American Unreason

The anti-science rhetoric by the political establishment in the US is worrying.

As I write this article the Chairman of the Nobel Foundation, Dr. Magnus Storch, has just finished his introduction speech for the 2011 Nobel Ceremony in Stockholm. In his speech Storch stressed the importance of the values Alfred Nobel manifested in his will more than a Century ago: The importance of science for improving the human condition combined with inspiration from the humanities and the struggle for world peace. In the face of the grand challenges of today, including the current sovereign debt crisis, Storch stressed that we really need the contributions of science more than ever. Not surprisingly his message went down really well among the enthusiastic audience of Believers in Reason, for the occasion in full evening dress.

As I watched the handful of proud scientists-Laureates – survivors of decades of harsh academic scrutiny – I was reminded of a 2005 article in the New Your Times about a geologist digging into the Grand Canyon to prove the “Young Earth” theory: “Geologists date this sandstone to 550 million years ago and explain the folding as a result of pressure from shifting faults underneath. But to Mr. Vail, the folds suggest the Grand Canyon was carved 4,500 years ago by the great global flood described in Genesis as God’s punishment for humanity’s sin.”

Already at that time NYT reported that almost 1/2 of Americans think God created human beings “pretty much in their present form” within the last 10,000 years. More disturbing is that the same study found that 5% of scientists adopted the “Young Earth” view. As far as I know, these numbers have not diminished. Religious discourse in places of worship and at the departments of theology is one thing but replacing reason with religion is another.

I am not alone in having these concerns. As a longtime subscriber of Scientific American I have noted a growing sense of alarm among its editors and columnists about the recent anti-science tone and rhetoric of the US political establishment.  Authors in similar eminent scientific journals also debate what they perceived to be a clear and present danger of growing American Unreason. This is a worrying tendency not only for America but for the entire world.

The Enlightened US

The American researchers who have received the ultimate Nobel prize from the hand of the Swedish King is a tribute to their nation’s founding ideas of Enlightenment, the great European cultural and intellectual movement of the 18th Century that sought to advance knowledge and improve society.

France was the center of the early Enlightenment movement with hundreds of scholars like Diderot, Voltaire and Rosseau all challenging the unreason of their time. For example, the very idea that Diderot’s pioneering Encyclopédie (1751-1772) claimed to contain all knowledge of the time and that the 35 volumes sold more than an astonishing 25,000 copies of which half outside of France created fertile grounds for the pursuit of more science and reason.

The Enlightenment ideas clearly inspired Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers of America to build their new and free society on reason instead of the unreason of religious dogma and hereditary succession of monarchs-tyrants (see Thomas Paines’ famous pamphlet Common Sense from 1776).  The American Constitution and the French Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen manifests the political philosophy of the ideals of the Enlightenment. In contrast to Mr. Vail’s crusade in The Grand Canyon those ideas of reason also encouraged a new wave of more or less religious-free scientific discoveries and developments across the disciplines.

In modern times the great American nation has been the natural leader of enlightened research, education and innovation as demonstrated by the 2011 Nobel Prize winners and it still is. The US has welcomed and developed the best minds in the world, invested heavily in research and education, generated unparalleled ingenuity and entrepreneurship. Even today the US remain the world’s powerhouse of research, education and innovation in terms of ranking of universities, number of Nobel Prizes, attractiveness to students from across the planet, patent generated, entrepreneurship and the like.

Have the lights gone out?

When the NYT journalist mentioned to “creation-geologist” Mr. Vail that 80% of Christians walk away from their faith when studying science he throws a stick into the sand in frustration and exclaims that “we’re raising a generation of confused children, and it’s the public schools that are doing it!” As a reminder: this was in 2005, not in 1776. And it seems that a large portion of the US population today think he has a point.

It is precisely in view of its grand history that it is so sad to observe the decline of the values, assumptions and rhetoric of the Enlightenment among American decision makers. Many prominent Republicans, for instance, are well-known to seed suspicion about the research showing human causes of global warming and in other ways let ideology or religion trump scientific evidence.

Poisonous claims about matters of science by ignorant politicians surface all the time and everywhere and no political party has a monopoly on such unscientific thinking and dogma. For instance, when presidential candidate Michele Bachman (the Tea Party person) claimed that the HPV vaccine was a “very dangerous drug” that could lead to mental retardation, even some of her arch-conservative Republican peers criticized her. But what is worrying is that in their quest to win votes among the growing mass of science deniers, prominent American politicians place anecdotes over scientific evidence and sometimes even portray scientists as the perpetrators misinformation, like in the case of global warming.

Unfortunately, American politicians frequently use religion as a warrant to justify more unreason. Constrast Nobel Chairman Storch’s message about the need for science with the latest video ad by US presidential candidate Rick Perry’s (R), Strong, uploaded to YouTube only a week earlier. Perry’s main message is that President Obama is waging a “war on religion” and that “faith makes us stronger”. This 30 seconds video illustrates the growing religious dogma among the conservative American political class, which unfortunately is coupled with unscientific thinking, tone and action. But there is hope: of 4.7 million hits on Perry’s YouTube video (10 December) 33 times more people dislike than like it. I am not sure, however, if that high ratio of dislike reflects the science-denying portion of the US population.

By any measure, Parry’s statement – a possible next leader of the world’s only superpower – seems far from the Enlightenment ideal of his nation’s Founding Fathers. Free exercise of religion is one thing, but as Thomas Jefferson pointed out more than two Centuries ago, government must be neutral among religions and non-religion, which is also the spirit of the first amendment of the US constitution.

Perry is not alone to bring faith to the forefront of political debate in the US and probably he will probably not be the last in an increasingly religious America, in an increasingly religious world. Just recall how George W. Bush said that he received “prompts” from God about what to do and that he claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Also recall that he pushed through legislation to make it more difficult to pursue stem cell research.

Faith-based Universities?

A few years ago I attended a Harvard program for new university presidents and found myself as one of the token foreigners. I was awe-struck by the apparent role of “faith-based” institutions of higher education in America. The Islamic madrasah is a well-known faith-based school system by which students mostly learn how to memorize the Qur’an. But to have faith as the foundation for education in general, but especially in higher education, was more than I expected.  This even in view of the strong religious heritage from the 102 pilgrim-immigrants on the Mayflower in 1620, who undertook the voyage to escape religious persecution in England.

It was soon apparent that I had very little in common with the challenges facing the Deans of those institutions and they received different “prompts” than I and from very different sources. Although faith-based higher education might be innocent enough in the beginning, what stops it from extending into, let’s say, faith-based research (like that of Mr. Vail), faith-based academic titles and journals, faith-based evaluation of faculty and research outcomes or faith-based innovation? If policies and practices of science and education are based on faith more than the ideal of the Enlightenment of the US, the pluralistic world has a good reason to be concerned.

Oxford professor in evolutionary biology and renowned science author Richard Dawkins has often confronted the influence of religion on society and debated why science is fundamentally different from religion. In short, his argument is that “…science is based upon verifiable evidence. Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops.” Controversional columnist, literary critic, author and “anti-theist,” the late Christopher Hitchens was harsher in his critique of the influence of religion on society, summed up as “religion poisons everything.”

It is tempting to dismiss Vail’s, Parry’s and Bachman’s statements as shouting “blind faith” from the “rooftop” to science-denying believers and assuming that, if they come to power, nothing would really change. But that would be a disservice to science. Science and religion will typically have different answers to epistemological and ontological questions (What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? How do we know what we know? What categories of being exist?) Science and religion will, to paraphrase President W. Bush, also give us different “prompts” about what to do, which may result in real decisions that impact real people.

Perhaps it is my pluralistic Scandinavian roots that makes me prefer the peaceful coexistence of science with different interests, convictions and lifestyles over what Perry, Bachman et al. are metaphorically shouting from their rooftops. As a scholar and leader in academia I am uncomfortable with mixing legitimate activities of no-matter-what religion with science, education (theology exempted) and innovation. Perhaps it is my training in scientific methods and scholarly dialogue that make me weary when Non-Reason is spread within the very institutions that are tasked with the advancement of Reason and Enlightenment. Like Professor Dawkins, and unlike Faith-Based Geologist Vail, I see very little connection between religion and research in today’s enlightened societies.

Have Faith in Reason

Many Americans may be listening to the anti-science and religious unreason spread by Parry, Bachman and others. However, the US remains a wonderfully cosmopolitan melting pot of brain power and resources that are needed in the pursuit of science, education and innovation. I am convinced this will remain so for decades.  In contrast with the nationalism and chauvinism that is weakening other nations, and despite the increasing anti-science tone of presidential candidates, the US remains a beacon of reason in the world, for now.

In his notorious video, Parry said that “faith made America strong” and that he assures that it will make her strong again. I question his premise. Science, technology and the ideal of Liberal Arts made America strong and that cocktail of reason can make her even stronger. To deflect the shouts of unreason from the rooftops, scientists and leaders of science need to cultivate allies across the political and religious spectrum and help keep the public debate informed and factual, especially in America.

A century ago, Alfred Nobel stressed the importance of science, the humanities and peace for improving the human condition. His endowment has enabled the ultimate price in physics, chemistry, medicine/physiology, literature and for efforts to make the world a more peaceful place. A century later, Science and Reason continue to beat Blind Faith and Unreason as the most innovative, effective and responsible way to improve the human condition. Let’s hold the course.

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