Thursday, February 22, 2007

Enemy of the People

There are only two things that are infinite: the universe and stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former. ~ Albert Einstein

Seth Shostak, who writes a SETI column over at Space.com, wrote a thought-provoking little piece called “When Did Science Become the Enemy? In it, Mr. Shostak considers the negative attitude of Americans toward science. He sort of ties it down the general ignorance of what science does and the resultant fear that generates.

This attitude toward the sciences has always bothered me. Except for the brief post-Sputnik era, Americans have generally kept science at arm's length, regarding those who were interested in it as slightly weird people. Or worse, regarding them as somehow sinister.

The problem is part of a larger one, though. Americans have always been ones to give lip service to the idea of the importance of education. Despite this, we are loathe to pay the costs associated with providing a solid educational system. Our institutions of higher learning are considered more important as development leagues for the NFL and the NBA than as centers of learning.

It's pretty much been this way for a long time. The aforementioned post-Sputnik era was an aberration, when we realized the ramifications of a Soviet Union that was better educated and had more invested in science than the U.S. As a result, the country literally mobilized to emphasize science and engineering. Once we got to the Moon, we went back to our old ways. Prior to that, the Manhattan Project, the development of the atomic bomb, also caused the government to rally behind the cause of science. Before and since those events, science was seldom given a thought.

Interestingly, both those efforts depended heavily on foreign scientists, either escaping from Hitler's rule or being captured as a result of defeating that same Hitler. The Manhattan Project depended heavily on the likes of Szilard, Fermi, and Teller, while the space program was built by former V-2 builders like Werner Von Braun.

This is not to say that there are no American scientists; on the contrary, there are many talented researchers and theorists fully educated in our country. But to do so, they had to buck the odds, enduring the suspicion and outright animosity, at times, of their fellows.

Why are so many people like that?

I have trouble understanding it. I find many people are fascinated by new discoveries and great scientific tools like the Hubble Space Telescope. Yet there seems to be an inherent distrust of the people who make the discoveries and develop those tools. It's tempting to call it anti-intellectualism, but somehow that sounds like an oversimplification and smacks of taking a superior attitude – which would serve to justify the opinion of those who don't trust the scientists.

But, there is something to it, nonetheless. Last time I looked, somewhere around half of Americans favored Creationism over Evolution, and many were trying to either force the teaching of “creation science” in schools or block the teaching of evolution altogether. I have said on many occasions that I respect the religious faith of people, but when they attempt to inset their mystical beliefs into the educational system as science, they begin to lose my respect.

It isn't just religionists, though. Our society places more emphasis on the lives (and deaths) ofcelebrities like Paris Hilton or Anna Nicole Smith than it does on scientists probing the secrets of the universe, or, for that matter, than it does on poets, artists, or composers of serious music. Support for symphony orchestras in this country declines with each passing year. Why? Because the music they play is “high-brow”, and our society prefers the “low-brow” maunderings of American Idol.

There are still people on this planet who are striving for an educated society and excellence in the arts. I speak, of course, of the Asians. Whether our love of mediocrity will succeed in dumbing them down, as appears to have been the case in the former Soviet Union, or whether we'll find ourselves regarding them as the intellectual powerhouses of the world is difficult to tell.

I don't know if I'll be around in twenty or thirty years to find out, but I'm betting that the day will come when China is the preeminent center of knowledge in the world. That may or may not be a bad thing, depending on whether the current leadership can stop imprisoning its people and trying to block free exchange of information with the outside world. If they do, then a very dynamic group of people will be looking for new frontiers to conquer in a peaceful manner. If they don't, then a very dynamic group of people won't be so concerned about peaceful conquests.

Our society is fully capable of being the intellectual equal of any in the world. It's our choice whether we wish to do so.

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