Monday, August 29, 2011

Whose Moral Authority?

After a long hiatus I am back to blogging. I hope to keep up a steady rate of writing, on the order of one a week, perhaps more often. Since I last wrote a blog, a great deal has happened in the world of science and politics. What does not seem to have changed is the rate of clashes between a scientifically oriented view of the physical world and perspectives that see nature through the lenses of religiosity, a political perspective or some other form of anti-intellectual outlook. These alternative takes the physical world sometimes pay lip service to science, but deny science’s capacity to speak with authority on matters that present a challenge to preconceptions.

This seemingly perennial impasse is well illustrated by what Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, an announced candidate for the Republican nomination for US president in the 2012 election, had to say in response to questions from a woman and her son during a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire, as reported in the Huffington Post and elsewhere:
"How old do I think the earth is? You know what, I don't have any idea," said the Texas governor when asked about his position. "I know it's pretty old so it goes back a long long way. I'm not sure anybody actually knows completely and absolutely how long, how old the earth is." He went on to say that he regarded evolution as "a theory that's out there" and one that's "got some gaps in it." He added that in the Lone Star State both creationism and evolution are taught to students in public schools. He explained, "I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right."
The Texas Tribune expressed disquiet about Perry’s response to the evolution question, pointing out that the state of Texas has no specific curriculum entry for the teaching of creationism, and that in any case the Supreme Court in 1987 made it illegal to teach creationism in public schools, on the grounds that it would be equivalent to teaching religion. Perry may in fact have correctly stated what is actually taught in Texas schools; classroom practices are, after all, largely in the hands of the teachers. What is more important is what Perry’s responses reveal about his lack of basic scientific knowledge and his disregard for that lack in shaping his public persona. A further illustration of this is contained in remarks he made at a breakfast address before business leaders in New Hampshire, as reported in the Huffington Post and elsewhere. Asked about global warming he indicated that he did not believe in it, and referred to the idea as a scientific theory that has not been proven. He would not spend public funds in further research on the matter, or in mitigation of it: "I don't think from my perspective that I want to be engaged in spending that much money on still a scientific theory that has not been proven and from my perspective is more and more being put into question." He is also quoted as saying, "I think we're seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists that are coming forward and questioning the original idea that manmade global warming is what is causing the climate to change." Paul Krugman made several effective rebuttals to Perry’s absurd and false statements in a recent Op-ed. He attributes them to pandering to the no-nothing branch of the Republican party. However, as Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post, Perry may be pushing his luck on this topic. While mitigation of climate change through governmental actions may be a losing battle for those who want strong global responses to the threat, the idea that global warming exists is one of those memes that has gone viral, as it were. Outside a narrowing range of public opinion, it is becoming decidedly uncool to maintain that global warming is a myth.

To judge from the public record, Rick Perry’s brain is the domicile of many crazy ideas on a variety of subjects. We could search long and hard to uncover just what sources of authority he draws upon in arriving at his worldview, but there is little point in doing that. More importantly, Perry is not just any ignoramus; he’s a public figure with a strong record of running for elective office, who is now receiving a lot of attention on the national stage. A recent Texan predecessor, George W, spoke in a similar style of mangled syntax and lack of understanding of the history and operation of the physical world, and look where he ended up! What matters for the public good is that Perry’s misstatements about nature and the world of science, fitted to his ultraconservative ideology and the interests of his backers, lead to false claims being presented, for the moment at least, to large audiences . To the extent that Perry is seen as a viable candidate his positions on issues that should be discussed and decided upon with consideration for their scientific basis do matter.

Within a limited sphere there is room for optimism for a more influential role for science in forming public policy and governmental action. The Obama administration has been more progressive than its predecessor in promoting science and technology in both the areas of human resources and industrial R and D. For example, a big bet is being made on development and manufacture of advanced batteries, as reported recently in the New York Times. But at a deeper level, a real shift in the attitudes of ordinary citizens toward a rational scientific outlook, and away from reliance on superstition and demagoguery, eludes us. How could this be brought about? I’m sure that an answer is out there awaiting discovery. It may require capitalizing in some as-yet unrealized way on the ever-increasing presence of social networking and the sources of information that feed it. Whatever their origins and channels of delivery, society needs pervasive and reliable sources of epistemic and moral authority in matters regarding the natural world as effective alternatives to the narrow-minded, ultraconservative rhetoric that seems to dominate contemporary political discourse. In the contests for people’s hearts and minds science is not doing so well.

Paul Krugman ends his Op-ed piece as follows: “ [T]he odds are that one of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges — environmental, economic, and more — that’s a terrifying prospect.” That may seem a bit overwrought, but for those who strive for a society in which rational thought governs decision-making, it is also a call to greater participation. Whose moral authority will govern?