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.


  1. One of most famous science gurus to a head was Prof. Lindemann of the UK. He advised Churchill during the WWII. In Churchill's "The Second World War" he is mention numerous times. Churchill seemed to trust him in all things science.

  2. The weatherman's problem was that he made a prediction within a testable timeframe.

    A Man of Science would have been much more sophisticated in his approach.

  3. Looking forward to you sharing the full text of your talk.

  4. Lincoln's interest in science -- such as it was -- was tainted by his overriding interest in winning the war. [He personally tested numerous weapons for example and encouraged the use of ballooning.] Yet, he did hold frequent conversations about astronomy with Louis Agassiz and Doctor Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian. But the weather?? Hahaahha....He'd probably refer to the Farmers' Almanac!