The Science of Progressivism: Breaking the Mold
In previous installments of this series, individual thinkers provided progressive visions of the future based in observations of the natural world and the sciences. This piece will be a little bit different, focusing instead on one simple facet of the progressive experience: opposition to (and from) well-established dogma.
It always seems to be the case that progressives are shut out from establishment processes, shunned, and demeaned by the mainstream media for simply advocating human rights and income equality. If progressives had their way, nearly everyone would experience a significant boost to their quality of life, general health, security, and income. Yet we are marginalized as directionless or naive, even though we have a clear plan, and that plan is based on a real understanding of how we'll pay for it (MMT).
The atmosphere in which Louis Pasteur began his experiments in germ theory was similar, in several key ways.
First, the prevailing scientific and medical theory which was established at the time to explain why food went bad, even when it was seemingly protected, was called 'spontaneous generation'. The basic idea of it was insects, rats, and other animals that showed up when biological matter decayed just automatically, spontaneously appeared out of thin air (specifically out of biological matter) when certain conditions were just right. Though it seems preposterous to us today, the roots of this theory go back to ancient times. It was considered unassailable truth for centuries because nobody had disproven it.
Second, the results of great masses of people basing their entire medical and scientific systems on this false belief, for that long, cannot be overstated. Most of us take for granted that our various establishments like medicine and economics aren't based on folklore and superstition, and the people of Pasteur's time were no different in that respect. They vehemently rejected any charlatans, parading about as educated people, who challenged the prevailing scientific view that magic was responsible for food spoilage, disease, and crop failure.
After an experiment where he proved that sterilized grape juice would never produce wine, thus casting serious doubt on the prevailing notion of spontaneous generation, Pasteur recieved terse criticism from Félix Archimède Pouchet, who was director of the Rouen Museum of Natural History. He accused Pasteur of undermining the whole of scientific understanding at the time, even calling his ideas akin to 'panspermia' and 'atomic theory', which ironically have both either been proven, or proven possible, since then. Pasteur was surely well aware of the size of the monster he faced. Thankfully there were those who wanted to know the truth enough to fund the endeavor. A prize of 2,500 francs was announced for any scientist who could prove either germ theory or, conversely, spontaneous generation.
Complicating the whole affair, both sides argued not only on a scientific basis but on a religious one as well. Pouchet's various articles and papers on the subject argued that spontaneous generation was God's will, and that to go against it as an idea, was to go against the word of God. He stated “laws of heterogenesis, far from weakening the attributes of the Creator, can only augment the Divine Majesty.” In spite of this, Pasteur took the challenge head-on, offering his own religious explanation to counter spontaneous generation, claiming it was a threat to established religious doctrine concerning the creative power of God. In an 1864 lecture about the religious and philosophical implications of spontaneous generation, he stated:
…What a triumph, gentlemen, it would be for materialism if it could affirm that it rests on the established fact of matter organizing itself, taking on life of itself; …what would be more natural than to deify such matter? What good then would it be to resort to the idea of a primordial creation…. Of what use then would be the idea of a Creator-God.
It wasn't religious ideology that ultimately won the day for Pasteur though, it was science. Pasteur's experiments involved the use of swan-necked flasks, which allowed air to enter, but stopped dust particles (and therefore microorganisms) from entering the flask's interior. As a result, sterilized broth in the swan-necked flasks did not grow bacterial colonies, but similar broth in unprotected flasks did. Though others before him had tried to disprove spontaneous generation, nobody was able to slay that beast, until Pasteur. He triumphantly stated:
Never will the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow of this simple experiment. There is no known circumstance in which it can be confirmed that microscopic beings came into the world without germs, without parents similar to themselves.
Pasteur's germ theory emerged victorious, but he still had to fight to uphold his stance on the matter. The scientific and medical establishments weren't just going to roll over for him, they had far too much invested in convenient untruths. The result of Pasteur's persistence in seeking the truth through science, instead of relying on magical thinking, is that humanity gained a new level of knowledge about an important subject: germ theory. With that knowledge, we were able to better protect our food, our resources, and our own lives.
Despite his contributions, some may argue that writing about Pasteur in a progressive context is a silly thing to do, as he was more religious than politically civic-minded. But the fact Pasteur had the courage and conviction to go against such an established grain in the first place stands as a testament to the fact that he is deserving of the title. When you think about how mankind has advanced after Pasteur's experiments disproved spontaneous generation, you gain an appreciation for just how important that one little truth was for the betterment of mankind.
That situation is similar today in the realm of economics. Our task is to prove to the public that MMT describes the economy that we already have but aren't using properly. The proof is all around us, but people don't like to look at it. If they did, they would see there is no excuse to let people starve for knowledge, for justice, or for healthcare, let alone for food.
Today, when progressives challenge accepted establishment ideas like needing taxes in order to spend at the federal level, or that 'the debt' is going to kill us all unless we eliminate it, we are met with the same resistance. We offer an end to all excuses to weaponize our economy against us for the sake of austerity. We offer a vision of the future where everyone has the education and healthcare that they need, and a job which fulfills them, yet we are vilified as Trump enablers, Russian agents, and fake-news mongers.
What we must learn from Pasteur's example is the bravery to wield truth as a weapon against well-established lies, and the fortitude to persevere, even when the odds are stacked against us. For no matter how high the odds are stacked, the stakes are even higher.