Saturday, September 13, 2008

Are Americans - Like Islamic Fundamentalists - Rejecting the Enlightment?

The one thing I most remember about my father is how he introduced to me a love of science: whether it be building a radio or exploring a telescope, there was a feeling that this interest in science was something a man passed on to his son, because that was the most preeminently American thing to do. And that love of science led me to major in physics in college, and continue a lifetime of curiosity and learning. Of course, I grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, when we were going to the moon and advancing the frontiers of medicine, and American science led the world. But it seemed to be instilled in me, then, that belief in science, in a shared empirical reality, was probably the thing that most distinguished this country from those that lagged behind in economics and opportunity: in my mind, the key and probably only reason they weren't able to do what we did was their adherence to superstition, petty bickering, and an inability to pull together to accomplish great things.

And as I look around in this first decade of the twenty-first century, it shocks me that this belief in science, this feeling that Americans excel in rationality, is being lost. One, of course, can blame the rise of religious fundamentalism. But that rise would have not be succeeding so dramatically did it not have a political party willing to make a pact with the devil, so to speak, to maintain its own hold on power. No one administration has exemplified this quite so well as the Bush administration, which has done all it can to discredit any science that contradicts its political ideology. Interestingly, one can scientifically prove that this is so. But in a culture that is being taught to discredit science, does it matter any more what one can prove or disprove? Does reality matter any more? Or are we already lost? Do too many Americans already believe in superstition over science, and are no longer reachable?

It's not that Americans of all walks of life and backgrounds don't have the capacity to appreciate science. Americans have a great aptitude for science when they are given the chance to participate in well-taught, engaging classes. But sadly, that capability is being more discouraged, than encouraged, by our media and political cultures.

One of the positive hopes for McCain, when he received the Republican nomination, had been that he might reverse the Bush administration anti-science trend. Unfortunately, his campaign has proven this not to be so. It is not merely his embrace of a darling new figure of the religious right. It is his willingness, like Bush, to conveniently discard any notion that there is some value in truth - for McCain, in this campaign, we've seen that the only value is, as for Bush, the value of ideological media spin.

This is not just another pat Jenine Garafolo assertion that "Republicans are dispicable." Psychologists have studied why people vote Republican, and an explicit strategy to present a moral certainty that assuages a fear of uncertainty and death is a very real part of what motivates Republican voters. In other words, Republicans campaign operatives embrace religious fundamentalism over science because that's the psychology that wins them votes.

Of course, there are many dangers to a Republican administration that continues a policy of war, energy, or economics that damages our country, or appoints activist conservative judges who would overturn established laws like Roe v Wade. But I believe the biggest threat would be a continuing erosion of our belief in the ability of science to establish a common measure and understanding of reality.

It is not simply that the U.S. already ranks only 29th out of 57 countries when it comes to science, below the international average score, and is getting worse by the year. When people wonder why computer jobs, statistics, other fields are being sent overseas, one need look no further than this for the explanation: hiring an American just doesn't get you half the knowledge that hiring someone in India or China can get you. Why pay three times the money for half the knowledge? If American businesses want to compete in the 21st Century, American labor is fast becoming their worst bet.

If it were simply a matter of becoming an economic backwater, that would be bad enough. But the embracing of superstition and political propaganda over science harms us even more by destroying the one thing that could unite a diverse nation such as America: agreement on reality.

Unlike European and Asian nations, America has no central ethnic unifying nationality. It is not just that we are a nation of immigrants; it's that our founding myth, as a nation, is the Enlightenment: the belief that man is a rational being, imbued with inalienable rights that stem from his or her logical - scientific - ability to reason in an ethical universe. Ethical, not necessarily moral (which replies some adherence to faith). Ethical, because it is not based on faith: it is based on evidence, such as the evidence of a fellow man in pain and in need of assistance, the evidence of a society avoiding the harm of the many over enhancing the good of a few, the evidence of economics and systems that accrue benefit to the most of our citizens, the evidence that judiciously weighs the innocence and guilt of an individual without resort to prejudice or passion.

This is a society founded on the Enlightenment and on our ability to reason beyond assumption and faith. But if the majority of our citizens no longer believe in reason, we have bigger problems than jobs going to China.

We have a problem in that we have no other way to identify with each other, other than by culture or religion. And the segmentation we see in this new "culture war" will only fester and deepen. One side will increasingly turn toward religious and cultural fundamentalism and away from Enlightenment; the other will increasingly protect science and reason to the exclusion of all other human connectedness, such as tradition and faith. We will be a nation of Bill Mahar versus Bill O'Reilly, and belief that each other is the complete apostate. And as the Bill O'Reilly's win out, we will increasingly come to resemble a country that believes in Kings and Queens and dynasties, tests of loyalty and tests of faith, and fear of nuance and reason - whether these Kings and tests belong to one party or another - and we will no longer be a country of our founding fathers, but one representing everything we though the human race had left behind in times medieval.

One candidate in this election - Barack Obama - has consistently made the appeal that he speaks both the language of reason and of faith, and that his unique background and experience qualifies him to bridge this divide and begin to create a common culture once again, one that can encompass both experiences. The other candidate has shown his willingness to castigate reason and science in the question for just enough votes. If there is one key difference between these men that is worth remembering in this election - one key difference that underlies the difference as to were this country, at this most critical juncture, might go: to me, this is it.

It's a point that I don't want to be lost, or overshadowed, in our discussions about who gets the biggest tax break or who called whom a pig first. And one that I hope everyone who values reason carefully considers at election time.

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