Monday, October 20, 2008


As I look over some items I missed during my vacation, I find a post by Mark Thoma pointing us to a commentary by Jeffrey Sachs:
In recent years, the United States has been more a source of global instability than a source of global problem-solving.

Examples include the war in Iraq, launched by the US on false premises, obstructionism on efforts to curb climate change, meager development assistance and the violation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. While many factors contributed to America’s destabilizing actions, a powerful one is anti-intellectualism...

By anti-intellectualism, I mean especially an aggressively anti-scientific perspective, backed by disdain for those who adhere to science and evidence. The challenges faced by a major power like the US require rigorous analysis of information according to the best scientific principles.

Climate change, for example, poses dire threats... that must be assessed according to prevailing scientific norms... We need scientifically literate politicians adept at evidence-based critical thinking to translate these findings and recommendations into policy and international agreements.

Sachs goes on to discuss the opposition of the Bush White House, supported by the mainstream press, to science and the policies that logically follow.
These are not isolated albeit powerful individuals out of touch with reality. They reflect the fact that a significant portion of American society, which currently votes mainly Republican, rejects or is simply unaware of basic scientific evidence regarding climate change, biological evolution, human health and other fields. These voters generally do not reject the benefits of technologies that result from modern science, but they do reject the evidence and advice of scientists regarding public policies.
Some of these uninformed citizens are ignorant, having suffered through poor education, and others are willfully denying reality based on religious fundamentalism. It doesn't have to be this way:
The issue here is not religion versus science. All of the great religions have traditions of fruitful interchange with -- and, indeed, support for -- scientific inquiry. The Golden Age of Islam a millennium ago was also the age in which Islamic science led the world. Pope John Paul II declared his support for the basic science of evolution, and Roman Catholic bishops are strongly in favor of limiting human-induced climate change, based on the scientific evidence.
[For a wonderfully stated view of how to reconcile religion and science, see E.O. Wilson's article from 1998, quoted by Andrew Sullivan - "mutual respect" being the takeaway here:

Which world view prevails, religious transcendentalism or scientific empiricism, will make a great difference in the way humanity claims the future. While the matter is under advisement, an accommodation can be reached if the following overriding facts are realized. Ethics and religion are still too complex for present-day science to explain in depth. They are, however, far more a product of autonomous evolution than has hitherto been conceded by most theologians. Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly most humbling challenge, while religion must somehow find the way to incorporate the discoveries of science in order to retain credibility.

Religion will possess strength to the extent that it codifies and puts into enduring, poetic form the highest values of humanity consistent with empirical knowledge. That is the only way to provide compelling moral leadership. Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science, for its part, will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of moral and religious sentiments.

The eventual result of the competition between the two world views, I believe, will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself. However the process plays out, it demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual rigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect.]

Sachs sees this situation, given our current global challenges, as absolutely critical:
The US must return to the global consensus based on shared science rather than anti-intellectualism. That is the urgent challenge at the heart of American society today.
It's difficult to argue with any of this, so I won't, but I think Sachs understates the problem by using the word "intellectual." In common parlance, "intellectual" is associated with a tweedy, elbow-patched professor expounding on obscurities while puffing away on his pipe. It is a term taken by many to express a kind of inert pondering of each problem, in lieu of a muscular action-oriented approach. Intellectuals are by common understanding ineffective; therefore, what they do, thinking, is discounted as a strategy.

The bigger problem, of course, is that this country is anti-smart. Oh, we like the word, crediting people with intelligence even as we confuse stupidity with authenticity, glibness with depth. There are no shortage of articles with statements like, "George W. Bush is smart, but...." It is a strange necessity that we call him smart at the same time we recognize that he has profoundly misunderstood his office, his duty, his nation. And now we find the same idea attached to Sarah Palin, a woman who is credited as smart while she shows a complete ignorance of the fact that her statements can be recorded and played back.

In reality, we have no idea what "smart" is or how to evaluate it; even if we can, we mistrust it, as if every scientist is trying to trick us with his or her "book learnin'." Until we respect and value intelligence, instead of falsely attributing it to anyone who can read a teleprompter, we are unlikely to find our way in intelligence, politics, business, or pretty much anything else.

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