Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ignorance: the Bane of Innovation

By Keith McDowell

EVACUATE! The dreaded message popped up on the computer screen only moments before the power went out, forcing my son to grab a computer gone dead and head for his car. The computer marked the final item in our attempts on the 4th of September to take valued possessions with us as we fled the firestorm growing by the second and rampaging near the entrance to the Steiner Ranch subdivision in Austin, Texas. We had no choice but to obey the order. Being trapped by a raging wildfire potentially blocking the only way out, other than a swim across Lake Austin, wasn’t the most innovative idea on how to spend a Labor Day weekend. Ultimately, Mother Nature did her worst as winds gusting at better than forty miles per hour drove the flames to destroy 23 homes and seriously damage 3 others. We were lucky. Many were not.

Fire has always played a major role in the daily lives of people – both as a source of energy and as a destroyer of property. Coupled with earth, air, and water, it served for centuries as one of the four elements comprising a theory of the universe. Yet, one has to wonder if early caveman thought of the concept of fire as “just a theory” as he watched wildfires consume the savannah that provided his essential needs.

Even today, the power of the four mystical elements captures our attention in movies and books such as The Fifth Element and Angels and Demons. Dan Brown in particular drove home the classic struggle between reason and faith as the Illuminati plotted against the Catholic Church. Of course, obeisance to such ancient thinking is all in jest since humankind has long since left the 15th century behind and passed through the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment and Reason. We now live in the information age with science, technology, engineering, and math coupled to data-driven analysis from economics, sociology, history, psychology and many other fields paving the path for an era of innovation and enlightened leadership as America competes in a rational global society … or do we?

Global warming driven by human factors is “just a theory” according to Texas Governor Rick Perry, the current leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination. Facts and data don’t matter to him. After all, they’ve been manipulated by scientists to attract research grants. The fact that June, July, and August in Texas were the hottest months ever for any state in the United States with respect to average temperature as well as breaking records for the most days hotter than a hundred degrees is just an inconvenient fluctuation. The fact that Texas is on fire with a land mass larger than the State of Connecticut having been burned this year is just an aberration. The fact that the drought in Texas has cost farmers more than $5 billion is simply an act of God and one that we should pray about at a mass meeting in Houston. Yes, we all understand that local weather is not the same as climate change, but they are linked and Texas as well as the rest of the Nation is clearly displaying this year the pattern of large-scale weather deviations predicted by global warming. And then we have evolution – also “just a theory” according to Perry.

But Perry is not alone in his anti-science stance and views. Indeed, according to Paul Krugman in his article Republicans Against Science from The New York Times, such anti-science, anti-intellectual, and anti-knowledge views are pervasive in the core right wing of the GOP – a core made up of cold-war warriors and neo-conservatives still searching for “commies” on every corner including our research universities, evangelicals confused and misled about faith versus reason, pro-life advocates who support selective government intervention matching up to their particular religious beliefs, tea-party members supporting no taxes and no government, and right-wing pundits who claim to be Americans but actually support anarchy and “just say no” to anything progressive. When and why did it become so fashionable for “deniers” of science or data-driven knowledge to take center stage?

John Atcheson is his excellent review entitled A Review of the Must-Read “Inquisition of Climate Science provides us with one answer speaking specifically about global warming: “the reason deniers rail against the science is because they hate the solution: government intervention in the marketplace.” Personally, I believe the answer is much more deep-seated and much more than one driven by economics. It’s a visceral dislike of those “uppity” intellectuals – likely to be liberals, socialists, atheists, and non-believers according to the mantra – and a dislike of new ideas and change – hence, the anti-intellectual and anti-knowledge flavor of the denier movement. While sometimes rooted in religion, the denier movement is not fundamentally a battle between faith and reason. Instead, it is exploitation of religion and people of faith by the deniers for political and economic gain. President Jimmy Carter in his book Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis spoke eloquently to this point.

But just as surely as the biosphere of Planet Earth including humankind will continue to evolve and just as surely as the effects of global warming will be manifested in more dramatic weather events – including firestorms and drought in Texas, the inexorable march of scientific observation, experiment, and data collection as well as scholarly activity in other fields will reveal new truth and new knowledge. As James Lawrence Powell stated in his book, The Inquisition of Climate Science:

Most professions can be no better than their individual practitioners, but Science is far better than scientists. It is the best system we have for getting beyond human frailty and folly to the truth.

Sadly, the “deniers” haven’t stopped with simple denial of truth or proven knowledge through claims of it’s “just a theory” and other such gimmicks. They’ve adapted the trappings of science and created “scientific theories” such as “intelligent design” as a counterpoint to the theory of evolution. Governor Perry takes great pride in claiming that intelligent design is taught to students in Texas in just this manner. [His claim is false!] Don’t get me wrong! If anyone wants to believe that God (the intelligent designer) created the universe as a matter of faith, so bit it. But, it’s not science and it’s not proven truth. Even one of the most conservative of religions and the slowest to change, Catholicism, doesn’t normally advocate denial of scientific knowledge and facts discovered in the modern world.

Of course, when bogus or easily disproved theories don’t win the day, “deniers” take the ultimate step. They attack our educational institutions and our teachers and researchers. Quoting from an article entitled Attacks on Science Education Intensify by Chris Mooney, they “accuse ‘liberal’ teachers of forcing ‘beliefs’ upon a captive audience of impressionable children.” The Mooney article is a summary of a report appearing in Science magazine “on the state of affairs out there in this place called America, and it’s ugly.” How ugly? He’s what Jeffrey Barke says about our classroom teachers and global warming:

Most teachers are left to center, and if we leave it to teachers to impose their liberal views, then it would make for an unbalanced lesson. Some people believe that global warming is a crock of crap, and others are zealots.

Is this an enlightened America ripe for innovation? And how about the Americans for Prosperity Foundation who want to end “frivolous” research projects at our modern research universities? Of course, they’ll use their own version of common sense and a gut feeling to decide what is frivolous.

As Mooney points out in his article, the deniers want to educate – and I use this word with tongue in cheek – a new generation of politically dysfunctional citizens unable to compromise or find a real solution for America with respect to global competition. The “whatever” generation is about to be replaced by the “don’t think; just shout!” generation.

Do we really want to return to the Dark Ages in America and dim the light bulb of innovation? Are we really prepared to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? As Atcheson states in his article:

If we don’t reassert the primacy of the scientific method and the knowledge that it creates, we will soon be a country with the best 15th century alchemists and healers – and the kind of economy that implies.

When I was growing up in North Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s, we had a word to describe the behavior of “deniers” and the state of affairs that we now find ourselves embroiled in. It was the one thing that all parents tried to overcome in their children through education. It was the other “i” word. It was called ignorance. 

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