Baptism in the Religion of Science

This is a reprint of something I wrote for last month's Second Saturday. The topic last month was science, and the importance of a well-funded and well-supported scientific community to a nation's health and survival. I'm posting it here because I'm really proud of what I wrote and I hope maybe someone might chance to read it and contemplate my message.

Baptism in the Religion of Science

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in our philosophy. -- Shakespeare, Hamlet

When we think of politics, science isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. And really, it shouldn’t, generally speaking. After all, science is a discipline ruled by logic and systematic testing of ideas and theories, not the sometimes erratic-seeming dance of compromise and diplomacy and arcane rhetorical maneuvers. While politics could certainly benefit from the injection of science – real science – science should never be held hostage by the fickle tendencies of politics.

But in the last decade – and most especially since the election of the Bush Administration – the sciences have been under a sustained and not-so-covert assault by the world of politics. We see it in the debate over stem cell research, over the question of whether to teach creationism as a science, the insistence that abstinence from is the only education that prevents teenage pregnancy, the regulation of mercury emissions, the unavailability of emergency contraception, the argument for clearcutting in the interest of “healthy” forests, the skepticism about whether global warming is really happening, and on and on.

The damage done to science and scientific advancement by this Administration cannot be overstated. As Chris Mooney, a leading journalist on science and intersecting politics, makes clear:

The broadest way of stating the problem is that throughout his presidency, Mr .Bush has let politics rule everything and left virtually nothing to dispassionate analysis. Preconceptions, rather than critical thinking, have driven policy. Indeed, the US federal government is staffed with legions of political appointees who think in raw political terms, often with a disregard for the long-standing professionalism of the agencies they find themselves lording it over. As a consequence, the US government has become a place where loyalty and the rewarding of prior supporters wins out again and again over careful analysis and expert judgment.

– Chris Mooney, “Out of the bushes”

The fact is that alongside the many egregious crimes – both literal and figurative – committed by this Administration, the assault on science and advancement in this country is damage that will take years, decades, possibly even a generation, to undo. The scientific philosophy – that underlying principle known as the Scientific Method – poses a very real danger to the parochial, small-minded, and backwards thinking of those who currently control Republican Party. Whether conservatism plays a role is debatable, but the conservatism currently exemplified in today’s GOP reflects the very antithesis of science. And thus it is threatened by the ideals of science, which, not so coincidentally, share a foundation with progressivism.

Which isn’t to say that progressivism is somehow “right” or scientific fact. Of course it isn’t, and believers in a progressive political worldview can be as susceptible to close-mindedness and logical fallacy as our counterparts on the Right. Nonetheless, today’s Extreme Right live in an insular world that neither understands nor allows the introduction of uncertainty, the questioning of What Is, the exploration of possibility. To do so is to undermine their carefully crafted illusion of rightness, and that is a threat they will fight to the end.

…the inescapable fact of both science and reality is that that we never know everything, and never will. Yet this pervasive state of uncertainty hardly lessens the moral imperative to take whatever it is that we do know and use it to improve our lives; and if we fail to do so -- because the issues are too politicized, say -- in the end we will have only ourselves to blame.

– Chris Mooney, “The Intersection of Science and Progressive Values”

One of the many unfortunate side effects of this trumping of politics over all else is that as a nation, our fellow citizens are themselves succumbing to the rising tide of ignorance and superstitious regression. In a country of critical thinkers, whose minds are disciplined by logic, the suggestion that our planet is only 6000 years old, that we all descended from a single man and a single woman, and that dinosaur bones were embedded in layers of rock by the devil would be – and should be – soundly ridiculed and laughed into oblivion. Nonetheless, in the year 2007, we are having serious discussions about whether to teach this mythology as science.

Thus the work to be done isn’t just in repairing the damage done by this Administration and putting controls in place to ensure that such an egregious crime against human intelligence and knowledge cannot be repeated in this country, but also to undertake educating ourselves and those around us. It means engaging their superstitions – and our own – and taking the time to understand how and why the natural world and the universe works the way it does. To learn to question, to be skeptical, to never be afraid of learning, to be open to possibility, to pursue knowledge.

It means reacquainting ourselves with the wonder and excitement we felt as children when we were overcome with awe at the knowledge that there once walked lizards that were hundreds of feet tall, that creatures more bizarre and fantastic than anything on a movie screen once lived on our planet and live here still, that our highest mountains were once under water, that molten rock regularly spews to the surface from our Earth’s deepest core, that there are worlds in our celestial neighborhood covered in gases that turn their alien skies yellow, that rains of hot acid fall from their turbulent clouds, that our Sun hurtles through the heavens at thousands of miles an hour, that stars can end in spectacular explosions that result in a gaping vacuum from which nothing escapes, that there are galaxies colliding and particles so small not even our most powerful microscopes can see them…in short, we must renew our faith in science, be born again in the philosophy of knowledge, and be ever vigilant of the twin temptations of apathy and ignorance.