January 29, 2012
About a week ago, on This American Life, Ira Glass talked with Erin, a 14 year old Glenn Beck supporter about global warming. She responded to Glass, “Global Warming is propaganda”
Glass brought Roberta Johnson, a scientist who studies global warming at National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, on to talk about the science of global warming.
Even though the scientific evidence presented was thorough, Erin, said in the end, “I think I understand most of it. … “I can see where there were discrepancies, but ‘eh’…”
Questioned further, she said, “I get that climate does flux and change, and that we people affect the climate, but its all back and forth, you can find examples to go with climate change and to go against it.”
Given that conservative acceptance of the facts of global warming has dropped from 50% in 2001 to 30% today, I shouldn’t be surprised. Science is under attack in this country these days; I hate to admit it, but it is being reduced to the status of a religion. It’s about belief: You believe it or you don’t.
Three Threats to Understanding
I draw much of my material for this sermon from the book, “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America” by Shawn Lawrence Otto. Otto suggests that there are three broad movements that have threatened science understanding and application in America.
First are the religious fundamentalists of all the various stripes, who oppose things like the teaching of evolution, sex education in schools, access to abortion, and climate change.
I want to note that these are not just conservative Christians. While I was an intern minister in St. Paul, I received in the mail a very beautiful and expensively produced coffee table book with many lovely color plates of fossils and plant life, denying the evolutionary process. It had been shipped from, I think, Saudi Arabia, and was the personal evangelism of some very wealthy and conservative Muslim. Your imported oil dollars at work.
The second group pumping out anti-science are big corporations, especially energy and big pharma, who have learned where to apply financial lubricant to distort the use of science in the political sphere. Exxon is well known for spending liberally (if I can use that word in this context) to deny human caused climate change. All together, the energy industry spent a half billion dollars fighting climate change legislation in the eighteen months after president Obama was elected. Big pharma has become adept at gaming the drug approval process, with results like the Vioxx disaster, in which the painkiller was pulled from the market after it was shown to have the minor side-effects of heart attack and stroke.
The third group are those in the post-modernist camp who argue that there is no such thing as objective truth; that the results of science are culturally determined. The claim here is that my non-peer reviewed research is just as valid as your peer-reviewed stuff, perhaps more valid, because you are ‘the Man’, and part of ‘the System’. This kind of thinking has led San Francisco’s board of supervisors, all Democrats, to pass an ordinance requiring mobile phone vendors to warn customers about radiation hazards like brain cancer, absent any scientific evidence.
Now, you need to know I used to work in mobile phone design, and so we payed particular attention to this concern. The amount of misinformation and hysteria among our customers and users — and these were hospitals and healthcare groups — just frustrated us. The science was clear, there was no risk — but people wouldn’t listen. We even joked about it, making up a satirical advertisement, showing pictures of brain tumors, saying ‘your brain tumor will be 60% smaller with our phone than with a competitors phone’. We were sick puppies, back in that startup company.
Another example is the vaccination controversy. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a paper claiming that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, or MMR vaccine, cause autism. It turned out that this researcher had doctored his data, and furthermore, that he had received a significant payment from lawyers seeking to sue vaccine manufacturers and that he had applied for patents for a rival vaccine formulation. But the damage is done — the controversy has resulted in many parents refusing to vaccinate their children, and diseases like measles are on the rise again.
This post-modernist view also plays out in the conservative camp, with Michelle Bachmann saying, about creationism, “What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of a scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides.” Which might make sense if science were just another religion, held on faith, where proving or validating ideas is not possible.
Albert Einstein and Relativity Deniers
Lest we worry that this kind of intellectual wackiness is modern, consider the story of Albert Einstein and the relativity deniers. Even though the predictions of general relativity had been confirmed, famously, in a 1919 solar eclipse observation, a group opposing relativity emerged in the 1920s in Europe. An organization with the high sounding name, “Academy of Nations”, was formed to oppose relativity, which members saw a incomprehensible and therefore disconnected from reality. As one said, “This is not science. On the contrary, it is a new brand of metaphysics.”
As this group became increasingly marginalized by the scientific community, members became more anti-Semitic and paranoid. The founder of the group wrote, “Our trouble in America is that all scientific journals are closed to the anti-relativists through Jewish influence. The daily press is almost entirely under the control of the Jews.”
The Academy of Nations faded away in the 1930s with the rise of Nazism, though relativity denial still exists. On Conservapedia, the conservative alternate universe to Wikipedia, all kinds of fanciful arguments abound to deny relativity, many biblically-based. For example, according to John 4:46, Jesus was able to heal a child at a distance, and therefore — somehow — this invalidates relativistic limitation that things can’t travel faster than the speed of light. Another page claims that relativity is used “to promote a broad legal right to abortion.”
As you might expect, a common thread is a claim of a vast liberal conspiracy that victimizes these believers. The site’s main page on relativity reads, “there is an unmistakable effort to censor or ostracize criticism of relativity.”
How Science Works
A common connection with all of these anti-scientific movements is a misinterpretation of how science works. Science depends on interviewing the universe in such a way that the universe can answer yes or no, validating or invalidating your question. If you rearrange things to always get the answer you want, you are dealing in religion or metaphysics or politics, but not science.
So two men are making breakfast. As one is buttering the toast, he says, “Did you ever notice that if you drop a piece of toast, it always lands butter side down?”
The second guy says, “No, I bet it just seems that way because it’s so unpleasant to clean up the mess when it lands butter side down. I bet it lands butter side up just as often.”
The first guy says, “Oh yeah, watch this!” He drops the toast on the floor, where it lands butter side up.
The second guy says, “See, I told you.”
The first guy says, “Oh, I see what happened. I buttered the wrong side!”
Science and Religion
But science and religion can co-exist, at least in our Unitarian Universalist religion. Just as last Sunday we explored a modern concept for god — the divine, the one, the source, the oversoul — and traced that modern god concept back to the thinking of the Transcendentalists early in the American Unitarian movement.
If we study early Unitarian history, we find that science is also foundational within our movement. Many of our early Unitarian thinkers were interested in science and nature. Henry David Thoreau, a keen observer, made careful records of the dates of appearance of flowers at Walden Pond. These records, curiously enough, are now being used to study the effect of global warming in the area of Concord, Massachusetts.
Thomas Jefferson is another person who considered himself a Unitarian, though he never signed the book in any Unitarian church.
Now Thomas Jefferson is a bit controversial within Unitarian Universalist movement. His ownership of slaves is a real problem to many — indeed, the district formerly known as Thomas Jefferson has renamed itself the South-East District. Those who would claim that Jefferson was part of Unitarianism are soundly trounced upon, even though he wrote,
“I am anxious to see the doctrine of one god commenced in our state. But the population of my neighborhood is too slender, and is too much divided into other sects …. I must therefore be contented to be an Unitarian by myself, although I know there are many around me who would become so, if once they could hear the questions fairly stated.”
Maybe we’re just embarrassed, for his over-optimistic prediction: “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.” Oh, well.
We sometimes forget that Jefferson was an excellent amateur scientist, certainly more a gentleman scientist than a gentleman farmer. He wrote a book on the paleontology of Virginia, in part to refute a European theory that animal life in the New World was smaller and therefore inferior and degenerate to that in Europe. Jefferson refuted that theory by collecting and studying mastodon bones. He even continued this research while he was president, sorting bones in the as yet unfinished East Room of the White House, which picked up the nickname, the Mastodon Room.
Jefferson and the Founding of this Country
But before all that, Jefferson helped define the ethos of this country as drafter of the Declaration of Independence. Otto tells us that Jefferson’s understanding of science and reason led him to write
“a founding document that was not based on religion or God, but on knowledge and reason. Whereas religious authority and proximity to God could be endlessly argued between different faiths or countries, Jefferson reasoned that a country that was based on a more narrowly defined rule of [humans] — a democracy — was removed from this religious argument.”
So Jefferson, a early Unitarian thinker, among other Unitarians, helped define this country as one founded on reason and friendly to science.
Now we have lost our way. As Otto says, “With every step away from reason and into ideology, the country moves toward a state of tyranny in which the public policy comes to be based not on knowledge, but on the most loudly voiced opinions.”
How might we respond? Well, here are a few ideas.
First, stay in touch with your own inner scientist. Just as Jefferson studied the world around him, we can pay attention to the world around us. Science is complex these days, but we can still pay attention to the news of science, and use reason to separate truth from ideology. Remember that doubt is not denial. Know that the newsrooms no longer seem to make that distinction!
Secondly, we can be advocates for science in the public square. So much of our work in social justice — sustainability, ethical eating, fracking, climate change, health care reform — depends on good science at the foundation. We strengthen these causes if we are able to articulate the science that supports and guides our work. When we articulate the science, we strengthen the science.
Finally, we can attend to the spiritual side of science. Within the images of science and nature, within the equations and the theories there is beauty — but like all art, one must develop an eye to see it. Our Unitarian past calls to us to seek this emotional aspect of religious wisdom, to become well enough acquainted with the science that we can find the wild and surprising beauty within.
In the end, my hope is that each of us will take seriously our Unitarian history and values, which might help us return science and reason to its rightful place in the political sphere. My hope is that we can promote in ourselves and those around us, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”, which is our fourth Unitarian Universalist principle. My hope is that this nation, and the world, will return to a more rational form of political discourse, framed by reason and wisdom. Our natural world, and our place in it, depends on this.
1 “Kid Politics”, This American Life, http://www.thisamericanlife.org/play_full.php?play=424&act=2
2 Fool Me Twice, p. 198
4 “Decline and Fall”, NewScientist, Oct 29, 2011, p.39
5 Fool Me Twice, pp. 152 – 154.
6 “Decline and Fall”, NewScientist, Oct 29, 2011, p.39
11 “Teaming up with Thoreau” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/walden.html
15 Fool Me Twice, p. 48.