I confess I’m an aweist

Most of us are gratified when reading others’ words that express our own view of life or emotional experience better than we have ourselves. I felt that when reading Phil Zuckerman’s short article “Aweism” in the April/May 2009 edition of Free Inquiry magazine. This post is to share how Zuckerman’s joyful experience of awe fits with my own humanism and joie de vivre.

In my life I’ve often had difficulty determining what or who I am. I don’t mean the usual classifications, like whom I’m the son of, where I live, whom I’ve parented, and jobs I’ve held. Those are important, but I’m referring to philosophical identity. During youth, my identity was fundamentalist Christian. After high school that framework was unable to contain my questions and quandaries, so in early adulthood I evolved into an agnostic identity, then atheist, and finally secular humanist, a sequence that remains accurate to this day.

Secular humanism is not atheism but it is necessary because of atheism, for in the absence of belief that a god handed down morality, we must work it out for ourselves. Atheism, while useful in determining what is not worth believing, is not a prescription for life, but a circumstance upon which a life can be built. Actually, I rarely think about my atheism, but as a humanist I think of moral principles regularly; it permeates my concepts of humanity and my relationship with others. (For example, my current reading includes Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, an exploration into the complexity of applying personal morality to that of a state.)

What Zuckerman recognized in himself, I found to be true for me as well. My captivating awe is virtually unceasing for all manner of beauty and complexity, a reverence for life, amazement for the mysterious, for the bigness of life, for the tearful joy and wonder that the universe provides us. As Zuckerman wrote, “But when I ponder the existence of certain existential questions and cosmic mysteries, I often have an emotional reaction beyond that of mere dry puzzlement or cold contemplation. I feel [my italics, JC] something.” Sometimes,” he said, he feels “existential questions and mysteries that concern life, death, being, and the universe more than I simply ponder or contemplate them.”

Aweism doesn’t rely on marveling at unproven guesses, but at the proven and the probability that much more awaits discovery, a never-ending unveiling of further knowledge, not merely the persistence of the hoped-for. Much of science is an example. I’m reminded of Isaac Newton’s reply to those who said his work in refraction of light sadly constituted “unweaving the rainbow.” He replied that he’d not rewoven the rainbow, but shown it to be even more magnificently intricate than previously known. Scientific revelation often reveals and can replace the speculative flailing about of superstitious imagination.

Aweism takes nothing away from one’s religion nor from one’s atheism. It is available without the necessity of either, for it doesn’t require a religious boost to be experienced. Much as I described in a few posts (including “The happy atheist,” May 30, 2013; “The meaning of life,” Oct. 22, 2013; and “The heavens declare the glory of god,” June 10, 2015), atheism is not a drab, unhappy, uninspired, uncaring, immoral persuasion. Vouching for myself, with infrequent exceptions I’ve lived a joyful, satisfied, even fascinating life—I’m quite happy to have found a word for it. On that note, I’ll close with Zuckerman:

“Aweism is the [point of view] that existence is ultimately a beautiful mystery, that being alive is a wellspring of wonder, and that the deepest questions of life, death, time, and space are so powerful as to inspire deep feelings of joy, poignancy, and sublime awe. . . . An aweist is someone who admits that existing is wonderfully mysterious and that life is a profound experience. To be an aweist is—in the words of philosopher Paul Kurtz—to embrace and experience ‘joyful exuberance’ sans theistic assumptions. Aweists suspect that no one will ever know why we are here or how the universe came into being, and this renders us weak in the knees while simultaneously spurring us on to dance.”

 

Posted in Pleasure, enthusiasm, and awe, Secular humanism | 3 Comments

I fear for my country

I fear for my country. We are threatened not by others, but by ourselves. We’ve weakened the independence—and with it, the accountability—of judicial, legislative, and executive functions. We’ve undermined the rule of law and our previously unifying e pluribus unum. Political parties, particularly since the mid-1990s, have fought each other as much as they’ve wrestled with the country’s challenges.

We’ve accepted as normal the expanding use of gerrymandering, a practice that proves our rhetoric about democracy to be a lie. Slick procedural actions in House or Senate are applauded as heroic by the political parties they benefit. Tribalism and hyper-nationalism masquerade as patriotism. America was founded not upon land or parentage, but on an idea, what becomes of it when the idea slips away? Nuclear bombs and great warships cannot restore it.

We teeter close to the edge of losing the distinction between the few critical elements of system and the many political decisions that can be made within that system. In baseball no one confuses good hitting or superb 3-6-3 double plays with the rules by which the game is played. It is only with steadfast conservation that the framework of national governance—the rulebook—can remain sufficiently robust to accommodate great issues of the day without itself withering. Healthcare, welfare, armaments, budget, balance of payments, border specifics, tariffs, and a thousand other significant matters are arguably less important than separation of powers and the rule of law. However vital and complex the plays in a game, the rulebook must be stronger.

In the Congress and in the Executive Branch (less, so far, in the courts) those rules have slipped mightily over the past years, replaced by doing the country’s business in transactional bits and pieces, untethered to great ideas, moral leadership, and even common decency. I fear for my country, that of my grandchildren, and for yours.

 

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

Why do Republicans love socialism?

Republicans are reluctant to campaign on their successes in having helped Trump besmirch American institutions and reputation. It’s been rumored that they might have to bring out a favorite old bugaboo: socialism. “It’s true we’re Trump’s toadies,” they can assure voters, “and we did forget we control an ostensibly independent branch of government. But you’ve really no choice but to vote for us because the alternative is [teeth grinding and serious grimace here] socialism.” My argument in this post is that waving accusations of socialism, a frequent Republican tactic, does not settle an argument and is not even a meaningful statement.

Historically, to conservatives, no other word (except perhaps Hillary, Obamacare, immigrant, or welfare) has the emotive verbal potency of the word socialism. But like other words that represent a range of beliefs and positions, the actual definition of socialism is hard to nail down. Historically, it meant the doctrines of Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Owen. One Wikipedia source calls socialism a “system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control.” But this academic definition is so broad as to embrace “a range from statist to libertarian, from Marxist to liberal,” and from fascist to anarchist. In other words—coming from either Democrats or Republicans—it’s hard to distinguish an earnest definition of socialism from a mere dog whistle.

So I’ll abandon the search for academic precision and just go with an earnest definition taken from the experience I’ve had listening to politicians for a half dozen decades. In that time most use of the term referred to actions taken or paid for by government for some social good, including those that could have been done privately. It turns out that a great many undertakings supported by almost all Republicans—think neighborhood park, air traffic control—are easily included under that definition of socialism. But I’ll list a few more at random with no attempt to be complete.

Public roads, highways, bridges, tunnels. Food supply protection. Safety standards for cars, trucks, tires, and traffic. Cleanup of mining damage. Air and water pollution. Job training. Flood control. Childhood education. Medicaid. Traffic lights. Air traffic control. Bases when no longer a military necessary. Fire prevention and control. Weather forecasting. Veterans’ healthcare. Safety standards for construction, electrical appliances, aircraft seats, landing gear. Motorcycling head protection. Medicare. Social security. (These last two items take over individuals’ need to shift their economic resources from one part of their lives to another.) Subsidy of sports stadiums. And so forth. Obviously, a complete list of that “so forth” would be a very long list indeed, one that illustrates an important point.

Everyone is for some form or some degree of socialism. It is not that a specific economy can be fully socialistic or fully non-socialistic, just as there is no option for being totally capitalist versus having no capitalism. Similarly, it is either a lie or mere ornamental use of the term to pronounce that someone or some party is socialist or is not. But that doesn’t make the broad concept of socialism useless. There is always more or less socialism and varieties of the mix of various topics to which those variations apply. For one function a socialistic approach is desired, while for another function it is not desired. The histories, values, and aspirations of one political jurisdiction will be—should be—reflected in that mix; in fact, democracy demands it. Failure to recognize that socialism is a continuum will lead to much spinning of wheels in the electorate, argumentative energy wasted, dead-end socio-political conversation, and legislation entangled more than carefully carved out as a blend both coherent in itself and aligned with the values of that jurisdiction.

So what am I suggesting? First, any Democrat who claims to be for socialism in all instances where it can be applied should be either rejected or drilled extensively to justify how that much “purity” could exist. Second, any Republican who claims to be against socialism in all instances wherein it can be applied should be either rejected or drilled extensively to justify how that much purity could exist. Third, in either case, any Democrat or Republican still standing should be asked to explain his or her chosen mixture of the economy’s reliance on socialism versus capitalism (defined for this purpose as non- or anti-socialism). In any event, waving a flag either for or against socialism is neither responsible nor meaningful.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Trump is NOT America’s problem

Most Americans understand that this untrustworthy, incompetent, man-child is arguably the most unfit person ever to be American president. Whether caused by derangement, startling ignorance, or simply evil is of no importance. What is monumentally important is that the United States of America is on a path toward fascism, the strong-man, dictatorship, international banditry that we’ve resisted for over two centuries.

How did we get here so fast? Where is that City on a Hill? Worse, we should expect this frightening deterioration to accelerate as safeguards in the system weaken. Even eliminating Trump as president is not enough to erase the damage. The Constitutional strengths of a country do not spring back to relevance just because their destroyer leaves town. If we are to save America, much more is required than evicting Trump from the White House.

Anyone who watched Trump in the 2016 campaign, then claimed to be surprised at his un-American presidency is naive in the extreme. He had no commitment to the judicial system, to the rule of law, to Constitutionally prescribed roles, to common decency, and even to simple facts. Policies, programs, laws, and traditions are important to Trump only to the extent they serve his pathological ego. Millions of American voters either played dumb or intentionally decided the risks to America didn’t matter. So why not bet the republic on a madman?

“He’s new to politics” excused his ignorance. “He’ll learn to be presidential” overlooked his basic crudeness and coarseness. “He tells it like it is” excused his lying. “He’ll drain the swamp” excused a worse swamp. “He shouldn’t need to show his finances” excused hyper-secrecy and possibly criminality.

His behavior as president was easily predictable and, in fact, worse because with each horrid action, we fooled ourselves into thinking there wouldn’t be even further ineptness and paranoia. But that was just the start. We were on the edge, but not yet over it.

Republicans in the Senate and House, despite knowing what they were getting, decided to “identify with the aggressor,” kiss-up, and do whatever was necessary to avoid offending him. After all, they were driven by lust for SCOTUS seats, by hate for Obamacare, by owning all branches of government, and inheriting from Trump a right wing Christian base easily bought off. Apparently, partisan choices were more important than preserving the safety of the system so carefully established by our founders.

So why should they let incessant lying, destruction of an international reputation that took decades to build, or endangerment of the federal justice system get in the way? Indeed, why should they diligently carry out their responsibility as an independent branch of government at the risk of offending Trump, even if Trump was is aimed at destroying much of what American has been. (How could deterioration be so obvious that Rep. Nunes’ bizarre actions become a new normal?) Making America great again, ironically, will become a truly meaningful motto when Trump and his minions are finished with it.

For now, however, only one authority in government has a chance to save the country from the most damage to America as a system since the Civil War. Yet, House and Senate Republicans are Trump’s greatest fan club, regularly refusing to check the obviously dangerous president, and just as regularly bending over to lick his, uh, boots.

Voters in 2016 either carelessly or ignorantly did something akin to letting an 8 year old drive the family car (after which it makes little sense to blame the child’s ignorance and impulsivity). Did we learn? The polls regarding support for Trump announce that we did not. The continued Congressional support demonstrates daily that we did not.

Whether America continues its flirtation with fascism or only has a scary near-miss, the damage to this republic must, therefore, be borne by the Republican party, even more than by Trump, for the Congress has the Constitutional power of impeachment and removal.  They are so far choosing to be accessories after and before the facts.

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Creeping toward theocracy

Slightly over half the world’s religionists are Muslim or Christian, each powerfully motivated by belief that a loving/vengeful god entices with paradise and threatens with horror. To each camp, the other is anathema. Adherents of each are convinced of a deity-ordered duty to rid the world of the opponent. As history attests, these factors constitute a formidable, often brutal mixture. Much of Christianity, with sincere faith, has endorsed mild repression to downright cruelty. Much of Islam, with equally sincere faith, has advocated a similarly ruthless zeal.

I’ve addressed how antipathy between religions continues at successive, subordinate levels. Believing sincerely that divinity is on one’s side energizes not only the top tier of opposition (for example, Christianity vs. Islam), but smaller divisions as well (Sunni vs. Shi’a; Catholic vs. Protestant), then to further demarcations (Hanafi vs. Sufism vs. Wahhabism; Methodist vs. Mormon), each just as earnest and often as rancorous as the next. In the West in the 17th and 18th centuries something new happened, the Enlightenment—philosophical inquiry not subservient to theology. The wisdom of philosophers like Locke, Kant, Rousseau, Hume, Spinoza, and Smith inspired an integrity of thought that could please disestablishmentarian and passionate religionist simultaneously.

North America’s fledgling, emerging country was ready-made for a breakthrough relationship between church and state, and thoughtfully adopted a Constitution that assured unhampered religious freedom without religious control. Government’s domain is secular control—though within bounds set by the electorate. Churches’ domain is religious conscience—answerable neither to the state nor to anyone except those who’ve chosen to assemble together. (“Church,” of course, includes synagogue, temple, and mosque.) Still, broad concepts, for all their utility, require specification of their specifics.

The National Day of Prayer
God and Government United

Churches must submit to government regulation of their fire prevention, payment to creditors, registration of vehicles, asbestos insulation, and use of force. The state must govern churches as it does everything else, while refraining from favoring one religion or opinion about religion over another, and interfering in or prescribing worship. Gray areas like protection of children, church engagement in electing political candidates, secrecy of church finances do arise, and further calibration is needed, sometimes requiring judicial involvement. The outcome should be that we have a government that protects all faiths while promoting none. No matter what each believes about anything, we  should all be equal in the eyes of government.

Our Constitutional bargain, simple and fair as it seems, has been under attack—and therefore a source of intermittent unrest—since the beginning of our republic. There have been riots between Catholics and Protestants, civic action between Christians and Muslims, proselytization of public school students, destruction of synagogues, Christian ornamentation of public property, government promotion of fundamentalist Christianity, governmental actions relying on Christian dogma, and millions of such entanglements daily. Christians call on government to, in effect, declare it the only true religion. Government officials, sworn to protect the Constitution, regularly curry favor with Christians for their personal political gain. And, of course, the preference can be quite pointedly targeted, so that “Christians” frequently turns out to be some Christians.

So far though, freedom of worship and freedom to convince others of their rectitude has not been enough to satisfy all religionists. They wish also to arrogate the power of government in their behalf to the exclusion of competing views (meaning not only nonbelievers, but believers of opposing faiths). The energizing of the Christian right over the past few decades has not been in the interest of religious liberty as it likes to portray, but in wresting favor from government, that is, stealing from a population of mixed opinions about religion, including theirs. The revisionist doctrine that America was founded as a “Christian nation” turns history on its ear.

Individual Christian candidates for office are thought to be more honest and of better intent than non-Christians despite facts to the contrary. Mechanisms are available to enable pious posturing, such as events like the National Day of Prayer [see “National Prayer Breakfast,” Feb. 9, 2015 and “Our National Day of Prayer,” May 1, 2014]. No politician risks omitting “God bless America” to conclude a speech. Consequently, nonbelievers in elected positions are quite few, far below the proportion of Christians in the electorate. Piety is easy to fake and, on this matter, religious people are easily duped.

There is nothing new about sacrificing the principle of church-state separation; even if poorly maintained it has served the country well. Now comes the Trump Administration eager to pretend piety with a vengeance, the president himself meeting repeatedly with groups seeking fundamentalist Christian hegemony. The president, among other similar actions, prohibited the IRS from threatening the tax-exempt status of any religious organization that actively lobbies on behalf of a political candidate, even though the so-called Johnson Amendment makes that unlawful [see “Church donations trump secular ones by IRS,” May 10, 2017]. In 2017 he instructed federal agencies to “take the broadest possible interpretation of religious liberty” when enforcing federal laws.

Consistent with the White House position, just last month Attorney General Jeff Sessions convened a “Religious Liberty Task Force” to help in that pursuit. (The term “religious liberty,” though in itself an honorable concept, has been hijacked by the Religious Right and its meaning reversed so that it has become Christians’ freedom to discriminate against groups they dislike and laws that they find inconvenient [see “So-called religious liberty bills,” Feb. 25, 2017 and “Legislators set to abuse religious freedom…again,” Jan. 17, 2018].) Sessions, who is fundamentalist himself enough to have been ejected from his conservative home church, actually quoted a Biblical reference to defend Trump’s treatment of children at the US-Mexico border. He announced that his task force is necessary to help save religious liberty because of the great danger of secularism to freedom.

“We have gotten to the point,” Sessions said, “where courts have held that morality cannot be a basis for law, where ministers are fearful to affirm, as they understand it, holy writ from the pulpit.” These are ridiculous assertions. Morality is very much a basis for some legislation, but not specifically the morality of Session’s chosen dogma. Ministers in the United States are as free to preach what they believe to be holy writ as anywhere in the world. Is lying included in the moral code the Attorney General proposes for federal guidance in religion?

I have argued previously that secularists are far greater protectors of the principle of religious liberty than are either Christians or Muslims. While carelessness about separating politics and religion is not new, Sessions (and Trump) are advocating the fusion of patriotism and evangelical Christianity (known as “Christian nationalism”) to strengthen Trump’s evangelical base. When religious positions may actually be political ones, it is not surprising that political positions may be religious ones. 

Governmental support for particular forms of Christianity are frightening even to many Christians; every step toward theocracy is a hollow victory, for it applies only to those specific religions or denominations in a government’s favor. American history, let alone other countries’, testifies to that shameful victory. Note these chilling words from Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association: “The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion . . . [The Founding Fathers . . . weren’t ] intending to deal with non-Christian religions.” One example, he claims, is Mormonism: “Mormonism is not an orthodox Christian faith. . . . the Founding Fathers did not intend to preserve automatically religious liberty for non-Christian faiths.”

Compare that sentiment that to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom drafted by Thomas Jefferson, which declared that “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any” religion. It was guided through the legislature by James Madison, and later became a model for Constitutional language in the First Amendment. Due to the shoddy history of mixing government and religion, Article 6 includes a complementary sentiment that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

As Americans, we’ve been granted a great, historical birthright—freedom of belief, of worship, of conscience—but we have an ill-considered, foolish tendency to swap it for short term favors of religious privilege. Like a child who carelessly breaks a Ming vase—unaware of its value—religions are their own worst enemies with regard to valuing the principle of religious liberty enough to preserve it. And now, in exchange for partisan fealty, some Christian churches have actually been invited by government into politics.

Bright Spots

I’ve given politicians and religionists a hard time in this post. But I don’t want to overlook the many religious persons of various stations in life who seem to “get it,” to understand that promoting their faith not only doesn’t need government assistance but is in fact corrupted by it (as is government corrupted by religion). Although their numbers are legion, here are three from a wide variety whom I’ve read and by whom I’ve been buoyed:

  • “There is [a] movement afoot that could conceivably set us back centuries in terms of human flourishing and religious liberty. . . Christian nationalism . . . is a threat to the true liberty of all.” Rev. Jonathan Davis, Baptist pastor, small town in Virginia
  • The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. John Adams, President of the United States
  • “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . . an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish, . . . where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.” John F. Kennedy, President of the United States
Posted in Church and state, Liberty, Politics | 2 Comments

Mr. de Tocqueville, we got the government we deserve

Before it eventually collapses with political rot, the Trumpublican Party fecklessly enables the unprincipled, undignified, even un-American fool we’ve placed in the White House. Whatever President Trump’s lying, scorn of separation of powers, reprehensible treatment of allies, silence in the face of Russian attack on elections, Congress—to the extent of its authority—must bear responsibility as if those were its actions and decisions. But Congressional spinelessness about Trump parallels Trump’s absurd lap-dog behavior toward Russian President Putin. In light of Trump’s recent stains on America’s international reputation, a few of our Article 1 elected officials might rise up in protest against his perfidy; a few of those might even mouth accountability pleas for more than a few days. But don’t count on much for long that resembles integrity.

I admit it is inviting to pick on Donald Trump. After all, he has proudly displayed his disgracefulness for all to see since long before announcing his candidacy. Republican candidates for awhile had the cojones to oppose him. That was before they decided he wasn’t so bad after all . . . especially if you’re careful to stay on his good side.) He has earned all the mockery he himself loves to brandish. The Baby Trump balloon aimed at the American head of state in London is tasteless, to be sure, but less so than its object. Despite those considerations, however, it seems, well, easy pickings after so many months of his childish ego, interpersonal coarseness, and lies.

Neither his pathology nor his evil is new after his embarrassing performances in Singapore, Canada, Belgium, England, and Finland to top off 18 months of bizarre presidential swings from proto-despotism to buffoonery. Even I have tired of searching for adjectives worthy of this loathsome man. It’s time to stop wasting effort on the same sad list to describe him. It’s time to focus on those who could rein in his excesses but will not: senators and congressmen/women in the majority of both houses, including those who this week act as if they are just now discovering his treachery. It is they who help him diminish and endanger America.

I give credit to the approximately 1/3 of majority party leaders who this week have expressed that enough is enough. But where have they been all along? Have they just not noticed? Republicans in Congress—once a party with no shortage of admirable leaders—have shamefully become a mad man’s groveling toadies. Suddenly noticing one or another stage of Trumpian indecency is hardly an effective antidote for what has become, with their assistance, an appalling new normal. This week’s ability by a minority of the majority to speak out assures only that a newer but not better new normal awaits us. I fear it does not demonstrate that strength of character has bloomed in the Congress.

Surely not all Republicans roaming the Capitol are committed more to party or re-election than country. Surely not all are either dumb or deluded. Whimpers of “but what can we do, after all, he was elected president” are hardly convincing coming from officials who act as if they’re unaware the Legislative Branch is beholden to its Constitutional tasks and independence, not to the president.

The House has the powerful Constitutional prerogative of impeaching a president. (This post is not an argument for impeachment; that requires further considerations, both political and Constitutional.) But does entrusting that much power to the House not give license to exercise authority up to—that is, just less than—impeachment, such as censure, demands for financial disclosure, and subjecting to inspection translator’s notes from the private Helsinki meeting? Failing such assertive Congressional actions, would it be too much to ask senators and representatives to at least stop carrying Trump’s water?

Is it possible that as-yet-unused technical political possibilities may be unearthed by a clever parliamentarian? In the Senate, it took only chutzpah and the approval of majority senators for Sen. McConnell to invent an extralegal maneuver to thwart President Obama’s SCOTUS nomination. Can that level of creativity not be summoned to slacken the pace at which we sacrifice hard-won national values to feed Trump’s pathetic ego?

Will Trumpublicans restore the Republicanism that once was home to intellectual integrity, international good citizenship, trustworthiness, and—though the term died a deserved death—compassionate conservatism? Will they seriously try to find a way that isn’t blocked by having to meet the test for high crimes and misdemeanors? Will they even notice there’s a runaway president problem to be solved, or that this is not a partisan problem, but an American problem? Will they allow sacred aspects of Americanism to die piece by piece from each toxic new normal to the next?

The long term effects of the 2016 election will not be known for decades. But at minimum, as published by George Will just yesterday, “Now we shall see how many Republicans retain a capacity for embarrassment.”

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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

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