05 February 2013

Lincoln and the Expert

I am putting the finishing touches on my talk for tomorrow at the STEPS conference on science policy at the University of Sussex. I decided to open with the following anecdote.

In 1863 at the height of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln was approached by a weather forecaster named Francis Capen who said that he could predict the weather days in advance (imagine!). Such predictions, Capen argued, might help prosecute the war. In a note, Lincoln shared his opinion of Mr. Capen:
It seems to me that Mr. Capen knows nothing about the weather, in advance. He told me three days ago that it would not rain again till the 30th of April or 1st of May. It is raining now [April 28th] and has been for ten hours. I cannot spare any more time to Mr. Capen. (Whitnah 1961, pp. 114-15, as cited in this chapter, PDF).
The complex relationship of science and politics has a long history in both Europe and North America. My talk will highlight some of the important tensions that arise when a desire for authority meets demands for legitimacy.