We live a world of unparalleled scientific innovation; it’s a good thing, too, because we are wholly dependent on the scientific process to resolve the issues related to feeding the 7 billion people on the planet without destroying the earth in the process. Despite the crisis confronting us, political discourse in the United States in the last decade has seen a reactionary pullback from science and reason, as manifested in the decline of science journalism and the prideful ignorance of scientific facts by certain elected officials. This problem is artfully described in Shawn Lawrence Otto’s recent book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America (Rodale Books 2011).
Otto describes the peculiar ghettoization of science in American journalism, whereby the policy implications of scientific issues are simply not reported in the way that the effects of business and economy are. Science has earned a sort of taboo status in American discourse, creating a kind of “dumbing down” of scientific issues in the public sphere. Religion falls into this vacuum, and, as a result, a false dichotomy has presented itself between science and religion. This may be best evidenced by Rick Perry’s August 18, 2011 response to a New Hampshire child who asked him if he believed in evolution: “It’s a theory that’s out there. It’s got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both Creationism and evolution.”
One of the leading contenders for President publically expressed doubts as to the veracity of the scientific theory which is the foundation of modern medicine and biology. Remarkably, Governor Perry’s has not been criticized for this response, as it is always placed on one side of a journalistic scale which measures only a false balance. That is, it is assumed that that there are two sides to every story, each of which are equally valid and the truth must lie somewhere in between. Such a system of measurement with no fixed points has no place for a position which is simply wrong. One might just as easily say, “Pythagoras believed that a2 + b2 = c2. Governor Perry believes there are gaps in this theory. The controversy rages on.”
The science supporting climate change has been the victim of this false balance analysis. Rhetorical, political arguments portrayed as science have been posited to challenge the accepted view of mainstream science that climate change is manmade. Thus, global warming deniers have been able to present phony science as a legitimate alternative to genuine scientific facts, controlling the debate and stifling any meaningful political action in support of a climate change “theory” which — like evolution — has been “challenged” and is not “accepted.”
Otto’s solution to the crisis calls for a more vigorous scientific discourse but not much more. In my view, we need our leaders to call out the fraud that is being perpetrated by those who seek to deny fundamental scientific facts. If you don’t believe evolution has been proven, how can you lead a 21st century economy predicated on technological innovation?
Taboos are broken by moral leaders who refuse to stay silent in the face of injustice. One needs to come forward. We need this not to move forward in scientific discourse, but to stop the slide backward.