As far as possible I try to avoid writing about the teaching of evolution and opposition to climate change in this country because of their overly politicized nature, but this piece in the NYT is one that no one can wisely ignore. It details a growing movement to conflate rejection of evolution with rejection of climate change that many people, and sadly especially conservatives, are spearheading. States are trying to introduce bills encouraging the teaching of “all sides” of scientific issues. Conservative politicians are advocating for students to know “all the facts”. But nobody is fooled by these thinly veiled promotions of ignorance. These developments should appear ominous to anyone since they indicate a resourceful war against science and all it stands for.
A couple of years ago, journalist Chris Mooney wrote "The Republican War on Science", a laundry list of instances of systematic negligence and subversion by the Bush administration when it came to scientific matters. When Obama became President, those of us like Mooney heaved a sigh of relief, since the new President seemed to have a genuine appreciation for science and its funding and strove to "restore science to its rightful place". Sadly, what we did not fully realize is that the War on Science is not really fought in the corridors of Washington but rather on the streets and churches of states all over the country. No Presidential mandate can quell the intensity with which the foot soldiers in these quarters fight the war.
The main goal of these foot soldiers is to seed doubts about the foundational nature of scientific facts in the minds of the gullible. They want to misrepresent the tentative nature of scientific understanding as equivalent to complete lack of understanding. They don't understand or willfully neglect the simple fact that some things in science are more certain than others, and many things are so well-understood so as to be virtually certain. But by pitching the very nature of science as some kind of loose, tentative theorizing disguised as facts, these eager evangelists are destroying the very fabric of scientific inquiry and indeed, one of the essential bedrocks on which modern civilization is founded. To me their ultimate objective seems clear; convince people that most if not all of science and not just climate change and evolution consists of "just theories". Once that basic groundwork has been established, they are free to play fast and loose with each and every aspect of science that bears on public policy, which in the modern world encompasses most important spheres of political and public activity.
The anti-science crowd is too clever to call for downright subversion of science and embrace of religious dogma. Consider Tim Moore, a politician from Kentucky who claims that his motivation is not religious but it is to oppose the “distortion of scientific knowledge”. Surely Moore is intelligent enough to understand the number of religious votes he would garner if his suggestions are implemented. Moore and others are too clever to directly call for an indictment of science. Hence they are resorting to the gradual mobilization of doubt. Start with eager young minds first. The relentless movement to include "intelligent" design in textbooks as a valid "alternative" to evolution is well-known. Now they are also calling for textbooks to teach "both sides" of climate change. The time will come when they would insist that every scientific topic with which they have an issue should be accompanied by its opposite in school textbooks, simply because scientists are engaging in healthy debate about that topic. Stem cells and alternative energy are two prominent issues that come to mind. Scientists are still not sure what kind of technologies would make solar and wind power a reality? Good! Make sure you include every bit of opposition to these technologies as part of your textbook lessons. Scientists are still trying to understand how exactly stem cells would make it possible to cure or contain life-threatening disorders? Fantastic! Make that a case for including every bit of opposition to stem cell research so that you could argue against it; the religious aspects could always be smuggled in later through the back door. Lively technical disagreements taking place in the pages of scientific journals would be held up as resounding evidence that the soul of science itself is an amorphous blob devoid of certain existence. This is nothing less than the rape and rabid hijacking of the normal scientific process to portray it as some kind of fundamental structural flaw in the whole enterprise.
If this kind of descent into ignorance is terrible for schools and students, it's not at all helped by declining standards of science and math education in this country and by global competition in science and technology. What may be even more tragic is that such efforts, which started during the Reagan era but were much milder back then, would form such an ungodly and impenetrable meld of science, conservative politics and religion that it may well become impossible to ever separate the three. Sadly, one consistently finds mainly Republicans being opposed to climate change and the teaching of evolution. Those few Republicans who do support either or both of these are already keeping their mouths shut for fear of being alienated from the party. At the same time, evangelical Christians are convincing their brothers and sisters to add climate change to their list of enemies which long includes evolution. Since the Reagan era conservatism has already become synonymous with evangelical religion. Now they are also trying to make the two synonymous with anti-scientism. The effect of all this would be to downright intimidate any person with conservative sentiments who dares to have respect for the scientific process. It would also mean an exponential decline in members of the conservative coalition with any appreciation of science; after all, if evolution and climate change deniers are going to be the main recruits to the movement, the probability that these people will have any appreciation for the scientific method would already be very low to begin with.
Accompanying this active propaganda against science is a slick publicity campaign that pits scientific issues as not really being scientific but being political dogfights between liberals and conservatives, and declares science and especially academic science to be a political liberal enterprise. It extols the folksy, down to earth demeanor of grass roots politicians and encourages derision towards "elitist", high-brow scientists educated at respectable schools along with the politicians of the Eastern Establishment who nurture them. The two-time election of George W Bush (ironically a failed member of the Eastern Establishment) demonstrated that many citizens of this country are indeed suckers for such stereotypes and are ready to fundamentally mistrust any educated intellectual or scientist. Whether we like it or not, conservatives have turned this confluence of mutually reinforcing strategies and stereotypes into a well-oiled PR machine that is set to pay its own way into hell.
Is there any silver lining at all to this precipitous slide into the Middle Ages? The article does talk about conservative Christians who seem to display a refreshing acceptance of both evolution and climate change. Their numbers are low, but their convictions seem strong. They think that earth and everything that it encompasses are God's creations and need to be taken care of. Atheists may vehemently disagree with this interpretation, but as E O Wilson says in his book ”Creation”, at least they can leave aside differences and try to find common ground for this most important of causes. No matter how powerful and influential the leaders of the war against science seem, they critically depend on the citizenry to make their voice known. They speak because their constituencies listen. They prey and thrive on the nods of their audience. Educate the audience, and the tables turn; now it’s they who decide whether the magician on stage lives or dies.
We don't know yet whether this citizenry can wake up to the wisdom of recognizing science as a value-neutral, apolitical, open-minded, independent and freedom-loving framework to improve their lives. But it is clear that to have any chance of rescuing this country from the divisive forces of ignorance which are gradually making their way from coast to coast, one must use every tactic at his or her disposal to drive home the importance of science and to try to reinforce its separation from politics and religion.
These days one regularly comes across opposite and polarized factions of "New Atheists" who are up in arms against "Accommodationists". The former faction believes that only a highly vocal effort to weed out religion from the masses can turn enough people toward science, even if it permanently alienates the hardest of the fundamentalists. The latter faction believes that a more moderate approach will work better. Both factions believe that fundamentalists will largely remain unmoved.
To me the arguments between them mainly seem to be based on degree, since many from the latter also call themselves atheists. I have never understood why the approach needs to be either/or. It is clear that insiders from the religious establishment still stand the best chance of convincing their own flock. These promising young insiders are going to be persuaded only when they are repeatedly convinced and in turn convince others that yes, they can safely practice their faith and still believe in science as a candle in the dark. Whether atheists like it or not, their support is crucial. People come in all kinds of shades, and the best bet for us to convince them about the value of science is to pitch it to them at all levels, in all forms and guises, vocally and mildly, through every possible channel. Human society is a complex organism, and it needs a complex mix of ideas to cause fundamental changes. Just like in my field of computational chemistry, when you don't know the composition of this mix, you simply try out all combinations.
It seems to be the least we can do to stop a straight downhill crash into dark ignorant oblivion.