A prominent scientist attempts to inform citizens about an invisible pollutant. If the danger is not confronted, it will devastate the community. He assumes this news will galvanize politicians to act.
Instead, he's shocked to find they reject his findings. They say his evidence is exaggerated, unproven, based on "just a theory." Repairs would cost money and lead to a recession. Taxes would rise, businesses fail and jobs vanish. Politicians censor and libel the scientist. The media mock him and accuse him of conspiracy. He's fired from his job.
Sound familiar? It's the plot of "Enemy of the People," written by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen 130 years ago and a continent away. Its protagonist, Thomas Stockmann, is chief medical officer of a spa that is the primary source of income of a small town. He has discovered that waste from a local tannery is injecting deadly bacteria into the spa's waters. Repairs require the spa's two-year shutdown. Yet Stockmann can't make himself heard.
Ibsen's play, especially in the abridged version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz that opened last week at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is alarmingly current. Our environmental threats are more complex, the remedies more expensive and our scientific infrastructure bigger. Still, no play in recent memory better captures America's frequent rejections of expert advice or their consequences.
Most scientific research is uncontroversial. Both Republicans and Democrats, for instance, heeded warnings by meteorologists when they changed their convention plans after predictions of foul weather. Still, when scientific facts undercut ideological visions, the same expert voices can be drowned out by an extensive and ferocious network of politicians, industries and the media.
U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), under pressure, seems to have recanted his notorious comment about pregnancy and "legitimate rape." As appalling as the remarks themselves, however, is the fact that Akin, who readily dismissed facts collected by scientific studies, sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which helps direct the U.S. science program. Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a House member from Wisconsin, has reacted to uncertainty about climate change not by asking for more research but by accusing leading U.S. climatologists of conspiracy, and voting to undo climate protection plans and to eliminate White House climate advisers.
Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, rejecting scientific evidence, wants to require radiation warnings on mobile phones, posturing over a health issue in ways that can needlessly frighten people and damage businesses. Activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. argued in a Rolling Stone article in 2005 that childhood vaccines were responsible for autism and then, despite growing scientific evidence that the link was false, reiterated the claim for Huffington Post in 2009.
Ibsen's play shows us the dangers of having a poor acoustics of expertise, or system by which scientific advice is heard and acted upon by policy-makers who are not scientists. In the laboratory, the expert's voice is easily recognized and carefully considered; in the public arena, it is hard to recognize and easily overwhelmed by others clamoring for attention.
Ibsen's play, like a good novel, is seductive. From our comfortable seats in the audience our perspective is detached and objective. We know the town's welfare requires that people listen to Stockmann -- the expert -- but we also understand why they hear his voice as threatening rather than informative.
In the real world, however, we are all on stage. It can be hard to identify who is the true scientist and who the charlatan, who the honest politician, businessman and reporter and who the spineless ones. Real experts don't wear halos. News programs offer the illusion of a detached perspective. But, as in Ibsen's play, the media too often have ideological axes to grind.
"Enemy of the People" does not hold out hope. At its conclusion, Stockmann's voice is silenced, his family humiliated and destitute, the spa still open, the community steeped in enmity. Stockmann and the town are headed for catastrophe. The play doesn't show us how to fix the acoustics of expertise -- it doesn't try. But if it merely awakens us to the danger of doing nothing about it, this may help us avoid the disaster that is unfolding in that 19th century Norwegian town every night at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Robert P. Crease is a professor in the philosophy department at Stony Brook University. His most recent book is "World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement."