Disrespecting Science


W.J. Astore

I grew up on science and the American space program.  My favorite character on “Star Trek” was Mr. Spock, the eminently logical Vulcan science officer.  I loved physics in high school and ended up majoring in mechanical engineering in college.  Later, I got advanced degrees in the history of science and technology, especially as these subjects relate to Christianity.

Suffice to say I have a deep respect and a fond affection for science.  That’s why it pains me to see the U.S. government taking positions against science, and specifically against global warming/climate change.

What disturbs me (among other things) is the denial of facts — the disparagement of science — by high officials in our government.  Denying global warming is like denying evidence of evolution.  People do the latter as a matter of faith — they take refuge in Creationism and Biblical literalism, partly because it’s easier, partly because they’re “true believers,” partly because they don’t trust experts, and partly because it’s flattering to their own self-image as being made in the image of God.  And there are certainly ministers within Christian sects who encourage their followers to reject science — it’s one way for these ministers to bolster their own authority.

The denial of the science of global warming is for some of the same reasons (it’s easier, lack of trust in experts) but largely due to capitalism and the desire for profit.  The ministers of capitalism are not about to cede authority to scientists, not on this issue at least.  There are trillions of dollars of fossil fuels still in the ground, and who wants to leave it there when there’s so much money to be made in extraction?  Damn the long-term costs to the environment and to vulnerable peoples worldwide — full speed ahead on short-term profits!

But as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, the global environment won’t be deterred by our denial of facts.  Environmental blowback is guaranteed — and will grow increasingly severe — as long as our government continues to ignore or downplay the high costs of burning fossil fuels.

In the aftermath of Sputnik and in the context of the Cold War, our government pushed science as a bulwark to democracy and freedom.  Now that same government is disrespecting science in the name of profitability and economic competitiveness.

As Mr. Spock might say, dissing science is not logical.  Nor will it end well for ourselves or our planet.

Creationism and Global Warming Denial in the USA — Updated

Creationism is bunk, though the idea of riding a dinosaur is cool
Creationism is bunk, though the idea of riding a dinosaur is cool

W.J. Astore

I grew up learning biology the old-fashioned way, i.e. by learning all about evolution and Charles Darwin.  I was also raised Catholic, where my priests explained to me that there was no conflict between evolutionary theories and Christianity.  The story of creation in Genesis, they explained to me, was meant to be read allegorically.  It wasn’t necessary to believe that God literally created the earth in six days, or that He created Adam from the dust of the earth or Eve from Adam’s rib.  What mattered as a Catholic was Christ’s two great commandments about loving God and thy neighbor.

The growing popularity of creationism and literal readings of the Genesis story sadden me.  Galileo taught us four centuries ago that the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.  Yet people want to invest the Bible with literal authority in all realms of life.  Should we start stoning adulterers again?

The growing popularity of creationism (and an aversion to challenging it) is an American version of Lysenkoism.  OK, creationism is not damaging crop yields, as Lysenkoism did in the Soviet Union.  And those who oppose creationism are not being exiled or imprisoned, as opponents of Lysenkoism were in Stalin’s time.

It’s true that creationism may not influence how real science is conducted in the U.S.  Yet at the same time, it does influence how science is taught in American schools, which is serious enough.  It also serves to discourage scientists from speaking out.  Aware of the highly politicized nature of debates about evolution, many scientists decide it is best to stay out of the public sphere.

But this reluctance to engage extends to issues that are far more pressing to our survival, most especially the issue of global warming/climate change.  Too many scientists, I believe, decide to remain above the fray.  They exempt themselves from public debate, which they see as too messy, too politicized, too time-consuming, and too demeaning.

By staying out of the public debate, scientists are making a political decision: they are ceding much of the public sphere to the evolution deniers (creationists) or global warming deniers.  Such deniers, whether they know it or not, are most definitely facilitating the interests of powerful corporate/state entities with trillions of dollars yet to make in the continued burning of fossil fuels.

Creationism is not real science, but it plays well with Biblical literalists and those who resent or who are afraid of intellectuals.  Global warming is real, but denying it plays well with those who have much to gain from our gas-guzzling lives of unbridled consumption.

Whether it’s creationism or global warming denial, the risk of politicized science in America is more serious to the earth’s ability to sustain life than Lysenkoism ever was.

Update (9/29/2013): The New York Times reports that more than 20 percent of the selection committee for biology textbooks in Texas consists of Creationists.  Texas, like California, is a huge market that drives textbook content for the remaining 48 states.  Those who are Creationists (and global warming deniers as well) say they simply want more “critical thinking.”  But the community of science is neither an encounter group nor a Bible study class.  There is overwhelming scientific evidence that life evolved on earth over billions of years, and also that human beings are contributing to global warming.  To question this on religious terms is to mix faith with fact.

I’d also point out that many evangelicals and Catholics in the past have had no trouble reconciling evolution with Christianity.  They are thoroughly reconcilable.  Today’s Creationist movement is about politics and power; it is not about evidence, and it is certainly not about science.  Nor is it really about faith, since evolution doesn’t threaten Christianity.

To paraphrase Spock, there is nothing logical about Creationism or global warming denial.  For an explanation, you must look to human emotions (distrust of elites), prideful ignorance (don’t you tell me what to believe), and the interests of those who have much to gain from acts of denial.