This rant was triggered by a news article. I posted a link to it in my Twitter feed. I received several fatuous, smug responses. The combination prompted me to write what follows. We’ll get to the article eventually.
Consider that the US led the world in science and technology for decades. We created atomic power, put humans on the moon and in the deepest ocean trenches, we discovered the most fundamental subatomic particles, and have imaged the most distant galaxies. We have constructed immense skyscrapers, we communicate with light, and we can predict (usually) the weather. We can put almost the entire sum of recorded human knowledge on charged bits of silicon, and calculate with numbers larger than the number of atoms in the universe. We can take apart cells and put them together again to form new ones, and we have extended our average lifespan by decades through improved medicine. Working with others around the world, we have eradicated terrible scourges (smallpox) and nearly eliminated others (polio, the Guinea Worm). We have done amazing things, and there is more yet to be done than we have barely imagined.
We have accomplished all this through engineering, technology and especially science: the process of forming hypotheses, conducting experiments to verify or refute them, and then refining those same hypotheses. All of science is theoretical, in the sense that all theories are open to refinement when we obtain new data. Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation was simply a theory with lots of confirmation of the usual case, which was refined when Einstein came along. The atomic model of matter is a theory, and it is refined and retested with each new means to break apart atoms to find constituent parts. The “Luminiferous Aether” was a theory for light propagation until Michelson and Morley’s experiment showed it to be false. The “four humors” was a theory of medicine before we began to understand biology.
Science is based on theories. Theories with massive bodies of repeated experiment and confirmation are often labeled “laws” but are still theories. The Law of Gravity is actually a theory. So is the Theory of Evolution. Both have undergone repeated trials by independent experiment, with the results very critically analyzed by others. Those theories have been confirmed again and again by the vast majority of trained observers. That is how science advances. We construct experiments to test our theories, and each successful experiment confirms its associated theory a little more, while each unsuccessful experiment drives us to ask “why?” and seek further refinement. If there is something that cannot be tested by experiment, then it is not something that can be known to science — it is not a verifiable fact, and can only be supported by belief.
Human advancement stumbles when ideology trumps knowledge. We refer to a period in the past in Europe as “the Dark Ages” as a time when inquiry was constrained by religious dogma; it is no accident that what followed was called the Enlightenment, a word we also use for gaining knowledge. During those dark ages, learning was treated with suspicion, and those who accomplished what the common person did not understand were sometimes killed as witches or tortured by religious authorities, seeking to make them “repent.” Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union crippled agricultural development and biological research for decades, as well as resulted in the death of many leading scientists in prisons, and their work destroyed. Whether it was the destruction of the House of Wisdom by the Mongols, the Nazis burning books that did not support their ideology, the Catholic Church’s censoring knowledge with the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or any of hundreds of other major acts of suppression of knowledge — including extremes such as the mass genocide of the educated in Cambodia’s killing fields by the Khmer Rouge — darkness is brought about by those who would suppress knowledge, education, and inquiry.
It is no surprise that many of our nation’s leaders are focusing on increasing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) research and education, both to keep our economy competitive, but as a matter of national security. The US has been losing ground in these fields, as has been pointed out time and again in major studies (two of which are the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, and its successor). Our ability to compete as a nation, to meet future economic challenges, to improve our health care, and to maintain our national defense all depend on our ability to innovate, and that requires education and scientific advances based on inquiry unfettered by superstition and myth.
So, given the proven history of scientific advancement (and the grim negative examples), and the obvious needs for foundational aspects of that advancement in education and infrastructure, it should be clear that it should be a national priority, right?
Well, no. We have seen a rising political movement over the last few decades, and it is destructive, yet not often mentioned by those in positions of leadership. After all, angering religious fanatics who are sure they have the blessings of heaven and who are unswayed by logic or reason is not without its vexations. Yet, to be silent is to let the darkness increase.
The darkness of ignorance and the unbending dogma of those who are united in their belief: science is wrong, facts are not to be believed, religion is the overriding (or only) truth. This is a growing problem that we have seen get worse over the last few decades. It has been obviously manifest in the last few national elections, and only becomes more pressing.
We have increasing numbers of the population denying evolution, refusing to acknowledge climate change, avoiding immunizations (and thereby endangering the rest of the population as the “herd immunity” is lost), and similar while being openly contemptuous of scholarship and scholars. Denial of foundational science in biology, physics, and geology is frequently made. And it has probably had a side-effect on our public, a significant fraction of whom don’t know (for example) that New Mexico is part of the US, cannot name a single Supreme Court justice, don’t know the difference between Iran and Iraq (and don’t even begin to ask about Sunni vs. Shia), have no idea how to figure a 17% tip, and many of whom think the Sun orbits the Earth! After all, when some facts are hotly denied, why bother learning any? (Although, to be fair, this great public ignorance may well be the cause of an increasingly dogmatic population, and not the effect.) It will cripple future generations if they are prevented from learning things known to be true, especially in the sciences. That was Bill Nye’s message, too, that has caused some controversy by those who fail — or refuse — to understand it.
From a public policy perspective, this trend is leading to (directly and indirectly) cutting funds for research, cutting funding for public universities, cutting back on student aid, vilifying teachers, and even threatening Big Bird (PBS). The adherents clamor for vouchers and home schooling so they can perpetuate their ignorance and superstition. (To be fair, some vouchers and home schooling is intended to provide a quality alternative to underfunded public schools; this is a feedback loop.) It is an anti-intellectual movement that has been encouraged by some demagogues, primarily in one political party, because they have sought to use the votes for influence, but it has further emboldened the fringe elements. Heck, even an official with the campaign staff for their candidate for President said that facts don’t matter, and one state’s party convention adopted a position against critical thinking! This all evidences actual contempt for knowledge. (There are many more examples, including many with our 43rd President, but this post is already too long.)
Want more evidence? Take a look at this news article. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Yes, this is the one that started me off on this.
This guy is running for reelection, unopposed in a district that includes a major university — the University of Georgia (as a Georgia Tech alumnus, I will forego some obvious comments), so this is even more disheartening.
Note especially that Rep Broun is on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. So is Todd Akin, the fellow in Missouri who made the incredibly inane comments about women not getting pregnant from “legitimate rape.” These are only two of many such people that our fellow citizens somehow think are qualified to represent them, but are overtly nescient. They are among the leadership and oversight, making decisions on our national programs of science and technology. Is it any wonder that, the rest of the world is gaining on us as a nation? There are many more like these folks running for office in national, state and local races, too.
Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to the U.S., nor to only one religion, nor only at this time. We have seen instances of the Taliban destroying buildings, burning schools and books, and killing others who do not share their beliefs. We see news of Ultra Orthodox Jews in Israel pushing restrictions on those who do not share their beliefs. We see stories of clashes with some militant Hindu nationalists. All of the holy wars and crusades, the Inquisition, and the destruction of many civilizations because the populations were “heathen” are indicia of the tradition of suppression of any knowledge but their own. Despite this history, there are almost no places in the world where so many people actively seek to degrade and deny science and science education as in the U.S. now; in many places, such as China, Korea and Russia, they are doing everything they can to promote education, and it shows in their growing capabilities.
Actually, the parallels are really quite obvious if you look for them. We have many religions where fundamentalist adherents believe their holy writ is direct from above, their particular religion is the only “correct” one, their holy book and leaders are infallible and unquestionable, they send their children to religious schools to ensure they are brainwashed educated without exposure to open inquiry and secular thought — or perhaps to be schooled only in their religious texts — and they believe there is no question that the government’s laws should support their point of view — after all, theirs are the views of heaven! Our U.S. fundamentalists are ideologic twins of those in the Muslim world who want to roll their countries back to the 13th century caliphate, with the major difference being that those in the US are not believers in Islam. Yet, make these comparisons and you will get strong pushback (from both sides)– after all, the adherents of that other religion (whatever it is) are damned for believing the wrong thing; only we are the enlightened ones…exactly like every other religion, past, present, and future. No irony there.
Does all that mean that faith and science cannot coexist? Not at all! There is a clear distinction between the two, but not an opposition. Science is based on the body of theories that can be proved or disproved by anyone repeating a defined experimental procedure. They are subject to repeated and new experiments, and theories may be replaced. Faith is the remainder of belief: it is those things that can never be proved or disproved, but are merely believed (or not) by each person. Many, many, many people are able to abide their faith yet be open to the processes of doubt, inquiry and learning. They understand that anything of this world is precisely that — of this world — and divinity is to be experienced through one’s acts, not the pages of a book or through the self-serving pronouncements of a hierophant. They reject dogma and think for themselves. Those people view the process of inquiry as expanding their knowledge of the world in which they function and believe — rather than as a challenge to their beliefs. After all, no religion has a deity so weak and questionable that true faith can be shaken by honest questions and discoveries in the world of that deity’s making, does it?
The 14th Dalai Lama put it very nicely for Buddhism; it can (and should) be applied in other religions:
If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.
There are many axes along which one may organize one’s life. Encouraging ignorance, stifling open inquiry, crippling dreams, hindering education, embracing dogma, and advocating against science are the traits of darkness, even if committed with selfless intent. We condemn those acts when we see them practiced in other countries and other times. We need to condemn them when we see them here and now. And we need to stop electing people who are agents of neo-Lysenkoism before they steer us all into a new Dark Age.
U.S. elections are November 6th. Be an agent of enlightenment when you vote. (And if you need some guidance, there’s my previous blog post.)