Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Evolution & Republicans' Assault on Reason

A long time ago in a career far far away, I taught high school science - which leads me to especially appreciate a column in today's New York Times by Olivia Judson entitled "Optimism in Evolution."

There's a true wonder to science -to trying to understand and to reason why things work, grow or develop the way they do. As Judson says, "the most important thing about studying evolution is something less tangible. It’s that the endeavor contains a profound optimism. It means that when we encounter something in nature that is complicated or mysterious, such as the flagellum of a bacteria or the light made by a firefly, we don’t have to shrug our shoulders in bewilderment.

"Instead, we can ask how it got to be that way. And if at first it seems so complicated that the evolutionary steps are hard to work out, we have an invitation to imagine, to play, to experiment and explore. To my mind, this only enhances the wonder."

Nicely stated. Not all are so curious, though, as Judson also points out in explaining another more philosophical reason for teaching evolution: "It concerns the development of an attitude toward evidence. In his book, 'The Republican War on Science,' the journalist Chris Mooney argues persuasively that a contempt for scientific evidence — or indeed, evidence of any kind — has permeated the Bush administration’s policies, from climate change to sex education, from drilling for oil to the war in Iraq. A dismissal of evolution is an integral part of this general attitude.

"Moreover, since the science classroom is where a contempt for evidence is often first encountered, it is also arguably where it first begins to be cultivated. A society where ideology is a substitute for evidence can go badly awry. (This is not to suggest that science is never distorted by the ideological left; it sometimes is, and the results are no better.)"

Dismissal of reason among groups of Americans is nothing new - back in the mid-1800s, for example, there was a nativist political group that gained traction for several years known as the "Know Nothings," whose philosophy is remembered by Paul Krugman as "the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise, ... [and whose slogan might have been]: "Real men don’t think things through." By and large, to America's great credit, in that case and throughout American history, the Enlightenment principles of reason and science have eventually prevailed against such movements.

The current Republican anti-intellectualist War on Science is no different - it must be fought and repelled by Reason.