2008 Elections: Implications for Science
and Critical Thinking
“Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told ministry students at her former church that the United States sent troops to fight in the Iraq war on a 'task that is from God.'
In an address last June, the Republican vice presidential candidate also urged ministry students to pray for a plan to build a $30 billion natural gas pipeline in the state, calling it 'God's will.’” Associated Press, September 3, 2008
For all those hoping against hope that the attacks on science, critical thinking, and rational thought were going to end with Bush, the Republican party made it clear enough where it stands on that question when it brought forward the nomination of Sarah Palin. Palin called in the past for teaching creationism in science classes in public schools (though more recently has been cautious in stating what she thinks.) She is an abortion opponent, an advocate of the view that life begins at conception, and an opponent of most birth control. As small town mayor in Alaska, she raised whether it would be possible to ban books from the town library, and tried to fire the town librarian who refused to go along.
And it isn’t just the Republican Party. Palin’s “pit bull” speech at the convention was met with praise from much of the media. And it is rare indeed to even find commentary in the mainstream media about what these developments mean for science – and even rarer to find mention of what they mean for the broader public’s grasp of science and critical thinking.
The Palin nomination is bad enough. But it follows in the wake of ominous earlier developments in the campaign. If you go back to the very first Republican presidential debate, nearly a year and a half ago, when there were still 8 candidates considered contenders, one of the reporters asked the candidates whether they believed in evolution. Three of the Republicans said they did not believe in evolution. McCain at the time responded to the question by saying he did believe in evolution (though he quickly added “I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.”) But within a few weeks, his campaign put out that it was up to each state to decide whether science was going to be taught in science classes, or whether religion would be taught, in one form or another of creationism. This is a fundamental violation of the separation of church and state, goes against a series of major court decisions, and it constitutes abuse of the children who are denied an understanding of science and who get religion forced into their heads in schools. Yet there was no furor in the campaign – no speeches by Democrats even mentioning this - or even any discussion at all in the mainstream press – of any of this.
To get at this from another angle, consider what happened to Science Debate 2008, an initiative which set out to mobilize the scientific community to back a call for the candidates simply to debate some important scientific questions – questions like global warming, where nothing less than the fate of the planet is at stake (see the Science Debate 2008 website for more). (Really pivotal questions like the teaching of evolution – which gets at the core of what is being fought out in this society around science – were unfortunately not even included in Science Debate 2008’s proposal.) Science Debate 2008 gathered the support of huge sections of the scientific community – including the National Academy of Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 200 major universities, magazines like Scientific American.
The candidates (aided by most of the press), essentially ignored this call, did not participate, and did not change what they were saying about these questions (which was almost nothing at all). Physicist Bob Parks captured some of the outrage among a section of scientists in his weekly email:
“The National Academies, the Council for Competitiveness and the AAAS had agreed to serve as official cosponsors; the plan was endorsed by all major research universities and scientific societies. However, in a world faced with the threat of global warming, dwindling fossil fuel, continuous warfare, disease and starvation on the rise in Africa, spiraling food prices world wide, the candidates must focus on "solutions." They have therefore chosen to attend ‘The Compassion Forum’ instead, a ‘wide ranging and probing discussion of policies related to moral issues.’ It will be held at Messiah College somewhere in central Pennsylvania. Founded by the Brethren in Christ Church in 1909; Messiah’s motto is ‘Christ Preeminent.’ It has not been decided whether the candidates will remain on their knees during the debate.”
(Barack Obama has recently responded on-line to a series of questions posed by Science Debate 2008, and apparently John McCain has agreed to respond as well. Assessing Obama’s answers is beyond the scope of this commentary. But these answers are posted on a website visited by friends of science. In public forums and in the major press, the press has not raised and neither candidate has raised any substantive criticism of the Bush regime’s 8 years of assault on scientific and critical thinking. Instead, we have the Palin nomination – after 8 years of Bush’s ‘the verdict is still out on evolution’, we now have Palin’s embrace of creationism.)
One more sign of the seriousness of all of this was the strange “discussion” involving McCain and Obama orchestrated by Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church. Despite the fact that this was barely about science per se at all, what stood out again was the degree to which Christian fundamentalism continues to set terms for national debate and discussion, including how and whether questions of science are raised. And it is alarming that Barack Obama contributed to this by participating. His general approach of “seeking unity” and “transcending divisions” is leading him to seek to unite with both the fervent enemies of scientific thinking and its friends; to both embrace theocrats and uphold the separation of church and state at the same time. This “ unity” is ultimately impossible; it does not lead to strengthening scientific understanding among the people; it is not what is needed in a time when powerful forces continue to attack science.
What seems clear is there will continue to be a need for greatly heightened resistance to the whole assault on the Enlightenment and on reason and science. In relation to science, the conclusion of the Defend Science Statement captures an important starting point for this:
"We must refuse to accept a situation where scientific inquiry is blocked or its findings ruled out of order unless they conform to the goals of the government, to corporate interests and to the ideology of religious fundamentalists; where dogma enforced by governmental and religious authority takes the place of science; where the scientific approach of seeking natural explanations for natural phenomena is suppressed. We must insist on an atmosphere where scientists are allowed to seek the truth, even when the truth conflicts with the views and policies of those in power, and where the scientific spirit is fostered, where science education and the popularization of the scientific method are valued, where people are encouraged to pursue an understanding of how and why things are the way they are; where all that has been learned by humanity so far, all that has repeatedly been tested and found to be true, serves as the starting point for further investigation of reality."
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