In a democracy, it is very important that the public have a basic understanding of science so that they can control the way that science and technology increasingly affect our lives.
— Stephen Hawking
If you are scientifically literate the world looks very different to you. Its not just a lot of mysterious things happening. There is a lot we understand out there. And that understanding empowers you to, first, not be taken advantage of by others who do understand it. And second there are issues that confront society that have science as their foundation. If you are scientifically illiterate, in a way, you are disenfranchising yourself from the democratic process, and you don’t even know it.
—Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astronomer, 2009
We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most critical elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.
—Carl Sagan, 1996
Item: the headline from CNN.com reads “China shoots up rankings as science power, study finds.” As the article summarizes, a recent study by the Royal Society of London, the world’s foremost and oldest scientific organization, found that although the U.S. was still the dominant scientific power in terms of scientific publications, the Chinese scientific had experienced a “meteoric rise” in scientific publications and new research. Back in 2003, fewer than 5% of scientific articles came out of China. By 2008, 10% were Chinese-authored, putting it second only the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.S. share of scientific publications dropped from 26% to 21%. Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith FRS, Chair of the Advisory Group for the study, said: “The scientific world is changing and new players are fast appearing. Beyond the emergence of China, we see the rise of South-East Asian, Middle Eastern, North African and other nations. The increase in scientific research and collaboration, which can help us to find solutions to the global challenges we now face, is very welcome. However, no historically dominant nation can afford to rest on its laurels if it wants to retain the competitive economic advantage that being a scientific leader brings.”
China is already improving in many rankings, making it the second largest economic power as well. Unencumbered by global warming deniers or stem-cell research antagonists or creationists who interfere with science policy, China is making huge investments in new technologies for a world with global warming and limited oil, while the U.S. slips down the rankings of countries investing in green technology. Germany and several Scandinavian countries have long led the world in their investments in green technology and their societal commitment to low energy use and reducing greenhouse gases—yet their economies are stronger than ours or than most of those in southern Europe or elsewhere. Not surprisingly, these northern European and East Asian countries also rank at the top of science literacy rankings, and we already saw the correlation between acceptance of evolution and science literacy and other factors (see my previous post).
The U.S. still holds the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes in sciences, and has since 1956, when the effect of Germany’s experiment with Hitler, anti-Semitism and World War II caused a “brain drain” from Germany to the U.S. and other countries, and ended German supremacy in science. But how long can this U.S. supremacy in science last when our population is less scientifically literate than that of most Asian or northern European nations? How long can it last when political and religious ideologues and zealots interfere with stem-cell research, deny evolution, and try to stifle American awareness of, and preparedness for issues of global warming, population growth, and the limits of our resources?
Some people say, “It can’t happen here. The U.S. has been the #1 power ever since World War II, and now we’re the only superpower left.” But as historians have pointed out, many other powerful societies with enormous economic reach and flourishing sciences and the arts have also declined in the past. Only 150 years ago, the British Empire of Queen Victoria once spanned the entire globe, but now it is a relatively minor player among global powers, as it lost most of its economic strength and its colonial empire during and after World Wars I and II. The once-mighty Soviet Empire fell in just a few years during the 1990s. The U.S. has been embroiled in two different wars in the Middle East, draining billions of dollars and thousands of American lives, while running up huge economic deficits in a time of recession. We like to think of ourselves as exceptional and bulletproof, but that’s not the lesson history teaches us.
I put it this way in my new book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future: imagine a society where a great flowering of science and technology spanned several centuries—and then, due to dogmatism, it throws away all this progress, and recedes into the Dark Ages. Hard to imagine our own society sliding back into darkness and pre-Industrial conditions? Well, it has happened before. The Greeks made huge advances in mathematics, geometry, engineering, philosophy, arts and literature, especially during the golden ages of Periclean Athens, and again during the Hellenistic Greek period, where the descendants of Alexander’s conquest of the known world flourished in Alexandria (where Ptolemy set up the famous model of the geocentric world) or in Syracuse (where Archimedes made great intellectual leaps in geometry, mathematics, and engineering). But this all vanished when the Greeks were conquered by the Roman Empire. A Roman soldier killed Archimedes during the conquest of Syracuse. The soldier did not recognize him, or realize the genius of the man he had killed, even though there were orders from the Roman generals to capture him alive. Archimedes, completely absorbed in doing geometry, allegedly said “Don’t disturb my circles,” before he was killed. And the Roman conquest of the other great centers of learning, such as Alexandria, did much to set back science and philosophy, although the Romans did great feats of engineering and spread the benefits of Greek mathematics and engineering and civilized life to almost all of Europe.
The Roman Empire fell in 456 A.D., and the western world slipped into the Dark Ages. The advances in science and mathematics and engineering were lost for almost a thousand years, and wouldn’t return to the European world until the Renaissance in the 1400s and 1500s. The ancient texts of the great Greek and Roman authors were largely destroyed as heretical by the Catholic Church, or (since papyrus and parchment were rare and precious), re-used by medieval monks to write religious documents right over the ancient texts (a palimpsest). In fact, most of the copies of the works of classical Greek and Roman authors come from palimpsests, where the monk copyists placed no value on ancient learning, but only saw the ancient parchment as a valuable source of paper for copying their own religious ideas. Only centuries later did scholars realize that these palimpsests contained the key documents of the ancient Greeks and Romans, overwritten by medieval religious graffiti.
Few people realize that during the Dark Ages, there was more science and scholarship going on in Baghdad about 1000 A.D. than in any European city at the time. Known as the “Arabic golden age” from about 800-1100 A.D., Baghdad and many other Arabic cities experienced their own Renaissance, and incredible scientific and mathematical advances occurred. These scholars made advances in agriculture, the arts, economics, industry, law, literature, navigation, philosophy, sciences, sociology, and technology, both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding inventions and innovations of their own . There was a long period of religious tolerance in Baghdad and elsewhere, allowing Jews, Christians, and even non-believers to live in peace in a predominantly Muslim world. Thanks to them, we all use Arabic numerals rather than clumsy Roman numerals for most mathematical tasks. Arabic scholars invented the concept of zero, and invented algebra (an Arabic word, as is the word “algorithm”). Many of the stars in the sky have Arabic names, and Arabic astronomers made huge advances, mostly in service of navigation for their large seagoing trade networks. Some of the inventions, concepts, and cultural advances they made include the camera obscura, coffee, soap bar, tooth paste, shampoo, distilled alcohol, uric acid, nitric acid, alembic, valve, reciprocating suction piston pump, mechanized waterclocks, quilting, surgical catgut, vertical-axle windmill, inoculation, cryptanalysis, frequency analysis, three-course meal, stained glass and quartz glass, Persian carpet, and celestial globe.
For three centuries, these advances continued under this period of relatively benign rule and religious tolerance. Then, during the 1100s and later, their Renaissance collapsed in a spectacular fashion. According to George Sarton, “The achievements of the Arabic speaking peoples between the ninth and twelfth centuries are so great as to baffle our understanding. The decadence of Islam and of Arabic is almost as puzzling in its speed and completeness as their phenomenal rise.” Although there is much debate among historians as to the cause of this spectacular decline, much of it can be laid at the feet of religious extremism and intolerance. By the 1200s and 1300s, extremism dominated the Muslim world, and still does today. In this past few decades, the Muslim world has been so dominated by extremists that it is hard for us to think of Muslims as tolerant of other religions, or concerned with concepts in science or philosophy that might threaten their concept of Islam. Indeed, most of the Muslim countries are highly resistant to the notion of evolution, and have their own virulent form of creationism that borrows heavily from the version founded by American fundamentalists.
There are other examples of religious or political intolerance and oppression of science when it conflicts with the established powers. Take the infamous case of Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite scientist. Lysenko held almost absolute power over Soviet science from 1927 until 1964. Most modern historians of science consider him a mediocre geneticist who promoted ideas of how Lamarckian inheritance might improve Soviet crop yields and prevent famine. His experimental results were inconclusive or outright fraudulent, yet he told Stalin that he could produce incredible bounties of food. As a result, he became the most powerful figure in the Soviet scientific establishment, and conspired with Stalin to suppress Mendelian geneticists, who really did understand how inheritance worked. Most of them were killed outright, sent to concentration camps, or driven into exile, forever destroying the vitality and strength of Soviet genetics and biology. Soviet genetics fell decades behind that of the rest of the world until the 1960s, when Lysenko was finally denounced, his work discredited, and he died in disgrace. Millions of people died in frequent famines when his nonsensical ideas were applied to agriculture.
No matter whether it is the classic Greek science, or Arabic science, or Soviet science, the conclusion is clear: science cannot be subservient to ideology, and scientists cannot be forced to distort their message or results in order to please the political or religious powers that be. Lysenko and Stalin did not believe in Mendelian genetics or Darwinian biology, and they murdered hundreds of legitimate scientists who had the temerity to disagree with them. Other regimes (such as the Nazis or the devout Muslims after 1100) have distorted science to support their ideas, but ultimately scientific reality must win.
It is true that we don’t live in the Soviet Union of Stalin, and that the United States has some safeguards against such oppression of scientific ideas. But as Mooney (2005) and Shulman (2007) showed, the Bush Administration actively interfered with legitimate scientists, rewriting reports by federal scientists that disagree with their right-wing ideology, encouraging fringe scientists to testify as legitimate equals with well-regarded scientists in order to cancel out their politically inconvenient message, and generally ignoring the conclusions of scientists who don’t agree with them. As we saw in previous posts, the House “Science” Committees are run by creationists and climate deniers. The current Republican House majority asks global warming deniers and other fringe scientists to testify in front of Congress, and passes bills denying obvious scientific facts. Stem-cell research in the United States has been set back compared to that in other countries, as our best scientists go to countries with less political oppression. Likewise, the foot-dragging and denials of global warming by the Bush Administration and the flunkies of the oil industry in Congress may have cost the world valuable time in addressing this serious crisis.
When the prophet Cassandra told the Trojans what they didn’t want to hear, they ignored her and were eventually destroyed. If science tells us that we have evolved from the animal kingdom, or that microbes are evolving resistances to all our medicines, or that our wasteful society is destroying our planet, we had better learn from it, rather than shooting the messenger—and letting our children pay the ultimate price for our folly.
As usual, the late great Carl Sagan said it best:
“There’s another reason I think popularizing science is important, why I try to do it. It’s a foreboding I have—maybe ill-placed—of an America in my children’s generation, or my grandchildren’s generation, when all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when we’re a service and information-processing economy; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest even grasps the issues; when the people (by “the people” I mean the broad population in a democracy) have lost the ability to set their own agendas, or even to knowledgeably question those who do set the agendas; when there is no practice in questioning those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what’s true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness. “