When I visited the emptied hole that dominates America’s leading city several years ago, a policeman seemed unable to keep himself from describing how people had cast themselves from the upper floors to avoid being trapped and then burning. Though no one needed to be told the consequences, the officer was driven to remind us how the bodies of those people simply vaporized on impact. The sheer horror of the event compelled him to tell the tale, and a desire to make sure that those lives didn’t vanish into the ether as well.

A year after Katrina struck New Orleans, it’s necessary to remember the lives that vanished into that flooded city. The death that began in New Orleans a year ago today was no less horrific than that of 9/11, indeed it was moreso, because the fall took days, and for some it has yet to stop. Bodies have vanished into Louisiana’s swamps, and into the Gulf, and into the mouths of hungry alligators. Lives were lost when families were split apart and sent to different corners of the country, and when ancestral homes were leveled, and the disappearances have been so silent as to barely disturb our attention.

No enemy struck us a year ago, and there’s no one to strike back against. Through poor planning and incompetence throughout the systems in place, thousands died, and many, many more were left without homes, without medicine, and without the basic protections that anyone living in the world’s greatest nation deserves. Five years ago, we all agreed that everything changed in the rubble of the Twin Towers, and a year ago, nothing changed.

Nonetheless, the nation learned a valuable lesson. After 4 years of reorganization and planning, the federal government couldn’t handle a national emergency. America was vulnerable not only to enemies with box cutters or anthrax, nor with the dreaded liquids. A great American city was destroyed in a week by forces that were predicted and anticipated for years, and the Three Stooges could have handled the relief effort with greater speed and fewer casualties.

We knew that a hurricane would hit New Orleans one day, and that the levees needed improvement. We even knew from an exercise two years ago that evacuation would be a problem. But those simple facts were ignored, or perhaps hidden.

Soledad O’Brien, in Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” describes her interview with Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown, and the attitude of the administration, by saying: “It was really baffling ? they seemed so out of touch with the reality that a lot of people had been watching day after day.”

Which brings us rather circuitously to a recent post at Blogs for Bush that’s been making the rounds. Conservative Mark Noonan explains the death of science thus:

The prime rule of science was truth – everyone involved in science had to tell the truth to the best of their ability, and always be willing to correct one’s views when new evidence called in to question previously held beliefs. What killed science was when its strongest advocates stopped telling the truth.

Dr. Myers rightly observes that Noonan has a kernel of truth, or would if “its strongest advocates” meant “those great advocates of science, the Republican party, and their current marriage to the dogmatic ignoramuses of the Religious Right.” But that precise phenomenon, the right’s rejection of evidence and of a shared reality, testable and measurable equally by all observers, marks a dangerous point in the body politic.

Noonan traces the alleged death of science to the moment when “science became a narrowly forcused search for something immediately practical, it was bound to eventually be hijacked by people who wanted to use the cover of science for very impractical efforts.” Set aside the bizarre pseudo-history in which Galileo and Leonardo didn’t work hard to make practical inventions, that just furthers my point. This view correctly diagnoses a problem in the way that certain parties in the Republican War on Science see science.

In the fascinating Crooked Timber discussion of Mooney’s book, Henry Farrell made a valuable point about what drives Newt Gingrich, and others like him: “an almost blindly optimistic set of beliefs about technology and its likely consequences when combined with individual freedom.”

This easily fits the heading of “a narrowly focused search for something of immediately practical value ? hijacked by people who wanted to use the cover of science for very impractical efforts.” It’s a vision of a world where science’s job is not to say whether or not something can be, but how to get it done. Scientists see their work as separating true statements from false by a process of exhaustive testing. Gingrichian techno-libertarians see it as a process of finding out how, a process in which “no” is not an option. Truth is external to science, something to be imposed upon it (a theme you’ll find more broadly in creationism, climate change denial, etc.). And so, as Farrell wrote:

When science suggests a future of limitless possibilities for individuals, people with this orientation tend to be vigorously in its favour. When, instead, science suggests that there are limits to how technology can be developed, or problems that aren?t readily solved by technological means, people with this orientation tend either to discount it or to be actively hostile to it.

This dynamic prevented a serious analysis of the risks of Katrina, and indeed prevented a serious effort at creating a Department of Homeland Security that could secure the homeland. The attempt to hold back a storm or to respond to (rather than pre-empt) a catastrophe is not a look at limitless possibility. It’s a confrontation with a disturbing reality, one which can be accommodated, but not overcome.

Katrina was a sign of the deep significance that poverty exerts over life in America. Poverty imposed exactly the sorts of “problems that aren’t readily solved by technological means,” and it’s predictable how efforts to discuss poverty and its effects went nowhere. Techno-libertarians see poverty, like science, as a hurdle to be overcome, not an limitation to be acknowledged. Despite copious evidence that entrenched poverty had caused much of the problem in New Orleans, the President’s solution was to give money and land to wealthy developers.

As the water levels rose in what we here at TfK took to calling “No Man’s Land” (a reference to a Batman series), the reaction in the White House was to blame science and to blame others for not doing more with the technology available to them. Scientists who didn’t warn loudly enough, or a mayor or governor who didn’t mobilize enough or sign the right papers. That the President actually had the power to act, had been warned on the danger, and that FEMA listed the possibility as one of the three greatest threats to be planned for (alongside a terrorist attack in New York) didn’t matter either. And it wasn’t just buck-passing, the goal was to change reality? to obscure what was and wasn’t done. Putting the problem on Ray Nagin or even on Michael Brown was a way of keeping the blame off of not just the President, but off of the sorts of systematic problems that only a national effort can address.

Of course, we see the same problem in our counter-terrorist efforts, and it’s easy to see in Katrina a dress-rehearsal for the next terrorist attack. An inadequate response to Katrina bodes ill for any response we’d mount to a terrorist attack on levees, or an attack requiring any sort of evacuation. Preventing such an attack requires us to address human interactions in this country and in the developing world, a problem again not readily solved by technology. But the post-Katrina response, like our post-9/11 response has been almost entirely technical. Re-organizing FEMA, creating an expansive database of phone calls and financial records, biometrics at airports, or whatever other flashy gadgets are being touted in secret labs, won’t prevent terrorists from planting explosive charges in the levees of New Orleans. It won’t get people to safety faster.

To do that we need a government that cares about seeing problems for what they are and addressing the real issues. We need a government that understands that science is alive.


  1. #1 Julie Stahlhut
    August 28, 2006

    Noonan traces the alleged death of science to the moment when “science became a narrowly forcused search for something immediately practical…

    Many of us whose research is driven by curiosity about natural phenomena, without regard to whether it leads to money-making applications, would love to see what Mark Noonan has to say about the current attitude of government towards funding basic research.

    As for Katrina and its aftermath:

    And it wasn’t just buck-passing, the goal was to change reality to obscure what was and wasn’t done…

    What we have now is the appearance of government, the appearance of readiness, and the appearance of competence, with little or none of the substance of any of the above.

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