So the science websites and blogs that I frequent were wringing their hands about the decision by the Kansas Board of Education to lower science standards and cast doubt on the theory of evolution in the state’s science curriculum. It was widely perceived as a victory for the intelligent design faction of the religious right and as a further blow against science in this country.
Just what is the matter with Kansas? Why are we having this turmoil in science education across the nation? The answer lies in an Esquire article I read last week; we are living in Idiot America. Our country has become a nation where intelligence is suspect and expertise in a subject is cause for scorn by the prattling pundits of popular opinion.
The Great Premises of Idiot America. We hold these truths to be self-evident:
- Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
- Anything can be true if somebody says it on television.
- Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
How does it work? This is how it works. On August 21, a newspaper account of the “intelligent design” movement contained this remarkable sentence: “They have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin’s defenders firmly on the defensive.”
A “politically savvy challenge to evolution” is as self-evidently ridiculous as an agriculturally savvy challenge to euclidean geometry would be. It makes as much sense as conducting a Gallup poll on gravity or running someone for president on the Alchemy Party ticket. It doesn’t matter what percentage of people believe they ought to be able to flap their arms and fly, none of them can. It doesn’t matter how many votes your candidate got, he’s not going to turn lead into gold. The sentence is so arrantly foolish that the only real news in it is where it appeared.
On the front page.
Of The New York Times .
Greetings from Idiot America is a powerful article, and I suggest everyone take the time to read it in its entirety. It is rather depressing to realize that we live in a country that is forsaking the scientific goals of the enlightenment for a ‘faith-based’ popular culture suffused with violence and a celebration of ignorance. The Esquire article extensively quotes MIT professor Kip Hodges on his experiences around the world. “Even in the developing world, where I spend lots of time doing my work,” Hodges says, “if you tell them that you’re from MIT and you tell them that you do science, it’s a big deal. If I go to India and tell them I’m from MIT, it’s a big deal. In Thailand, it’s a big deal. If I go to Iowa, they could give a rat’s ass. And that’s a weird thing, that we’re moving in that direction as a nation.”
It is a long way from Jefferson’s observatory and Franklin’s kite to George W. Bush, in an interview in 2005, suggesting that intelligent design be taught alongside the theory of evolution in the nation’s science classes. “Both sides ought to be properly taught,” said the president, “so people can understand what the debate is about.”
The “debate,” of course, is nothing of the sort, because two sides are required for a debate. Nevertheless, the very notion of it is a measure of how scientific discourse, and the way the country educates itself, has slipped through lassitude and inattention across the border into Idiot America—where fact is merely that which enough people believe, and truth is measured only by how fervently they believe it.
If we have abdicated our birthright to scientific progress, we have done so by moving the debate into the realm of political and cultural argument, where we all feel more confident, because it is there that the Gut rules. Held to this standard, any scientific theory is rendered mere opinion. Scientific fact is no more immutable than a polling sample. This is how there’s a “debate” over the very existence of global warming, even though the preponderance of fact among those who actually have studied the phenomenon renders the “debate” quite silly. The debate is about making people feel better about driving SUVs. The debate is less about climatology than it is about guiltlessly topping off your tank and voting in tax incentives for oil companies.
The rest of the world looks on in cockeyed wonder. The America of Franklin and Edison, of Fulton and Ford, of the Manhattan project and the Apollo program, the America of which Einstein wanted to be a part, seems to be enveloping itself in a curious fog behind which it’s tying itself in knots over evolution, for pity’s sake, and over the relative humanity of blastocysts versus the victims of Parkinson’s disease.
Well, now I’ve gone and bummed myself out on a Sunday morning. Let me close this little post by suggesting everybody take the time to read Albert Einstein’s speech on science and religion, and hopefully take heed of his suggestions for a peaceful coexistence between fact and faith.