in medieval scientific works. That which in Galileo's day was being searched out in order to destroy it was not, in sum, the proposition that the earth and other planets move about the sun but rather the religiously subversive doctrine of sun worship, of which heliocentricity was only a subordinate dogma.

Galileo was probably cleared of any prior subterranean affiliation with Bruno, Copernicus, or others involved in the black heresy of making science the superstructure of Hermetic belief. It is unlikely that he would have been treated as indulgently as he was, given a sentence so light and undisturbing to his scientific works and communications, and retained so many friends, admirers, and supporters in Rome had there been any real evidence of liaison with the heretical Bruno.

It is hard to know when the old Enlightenment-spawned image of Bruno being put to the stake for his scientific rationalism will disappear. Old rationalist myths die slowly; Christianity still has to be fought and vilified. But one thing is certain: the Bruno myth will die long before the myth of Galileo, the myth of his humiliating, abject reduction to impotence by a united, monolithic, science-hating Christianity.

The principal truth to be drawn from the Galileo story is less dramatic than is the myth, but far more in accord with the emotions and institutional conditions that prevail today much as they did in the sixteenth century. Rivalry, jealously, and vindictiveness from other scientists and philosophers were Galileo's lot, and they are not infrequently the lot of unorthodox minds in modern times. Anyone who believes that inquisitions went out with the triumph of secularism over religion has not paid attention to the records of foundations, federal research agencies, professional societies, and academic institutions and departments. But in matters of priority and of support in the scientific fraternity it is institutional competition and the swing of the pendulum rather than the fabled disinterestedness of the titans in science that generally, though not always, rescues the maverick from the hostile herd. Ideas, theories, paradigms, and values become as ensconced in the scientific as in the theological fraternity. And in the vital areas of financial support, professional recognition, and academic appointment, these idols count heavily. Macromutations in biology, catastrophists in geology, and cognitive theorists in psychology are among those who have known inquisitions in science. It was twentieth century science, not theology, that sought to prevent by every possible means the publication in the 1950s of Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision. The church did not go that far with Galileo.


(pp. 284-88)

Robert Nisbet, an American sociologist, sketches an unflattering picture of the "Social Sciences" in his book Prejudices (Harvard Univ. Press, 1982). He describes the meretricious "scientism" that began to characterize social science (e.g. economics, sociology, political science, social psychology, anthropology) after the Second World War, and their almost complete subversion by political agendas during the 1960's. The following paragraphs are quoted from pages 285-88 of Nisbet's book.

The Social sciences in America are currently in what appears to be the final act of a drama that has been going on since World War II. Whether it is tragedy or farce is still unclear, but that it is the final act is made clear by the suddenly grievous condition of economics, for long the queen of the social sciences, now reduced to ignominy and welcome company to its until recently envious sister-disciplines

Keynes lifted economics to near-aristocratic level in the late 1930s. No other social science could claim any living representative who came close to Keynes in brilliance, erudition, influence upon the world's policy makers, and charisma. He has just barely missed hero status of the kind known to Darwinians, Marxists, and Freudians. Keynesians lack that proper sense of religious awe, willingness to suspend all judgment, and disposition to regard as sacred every text and utterance to qualify Keynes as hero or demigod.

The rise of economists to peerage came around 1950. That was when the discipline came into its own as a reputedly mathematical and exact science, when economists began to be sought out by Presidents and Congressmen, and when observations on the state of nation and world by economists were deemed of front-page significance by newspaper publishers. Further kudos came at the end of the 1960s when economics was admitted to the select circle of sciences whose members were eligible for the Nobel Prize. Diffidence in individual economists became increasingly rare. More than a few of them believed between 1950 and l980 that they had acquired the knowledge to forestall inflation and deflation, recession and depression. Laws and principles abounded, each the key to some previously arcane sector of the economy. All that was required for permanent economic growth and prosperity was that White House and Congress pay attention.

By the end of 1981, however, all of this had changed calamitously. It became humiliatingly evident that economists not only had failed throughout the 1970s in forecasting from one year to the next, but were even wanting in explanations after the unforeseen rises or falls in the economy had taken place. One Nobel laureate in economics was candid enough to state then that in every crucial respect the economic behavior of the 1970s had eluded him and all other economists in the United States. Such candor is not common even yet, but realization of the situation is. The consensus wisdom is gone, succeeded by sheer Babel: monetarists, Keynesians, new-Keynesians, supply-siders, and many others, each group speaking to itself, not to others. Economics is by now in much the same situation each of the other social sciences has been in for varying lengths of time since World War II: bankruptcy, intellecual capital gone and credibility exhausted.

By 1950 most of the social sciences enjoyed a status they had never had before World War II. They were taken seriously by physical scientists and general public alike in their frequent opinionations and predictions. The Ford Foundation, with assets in the billions, was established for the express purpose of providing ample funds for the social—or increasingly the behavioral—sciences. Other foundations rallied, and by the middle of the l950s, it was a rare social scientist of quality who did not have the perquisites of status that physical scientists had known from the beginning of World War II. Research institutes mushroomed in the social sciences; offices became ever more luxurious, their occupants ever more engaged in research, consultation, government advising, travel from conference to conference all over the world—in just about everything but the teaching of undergraduates, a responsibility increasingly turned over to graduate students and technicians. Although sociologists and political scientist may not have made the peerage, their status and affluence were higher than they had ever been before.

The fall of the social sciences began in the early 1960's and was well along by the end of that decade, the sole exception being, for another decade, economics. By 1970, what a sociologist, political scientist, social psychologist, or anthropologist said on any subject whatever was, for the American people generally, a matter of no consequence. The credibility they had enjoyed for nearly two decades after World War II was in tatters, their numbers depleted, and their capital assets nearly gone. Now that economics has joined them, the drama is over, the rise and fall of the social sciences complete.

When the social scientists themselves are asked about the forces which broke their disciplines, leaving them objects of pity and wonder in the 1980's, three answers are almost tropistic: first, insufficient money for research; second, youth, meaning that the social sciences unlike the physical sciences are still in their youth; and third, complexity of data. All three answers are as false as they are self-serving. Abundant funds have never been a condition of success in the history of the sciences. First scientists become successful, then they become affluent. Nuclear physics evolved in the 1920's and 1930's on bare pittances. Nor are the social sciences in their youth. Their history goes back to the Greeks, just as do the histories of the physical sciences. And as to compexity of data, there is nothing in the universe as it has come to be known in the twentieth century that is not compex. Even if all three of these tropistic responses were correct, they would explain only the secondary position of the social sciences, not their collapse.

So much for self-pity. The real reasons for this collapse are four-fold. There is first, the ostentatious scientism that came over the several disciplines in the 1950s. It was apparently assumed that if their practitioners walked like scientists and quacked like scientists, the world would believe they were scientists. More and more writing in the social sciences came to look as though it had been done by a mediocre chemist or geologist. Much was made of theory, general and special. Much more was made of what was called methodology, which made it easy for inept individuals to check their minds, so to speak, and live off formulas. The air was filled with 'hypothesis,' 'verification,' 'replication,' 'law,' 'paradigm,' and worse. The penalty imposed by history upon this pretentious and unconvincing scientism was the replacement of hard-nosed behavioral social science by the soft-nosed, mind-blowing subjectivism of the 1960's.

The second reason for the current disrepair of the social sciences is the megalomania that came over them in conjunction with their scientific posturing. As early as the 1950s, only a few years after the social studies had begun dressing up like sciences, there was the cry for such monstrosities as a national academy of social science, a national endowment for social science, and a national social science foundation. Further cries went up for such positions as "Social Science Adviser to the President" in Washington. The land overflowed with the complacency of the social scientists. All that was needed for the instantaneous eradication of poverty, crime, racism, bad housing, and war was a political government duly advised by resident social scientists. Hubris; pride virtually demanding the fall.

Third is the rank politicization of the social sciences. The very concept of the social is a coinage of the early nineteenth century, in which an old word was given new meaning. When Comte, Haller, and others called for a social science, they did so with the specters of political government and political or legal science in their minds. They were seeking a knowledge and then a policy that would make it possible for the social order to be largely autonomous, free of the constricting bureaucratic control of the kind of state the French Revolution had yielded. Social, as a word, meant family, village, parish, town, voluntary association and class, not the political state. But the corruption in the twentieth century of the word social has been a symbol of the politicization of the social sciences. Today, given the extent to which all of the social sciences have become monopolized by political values and aspirations, it would be much more correct if they were called the political sciences.

Fourth is the monolithic liberalism of the social sciences since World War II—liberalism in the sense of the new liberalism, the ideology of the provider-state. It would be hard to find in all history a more flagrant scene of hypocrisy than that which was presented by social scientists, pretending to be scientists, assuring the world that objectivity was quite as possible in the study of human beings as of atoms, but all the while making certain that their assorted hypotheses, principles, and conclusions emerged in a fashion that would make them presentable at any liberal caucus. The litany of liberalism was the litany of social science, with the possible exception of a small but growing sector in economics. The litany begins, "Crime is caused by poverty; poverty is caused by racism," and proceeds predictably from there. Any social scientist's conclusion that did not end with an appeal to the national government to take immediate action, properly funded, was purely accidental. In consequence, social science associations led all the others in stamping out 'chairmen' and replacing them with 'chairpersons' and 'chairs,' in passing petitions demanding governmental action on all social problems, in waving the banner of affirmative action, with imprisonment and heavy fines for the guilty, or in protesting police brutality in cases of murder and robbery. Those who attended meetings of the various associations during the 1960s and 1970s could have been forgiven for not being sure whether it was a professional meeting or a monster rally in behalf of all the liberal and radical icons.

Happily, a small minority in each of the social sciences during the past four decades consisted and still consists of highly talented individuals doing their very best to achieve a true science or, if not science, an equally high level of scholarship. As is true in the humanities, there are tall trees to be seen, but also the great expanses of dwarfed shrubs, porous soil, poison ivy, and pure weeds.