Starts With A Bang

Politicizing science is nothing new: it happened to Ben Franklin (Synopsis)

Lightning takes the path of least resistance to exchange charge between the skies and the ground, and that often involves passing through matter on the surface. Image credit: AFP / dpa / Patrick Pleul / Germany.

“When Benjamin Franklin inveted the lightning rod, the clergy, both in England and America, with enthusiastic support of George III, condemned it as an impious attempt to defeat the will of God.” -Bertrand Russell

You’ll often hear charges that science has become too politicized, but it’s the other way around. Science is our best way of drawing conclusions about the natural world, including how natural and human-caused phenomena work and interact together. When politics, biases, agendas or predispositions get in the way, however, they can derail actual knowledge and cause us to live in an inferior fashion. This isn’t new to modern times, but goes back at least hundreds of years, to Ben Franklin.

An artistic rendition of Benjamin Franklin drawing electricity from the sky at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image credit: Benjamin West, c. 1816.

Franklin, who invented the lightning rod, came up with the design that would save countless buildings from fire once that rod was applied. Yet the inability of many dogmatic people – including King George III of England – to accept the reality of the science led to a huge number of disasters and fires, many of which revisionist historians still try and cover up today.

A Franklin-style lightning rod in Germany. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Frank Vincentz.

The science doesn’t lie, and the safety and efficacy of modern, properly-implemented lightning rods is proof of that. But the story of how science was politicized way back in the 1700s is something we can all learn from.