Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Science and survival

Man arrested for arriving
five days late, and naked,
for dental appointment.

There is a new book out called Unscientific America How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. I have not yet read this book, perhaps I won’t read it. If I don’t read it, it will not be because I think it might not be worthwhile, it will be because I’m pretty sure I know what it will say, and it will all be true. The current dismal state of our U.S. educational system, plus the anti-intellectualism that has made it so, if not changed, and quickly, will inevitably see us falling even further behind the rest of the modern world. I do not believe this is merely my opinion, I believe it is a matter of fact. If our interest in science, and accompanying technology, does not change dramatically we are going to be relegated to the status of a third world nation. There was, more than a hundred years ago now, a fine book entitled, A History of the Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom by Andrew White, one of the founders of Cornell University. Interestingly enough, and sadly enough also, this book may well be still relevant now (I assume it is out of print).

It is well known that the United States is now by far the most religious of the major nations. Nowhere in Europe does religion dominate as powerfully as it does here, and nowhere will there be found as many fundamentalists and evangelists, clinging to their fanatic beliefs about the literal truth of the bible. I realize we pride ourselves on the freedom to practice any religion we wish, but the influence of these kinds of religious beliefs is actively harming our nation, and has the potential for dramatically altering our position in the International Community. It is known that during the Bush/Cheney administration scientific knowledge was in many cases suppressed for political reasons, very often having to do with global warming or other environmental issues, and always in favor of corporate interests and profits. This is not only frightening, but also exceedingly dangerous if we are to continue to compete on the world stage. Science was just not valued by the late administration and, in fact, has not been very highly valued in the U.S. for quite some time. Education in general has been disvalued, a fact that can be verified by simply examining the condition of our schools and the salaries paid to our teachers. There has been for years a strong element of anti-intellectualism that has permeated our culture. Just remember the attitudes displayed towards Presidential candidates, denigrated as “eggheads,” or “pointy-headed intellectuals,” and such. Consider how Kerry was denigrated because he could (horrors) speak French. And think now of many voters who want a President who is “like them” (ignorant and uninformed about most everything), or who is someone they would like to have a beer with, and so on.

We have individuals who wish to run for President of the U.S. who do not believe in evolution (think Huckabee, for example). Bush himself, said he thought the issue of evolution was still open. To elect such people to high office is simply insanity. Just now a State Senator in Arizona announced, seriously, that as the earth was only 6000 years old, and had done very well without environmental regulations, there was no reason to oppose (potentially harmful) uranium mining. And then there are individuals like Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma announcing (with no evidence whatsoever) that global warming was just a great hoax being perpetrated on the American Public. People like this are not, of course, going to bring down our country tomorrow, or even next week or next month, or perhaps even next year, but over time if such people maintain positions of influence and power they will, in fact, destroy us. Other nations, especially nations like Japan, India, and China (and others as well) are rapidly outpacing us when it comes to scientific matters, space technology, computers, robots, nanotechnology, engineering, physics, and other fields. Again, this is not merely my opinion, it is a matter of fact. Education, especially scientific education, is highly valued in other countries. Not so, here in the U.S. This is a national disaster in the making. Scientific knowledge and the technological sophistication that comes with it allowed European nations to conquer most of the world and create empires that allowed them to enrich themselves at the expense of other, less technologically sophisticated people. I know I mentioned this once before, but I think it is relevant here again as an example. Found on a handgun turned over to the police was an engraving that read: “Be not afraid of any man, no matter what his size, just call on me, my friend, for I will equalize.” In a world that is now beginning to embark upon robotic and drone warfare, and will probably end up militarizing space as well, science and technology are going to become the great equalizers. The size of armies and the numbers of tanks and soldiers will be far less relevant. We simply cannot afford to fall behind as these developments unfold. This is going to require a drastic change in our attitudes towards education in general, and scientific education in particular. There is truth in the bumper sticker: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.' I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
Stephen Jay Gould

The most likely ancestor of the domestic horse was the tarpon, which roamed in Eurasia at the time of domestication but became extinct.

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