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Poe and the Tell-Tale Heart of Science

Edgar Allen Poe always seemed to me the most American of writers in that his work has a dark side but not a deep side. Hollywood horror films and Stephen King novels work in the same tradition, full of murder and blood, simultaneously shocking and titillating. The subject matter is dark—indeed very dark—but not so deep.

History professor John Tresch, in The Reason for the Darkness of the Night, argues that Poe’s work does have a deep side—a philosophical side—that merits attention. He locates this deep side in Poe’s thoughts on modern science, which grew increasingly institutionalized during Poe’s lifetime. Poe foresaw an American future dominated by science but was ambivalent about it. By taking Poe’s ambivalence seriously, Tresch transforms him from a mere master of the macabre into a major moralist of his age.

The first half of the 19th century was a period of transition for American science. Before then, Tresch notes, most American “scientists” were either wealthy amateurs, physicians working on projects in their spare time, or eccentrics. Rather than advance knowledge, they simply entertained audiences through novelties, such as shrunken heads and optical illusions. Since American colleges in those days rarely offered courses in science (then called “natural philosophy”), serious researchers were rare. Indeed, the word scientist doesn’t come into being until 1833.

Change came through order, system, and government—in other words, through institutionalization. In 1848, the newly created American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) supplanted the public lecture halls where semi-educated amateurs held forth. The Army Corps of Engineers offered the country’s first formal scientific training. During the 1840s, the U.S. Coast Survey became the country’s first national scientific project. Through institutionalization, American science grew serious, rigorous, and powerful.

Poe both praised the trend and worried about it. How much he praised and worried, and whether his doing so merits an entire book on the subject, is a little unclear. Tresch finds evidence of Poe’s scientific interest in his nonfiction works such as Eureka, as well as in his short stories. Yet liking science and influencing science’s transformation in the larger world are two different things. To use another example, Lewis Carroll liked math. In Alice in Wonderland, he has Alice calculate her rate of fall through the rabbit hole. But whether Carroll had any effect on math’s professional development during the 19th century is a different story.

Tresch’s book is an interesting read, running back and forth as it does between Poe’s life and larger scientific events. Yet sometimes the tie between the two narratives seems artificial. At times there is no tie at all, and one feels as if one is reading two different books simultaneously. At other times the tie feels forced. Given Poe’s perennial conflict with authority, along with his frustrated longing to run his own magazine— points that Tresch dwells on—one could just as easily tie Poe’s life to the emerging creed of the self-made man rather than to the emerging hegemony of science. Even then, Poe would just be an exemplar of that creed and nothing more. Sometimes a famous person’s life and thought are just not that important.

Yet there is one area where the tie between Poe and the change in science is illuminating, and that makes Tresch’s book worth reading, although the author touches on this one area only occasionally. Poe seems to have understood more than most how a total embrace of science might lead to “scientism”—not science but the belief in science as the one true guide to life. Given scientism’s enormous influence on public policy and the American educated class today, Poe’s insights are relevant.

Democratic Scientism

According to Tresch, the big problem facing 19th-century American science was charlatanism. As an example, one charlatan declared that rainstorms were caused by heat on the earth’s surface, and therefore the solution to droughts, he argued, was to set the earth on fire. Poe himself believed a charlatan or two, including the phrenologists who said people’s character could be estimated through an examination of their skulls. Yet Poe was mostly on the side of those trying to rid science of the charlatan problem. In 1836, for instance, he exposed as a fraud a man who claimed to have built a chess-playing machine, but who had, in fact, merely carved out a space inside the machine to hide a short man who played chess.

Democracy itself was part of the problem. Tresch observes how Jacksonian democracy “dismissed scientific institutions as an aristocratic luxury.” At the very least, it saw in every citizen a potential scientist, just as it saw in every citizen, no matter his or her qualifications, a potential civil servant—the basis for the “spoils system” in government appointments. Democracy made charlatans and quacks seemingly inevitable.

At the same time, science in a democracy needed popular support to thrive. The U.S. Coast Survey, for example, was one of the best-funded branches of the federal government. This required average people to think science worthwhile. Here charlatanism played an important role, Tresch notes, for charlatans aroused people’s interest in science.

It also made charlatans a lot of money—another honorable activity in a democracy. One New York newspaper at the time dramatically increased its circulation by falsely reporting how scientists had observed zebras and horned bears on the moon. During the 1840s, pseudo-scientist Dionysius Lardner made millions of dollars regaling large American audiences with his half-baked science of the universe. Although Poe attacked the charlatan problem, he was not above being a bit of a charlatan himself, as when he penned an account of the supposed first trans-Atlantic balloon crossing, which he knew to be a hoax. Poe later defended himself by arguing that, well, at least the flight could have happened.

Poe attacked scientism from the pre-modern side. Preaching a kind of natural theology, he argued that observation and experimentation were insufficient to yield the truth about people.

Poe saw that science could capture people’s imaginations, and that it had to capture people’s imaginations if it were to gain institutional support. Yet this also meant, he realized, that science could be made to appeal to the same part of the mind that religion did. In other words, science had the potential to become “scientism,” a force whose power is not proportionate to its power over nature but to the degree that it can sway people to believe in it.

Poe noticed something ominous in all this: if a hoax was dressed up in scientific language, the educated were more likely to believe in it than the uneducated were. In regard to the balloon story, he wrote, “The more intelligent believed, while the rabble, for the most part, rejected the whole with disdain.” According to Tresch, Poe saw this as a historical change. Poe wrote, “Twenty years ago credulity was the characteristic trait of the mob, incredulity the distinctive feature of the philosophic.” Now the positions were reversed, with the “wise [rabble] disinclined to belief—and justly so.” 

P.T. Barnum’s exhibitions of natural curiosities, such as old fossils and human giants, were a major route by which uneducated Americans picked up some science. Yet those same uneducated people, Poe realized, were less likely than the educated to fall in love with science, to turn science into life’s organizing principle, and to reflexively believe anything that sounded scientific.  P.T. Barnum once said, “A sucker is born every minute.” Among the educated, Poe had discovered a new source of potential suckers.

Today’s events have vindicated Poe, as the problem he foresaw has grown enormous. Take, for example, the scientific method, which Poe strongly supported, but which he also warned could be taken too far if worshiped as a religion and applied everywhere. The Imperial College study that in March 2020 erroneously predicted millions of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. and led to the economy’s closure was based on faulty assumptions. The study’s model had ignored important variables, which is not surprising given the scientific method’s major flaw: many variables have to be ignored when conducting an experiment to make that experiment clean, although doing so risks rendering the experiment invalid. By worshiping anything that smacks of science and reflexively adopting the study’s advice because it used the scientific method, educated opinion may have needlessly steered our economy toward ruin. As a case in point, while Florida and California suffered the same death rates from the virus, Florida resisted lockdowns and suffered less economically.

In 2020, the scientific method’s failure in coronavirus modeling mirrored a simultaneous failure of social science more generally, again vindicating Poe. American educated opinion believes in social science. It applauds the thousands of studies that college academics churn out every year to guide policy. Yet the year of the pandemic was also the year when social unrest boiled over in the U.S. Trillions of dollars invested in urban areas since the 1960s, directed by social science, had apparently accomplished very little. Crime was still awful, public schools were still sub-par, income inequality was still severe, and a general feeling of hopelessness still permeated these areas. Religion may have failed as a guide to life, but the scientific method proved to be no better.

Political Scientism

Poe foresaw another dangerous contradiction in scientism: politics. In the mid-19th century, scientists who tried to cleanse science of charlatans saw government as science’s natural home and cheerleader. Government would regulate science and keep the charlatans at bay. Yet government is inherently political. Given the educated class’s tendency toward scientism, already a kind of religion to begin with, Poe worried that science might become politicized too.

Sure enough, politicized science, in the form of scientism, has caused many Americans to look upon science the way a large slice of 19th century European public opinion looked upon Christianity. Organized science seems like any other interest group now, associated with one political party more than the other, sometimes “in” with the political authorities, sometimes “out,” but playing the political spin game and deserving of suspicion all the time. Thus, when Trump said the coronavirus had been manufactured in a Chinese lab, some scientific authorities invoked “good science” to delegitimize Trump, because they hated Trump, and even censored the idea, until Biden became President and the definition of “good science” changed. Some scientific authorities during the pandemic advised against wearing masks, then reversed course and mandated masks—again, in the name of “good science,” but more likely, people suspected, for some non-scientific (i.e., political) purpose.

No wonder the vaccination rate has peaked at just slightly over half the population and many Americans resist masks. Scientism has turned science into just another partisan weapon. Elite scientific journals such as Science and The New England Journal of Medicine grew explicitly partisan during this period. Sadly, many Americans, already conspiratorially minded to begin with, now distrust policy recommendations made in the name of science. By turning science into ideology, scientism has injured science’s reputation.    

Poe attacked scientism from the pre-modern side. Preaching a kind of natural theology, he argued that observation and experimentation were insufficient to yield the truth about people. People could not so easily be comprehended through tables and grids. Instead, Poe spoke of matter and spirit. He dwelled on metaphysics and the soul.

This made Poe a kind of mystic, I suppose. If so, he was a shrewd mystic, for he saw that science could become the basis for a mystical religion in its own right, and by this route enter politics.

Today, post-moderns attack scientism from the opposite side, yet they do so in a similar spirit. Like Poe, they argue that observation and experience fail to yield the truth about people. For them it is because everyone has their own lived experience, everyone has their own truth. Science’s claim to objectivity is merely a convenient talking point, they say. Science is political, they say. For them, believing science to be the one true guide in life is white supremacy and a major source of social inequity. People are tricked into thinking that science is an objective source of truth, the post-moderns say. Unable to see through science’s claim to be a fair, neutral, and independent arbiter, people then acquiesce in the unjust social order that science perpetuates. This is how post-moderns tie science to white supremacy.   

The post-moderns overreach in their criticism of science. At the very least, they erroneously conflate science with scientism. Still, like Poe, they understand that scientism is political.

Tresch doesn’t seem to mind this mixing of science with politics so long as it’s a politics he likes. He criticizes 19th-century institutionalized science for ducking the major political issue of its day, namely slavery. He doesn’t seem to worry in principle about organized science adopting the habit of pronouncing on politics. He often refers to the problem of “white supremacy,” implying that the issue is something organized science should tackle.

Poe emerges from Tresch’s own pages the wiser figure. Poe anticipated the criticism that today’s post-moderns would wield against scientism, and that many average Americans have joined in, while also making the all-important distinction between science and scientism: science is good, but scientism is the political use of science to the advantage of those who can most adroitly wield that weapon.