America’s love/hate affair with science

In a country so benefitted by science, science ignorance among Americans is uncanny. In an age wherein science-informed wisdom is essential for political choices, we vote unschooled politicians into office. Supplied with stunning scientific advances, millions of us choose superstition instead, demanding that it merits equal footing. Naively grasping for a cogent argument, many refuse to grasp either the unique meaning of “theory” in scientific endeavor, or its essential conservatism as well. Still, the appeal of scientific discovery is impossible to deny, leading many to borrow the reputation of science by making the erroneous claim that there’s no disagreement between science and religion.

In a number of posts on this blog beginning in 2013, I’ve addressed science as a method of determining truth (as opposed to the products of science), the relationship of science to political decisions, and the proper non-scientist handling of disagreement among scientists. The scientific method is a way of thinking, not a storehouse of facts. As such, it’s applicable to everything we wonder and inquire about, not just what we think of as “sciency” stuff. I’ll not repeat explanations of those points, for I’ve done so in previous posts. Here I merely intend to mention a few places where science ignorance is on full display.

Ignorance of science among leaders. There are sufficient instances of science ignorance in our House, Senate, Executive Branch, and by other leaders to be downright embarrassing. Can you tell how each of these examples (among hundreds I’ve collected) virtually advertise science ignorance? Rep. Steve Stockman in 2014 criticized sea level rise with this gem: “Ice melts in a glass and it doesn’t overflow.” Rep. Paul Broun was certain in 2009 that “Scientists all over this world say that the idea of human-induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community [and has] no scientific consensus.”

Earlier, presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum challenged the dangers of CO2 with “Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.” Agreeing was Rep. Michele Bachmann’s erroneous comment that “there isn’t even one study that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.” Sen. James Inhofe brought a snowball to the floor of the Senate in mid-winter to disprove global warming. In 2011 NH state Rep. Jerry Bergevin reminded us with “Columbine, remember that? They were believers in evolution. That’s evidence right there.” He didn’t know, I suppose, that what legitimately constitutes evidence is one of the great boons of science.

Instilling science ignorance in children. Children’s natural inquisitiveness is a fertile ground for learning how to reason with the scientific method in everyday life. The meticulous detail of scientific inquiry can be extremely complex, but the basic idea can be taught to kids. (I mean science as a way of thinking, not the collection of facts that science has unveiled for us. The latter is what is usually meant by science education and what many of us remember from chemistry or physics classes in school.) Our lack of science understanding as a thought process, not to mention our antipathy toward science combine to pass our ignorance on to kids.

This occurs on a daily basis, often in homes and schools, and regularly in religious institutions. (I’m not denying persons’ rights to believe whatever they wish, just their inaccuracy in representing science.) I’ll cite just one source (as with the foregoing quotes, I’ve recorded scores of them), a recent Orlando Sentinel coverage of Florida private schools that rely on public funding while teaching that “dinosaurs and humans lived together, that God’s intervention prevented Catholics from dominating North America, and that slaves who “knew Christ” were better off than free men who did not. Here is more that the Sentinel found.

“The lessons taught at these schools come from three Christian publishing companies whose textbooks are popular on many of about 2,000 campuses that accept, and often depend on, nearly $1 billion in state scholarships, or vouchers.” The books “denounce evolution as untrue [, show] men and dinosaurs together [, and tell] students the Biblical Noah likely brought baby dinosaurs onto his ark.” One text “said Christians must reject Charles Darwin’s teaching, which it argues were tied to Nazi Germany.” One “workbook tells students that ‘Bible passages, rock art and ancient evidence seem to describe man’s accounts of living dinosaurs,’ which fits with God creating all life on the planet in six days.’”

One educator excused his school’s dogma-based characterization of science thusly: “We believe our way is correct. We focus on creationism because that’s what we believe.” My point about this is not to question his right to believe anything, but the right to use public money to mischaracterize what science is and what scientists’ findings are.

Last month in the U. S. Senate. Because findings of science grow ever more complex, it is critical that governmental decisions and public undertakings incorporate whatever science has to contribute, both as a discipline for thought and a practical guide to philosophy and engineering. I want to cite news of a senatorial idiocy only last month. Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, James Inhofe, and James Lankford asked the National Science Foundation to treat climate change as if it were a “political and social debate” rather than a neutral scientific fact.

Their request is as irrational as urging a public vote about the correct navigation for a space shot to Mars, or Michelle Bachmann’s suggestion that in dealing with evolution, teachers should put “all science on the table and then let students decide.” It took the human race tens of thousands of years to develop the discipline of thought we call science. It is unlikely a class of youngsters will stumble upon it in a rushed curriculum.

The senators, like many of their peers, would reject the neutral findings of science about whatever their personal, political, or religious beliefs find uncomfortable. That kind of action by anyone is an intellectual throwback, one that suggests questions of physical facts are best settled by what we feel about them. Of course, in this case, the senators may not be so unenlightened as simply deceptive, choosing to discard a vexing fact when it seems they can win a know-nothing debate in favor of something as technical as putting those space shot calculations to a vote.

Allotting facts and values their respective due. In the handling of what is the case versus what we would like to be the case, there are ways to operate that are both more intelligent and more honest than those we frequently see. One example: Consider Question 1 to be finding facts and probabilities as unbiased and accurately as possible, with no attention to Question2. Consider Question 2, given those facts and probabilities, to be the careful application of our values in selecting among choices the facts afford us. It is crucial that Q2 not be dealt with before Q1.

That may seem obvious, but decision-making bodies can be undisciplined enough to regularly do so anyway. Moreover, appointing authorities themselves can confuse the matter. For example, when President George W. Bush overhauled the composition of many federal scientific advisory committees, he did so by stacking them not with persons qualified to advise on Q1, but with committed advocates for points of view (particularly the Administration’s) on Q2. That can lead to “solving” the wrong questions, for unintentionally assuming without evidence what the status quo actually is, and later integrating those untested assumptions into dealing with adjacent or similar issues.

That point may seem a long way from elementary classrooms, but they both address our ability to distinguish what is true about the universe and our preferences about that universe. The great contribution of science is to help us avoid fooling ourselves about that which is, while helping us find paths to that which we aspire, whether the latter be about future effects of world climate or next week’s performance in a spelling bee.

Once we thought the earth was flat–
What of that?
It was just as globos then
Under believing men
As our later folks have found it,
By success in running round it;
What we think may guide our acts,
But it does not alter facts.

—Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Quotation thanks to

Women Without Superstition, Annie Laurie Gaylor, 1997

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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