Books by Arthur

Social Networks
Article Index [A-Z]

Things to Fear: Engineered Ignorance

There’s a lot to be worried about these days. One’s specific concerns differ, not surprisingly, depending on factors such as race, gender, age, residence, education and income.

The anxieties and fears that have resonated with middle-aged and elderly, relatively uneducated working- and middle-class whites are those with xenophobic, sexist and racist overtones. These trepidations have been stoked by the right wing.

Others are exhibited by younger, better educated, multi-ethnic and racially mixed groups and include concerns with income inequality, gender identity, poverty and the country’s failing infrastructure. These anxieties have been pulled into the spotlight by the left wing.

Both groups, of course, also worry about each other and are anxious about what they perceive the future could be should “they” end up in power.

My deepest concerns are more focused. What I fear is the growing, systematic assault on science and critical thinking. It is a movement that starts with religion, dresses itself up as some ersatz science and, using a variety of rhetorical devices and linguistic tricks, ends up inserting theological principles based on Biblical literalism into science education.

A few straight-forward things to keep in mind as I lay my concerns out:

a. Evolution is a fact. It is not a theory. Darwin’s model of Natural Selection is the best theory of this fact and the one that has provided the best insights into the general principles of speciation. There is much that is not known and recent advances in epigenetics are both surprising and striking. But none of these new insights undercuts the fact of evolution.

b. The universe is 13.8 billion years old. Its emergence was the result of a rather extraordinary event known as the Big Bang. So far the theory of this event has proven to have considerable explanatory power. There’s a good deal that still remains to be learned. We don’t know where all the dark matter is. We are unclear about how quantum theory blends with the rest of physics. But that’s okay. That’s how science works and none of these remaining conundrums is a challenge to the Big Bang model.

c. The climate is changing. There are reasons why climates change but it is incontrovertible that the recent shifts in weather, species migrations and ocean currents are the result of human activity. We still don’t quite understand the role of ocean temperatures or the impact of a melting tundra. There are also issues with some of the models of warming but these are part of normal science. None call into question the reality of climate change.

In fact, all three principles are unquestioned in science. Evolution is the guiding principle behind all the life sciences. All of biology, physiology, medicine, genetics, psychology and the other social sciences rides on the scientific foundation of evolution. To deny this reality takes a staggering amount of theological hubris and/or a willful ignorance.

The age of the universe is known for a certainty. Its emergence is explained effectively by the mathematics of the Big Bang. All of astrophysics, astronomy, planetary science and cosmology is based on this theory. It requires a childlike closing of eyes and ears to not grasp this.

The changes in the planet’s climate over the past half-century have been so compelling that there is no coherent explanation for it other than it is the result of the build-up of greenhouse gases caused by human activity.

Yet, for reasons that escape a simple analysis, all three of these incontrovertible, foundational principles of modern science have been in the cross-hairs of conservative politicians and fundamentalist Christians.[1] Despite the fact that they are universally accepted by science and, despite their seeming independence from each other, they have been clumped together into an awkward assemblage of “things that must be stopped.” How this happened is an intriguing and depressing tale.

It began with attacks on evolution. While there’s a long history here (back to Scopes in the 1920’s), it’s the recent moves from Fundamentalists that are worrisome. According to the National Center for Science Education, over 65 bills have been offered in over twenty states to compel the teaching of one or another version of creationism as somehow scientifically equivalent to evolution.

A recent article in Science by evolutionary biologist Nicholas Matzke outlines these efforts. Amusingly, he uses a standard model of evolution to show how each these efforts can be seen as the intellectual progeny of earlier efforts beginning with ones based on Biblical literalism. As Matzke notes, these earlier incarnations couldn’t withstand 1st Amendment scrutiny because they blatantly violated the Establishment Clause.

He charts the efforts to slip under the Constitutionalist’s radar. The first was the effort to disguise the theological components by rebranding “Creationism” as “Creation Science.” When that failed judicial muster, they tried re-clothing it as “Intelligent Design” and inserted it into bills offered under the rubric “Academic Freedom Acts” (AFA).

These had some impact on state legislatures and school boards but ultimately were unmasked. The theological, Christian roots were just too obvious to be overlooked by judges with more respect for the Constitution than the Bible. The AFA’s were too transparently stealth creationism to survive.

The serious problems, the ones that now worry me, emerged with a very clever wording of an obscure piece of legislation introduced in the Ouachita Parish in Louisiana in 2008. The bill was called a “Science Education Act” (SEA). It used language borrowed from earlier AFAs that focused on alternative models of speciation (i.e., Creationism dressed up as Intelligent Design) but rather than limiting its scope to biological theory, it included the creation of the universe, its age, size and make-up, climate change and the issue of global warming and directed that all shall be part of a “critical” school curriculum.

Do not, for one second, think that this bill was designed to teach critical thinking in these areas. It was a cleverly written piece of legislation that provided a new umbrella under which to teach Biblical literalism, deny the standard model of the universe and undercut understanding of the science and empirical data base for climate change.

The Ouachita bill was pounced on by Christian conservatives and anti-science legislators and is now the basis for all new bills. Legislators in Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Missouri have all introduced bills based on the Ouachita’s SEA.

Will these pass muster? Will the theological fingerprints alert courts to declare them unconstitutional? Will their anti-science bias be sufficient for them to lose support? I don’t know but this movement is gaining ground and scares the hell outta me.

I’m not naive. I’m concerned about terrorism. I worry about immigration issues. I’m disturbed by the power of money, the unscrupulous banksters, the 1%’ers, the Trumps and Cruzes posing as serious candidates for the presidency. But none of these troubles me as much as the concerted effort to degrade the educational system, to teach transparently theological beliefs as though they belonged on the same page as established scientific models, to dumb-down our students, to push them into acceptance of out-moded tradition and scripture, to turn them into mere vessels into which bankrupt ideas and beliefs can be poured and will be accepted because the real goals of science, critical thinking and rational analysis, have been stripped from the curriculum.

We survived Bush/Cheney (barely). We might survive a Trump or a Cruz presidency. But we will not survive ignorance, especially an engineered ignorance driven by theology and fostered by a major political party. The folks pushing this agenda are all Republicans. No state with a Democratic majority has introduced an SEA. The GOP has become a party of fools.


[1] It’s worth noting that this assault on science is peculiarly American. Educated Europeans, Asians, Canadians and the rest of the developed world look at us in bewilderment. If you’re anywhere but in the US you have to look far and wide to find a Biblical literalist or climate change denialist. Alas, among the dozen or so Republicans running for the presidential nomination all are campaigning on a platform of ignorance — with the possible exception of Kasich.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>