Founders Were Passionate About Science – published in the Concord Monitor 4/19/09 – posted 12/21/2012
I wrote this piece back in 2009. When I moved my blog site, I was not able to post it so I wanted to put it up now. Jon
When President Obama recently signed a memorandum designed to restore scientific integrity to federal government decision-making, I felt both pride and relief. Obama resurrected a fundamental American value: respect for science and intellectual integrity.
The Bush presidency featured an infamous war on science in which partisan policy goals played a key role in determining scientific results. Whether the issue was evolution, abstinence, embryonic stem cell research or global climate change, the value of deference to religious conservatives and Big Business allies trumped scientific integrity.
What has not been appreciated about the war on science is how antithetical it is to American tradition. Passion for science was part of the world view of the founding fathers. Some founders even were scientists.
Historically, the Bush presidency was an extreme aberration. While earlier presidents like Ronald Reagan had an anti-scientific bent, that science abuse did not rival George W. Bush’s.
Over the past eight years, the methods of science abuse included magnifying uncertainty of proven theories, creating contrary science, and presenting fundamentally religious beliefs as science.
The best example is evolution. There has been a continuing effort by creationists to thwart the teaching of evolution in public schools. As recently as last week, this fight was happening in Texas.
This is 84 years after the Scopes monkey trial, when a high school teacher was tried for teaching that humans evolved from a lower order of animals. Yet the Religious Right keeps coming back. They have been building biblical creation science museums to popularize intelligent design, the latest version of creationism.
Bush favored teaching intelligent design alongside evolution. In this, he was no different than many of his colleagues, including House Speaker John Boehner, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The creationists have framed the evolution argument as a free speech fight. There are two competing theories, evolution and creationism. Both can be taught in public school, and students can decide what to believe. They only want to teach the controversy.
What the creationists do not say is that among scientists, there is no controversy. Evolution is widely accepted as a fact. In 2002, the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a resolution stating that intelligent design proponents failed to offer credible scientific evidence to support their theory.
How do you test the theory that an unknown intelligent designer somehow did something somewhere to create life on earth?
In his new book “Why Evolution is True”, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne lays out the main lines of evidence for evolution. He explains how life evolved gradually, beginning with one primitive species that lived 3.5 billion years ago. He explores how species branched out, throwing off many new and diverse variations. He demonstrates that the mechanism for most evolutionary change has been natural selection.
Yet, despite the evidence, polls consistently show Americans are suspicious about evolution. In a 2006 poll, when asked to respond to the statement “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals,” only 40% of Americans judged that statement true. More than 80% of French, Scandinavians, and Icelanders accepted the statement as true.
It is particularly ironic that antievolutionists have established such strong support here. As Enlightenment thinkers, the founding fathers would have been appalled by this development. There is much evidence that they believed science to be a supreme expression of human reason.
Among the founders, Benjamin Franklin was recognized as one of the foremost scientists of his day. While he was best known for his experiments with electricity, he had wide-ranging scientific interests including meteorology and oceanography.
Thomas Jefferson was also a man of science, an inventor, an architect, and a passionate botanist. When Jefferson was inaugurated as vice president in 1797, he brought with him a collection of fossils to illustrate a lecture on paleontology he was to give to a scientific society. Through his presidency, he maintained this interest, filling the East Room with a huge fossil collection.
It was no accident that our Constitution explicitly references science. There is a provision setting forth the power of Congress “to promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts.”
Good public policy depends on rationality and clear thinking. Basing public policy on religious imperatives or covert subordination to business interests is a return to the Dark Ages. I suspect the founding fathers would have agreed.