President Eisenhower’s farewell address warned about science as an appeal to authority

The COVID-19 pandemic and debates about energy policy and climate change highlight a troubling trend among many liberals to use science as an appeal to authority to stifle important debates about public policy, rather than a system of obtaining knowledge through trial and error.

Liberal policymakers often claim they are “following the science” to justify unpopular and costly public policies and to label anyone who disagrees with them as a “denier.”

President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961, which is often referred to as his “Military Industrial Complex” speech, issued a stark warning about the influence of federal funding of scientific research, and how this could unjustly influence public policy.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been over shadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system-ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

Science is our greatest tool for furthering the human condition, but it is not immune to corruption and influence peddling. Eisenhower astutely warned against these dangers. You can watch the speech for yourself below.