"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, ...
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity."
Irish Poet William Butler Yeats wrote these words in 1919 in the aftermath of the Great War, but his words seem an apt description of America today.
Congress is fractured, our president's tweets threaten world stability, families cannot gather amicably at Thanksgiving, America has one of the industrialized world's worst rich-poor gaps and mass shootings occur daily.
Science has a way of reaching productive conclusions without coming to blows, a way that traces back to the ancient Greeks but is in short supply today. It's quite simple: Conclusions should be based on rational thought and supported with concrete evidence. Passionate intensity has a legitimate place in life, but at least in the arena of public policy, evidence and logic, rather than emotion, should decide.
It's not surprising that religion, politics and cultural values are difficult to discuss at extended family gatherings. Biased nonsense tends to dominate these topics, with reason entering only as a prop for pre-conceived beliefs. A nation that believes in virgin births and people floating into the sky, or that one political party is inherently sinful, or that we can reduce gun violence by encouraging individuals to "carry," will find it difficult to engage in rational discussion.
Creationism is a good example. Although biological evolution is massively supported by the evidence and accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists, 38 percent of U.S. adults believe God created humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years. How can we explain such a barbaric statistic in our rich and technological nation? Creationist literature, for example the 1974 pseudoscientific classic Scientific Creationism by Henry Morris, demonstrates the problem: Creationists have already decided that evolution is sinful, are absolutely certain creationism is true, and use evidence and reason only to support religious preconceptions. Unlike science's conclusions, which depend on evidence and thus cannot be known with absolute certainty, many religious views are regarded as absolute, with no room for doubt. Evidence cannot dissuade the true believer. Hence the 38 percent statistic. Hence "the centre cannot hold."
The point is one should form conclusions based on evidence, rather than selecting evidence based on already-formed conclusions. I'm doubtless biased in this matter, but when it comes to public policy decisions we need to think more like scientists and less like lawyers.
Global warming skepticism presents a similar but even more alarming problem because it threatens the planet. The strong consensus of climate scientists is that global warming is real and caused by humans. Gallup polls trace the partisan gap on this issue. In 2000, 46 percent of Democrats, 42 percent of Independents, and 29 percent of Republicans worried "a great deal" about global warming. By 2017, these three figures had changed to 66, 45, and 18 percent. Thus the partisan gap widens despite increased scientific knowledge about this issue. Political scientist and evangelical pastor Katherine Hayhoe states that two-thirds of evangelicals and two-thirds of white Catholics disagree with the scientific consensus on climate change. Apparently, religious absolutism has found its way into our views on the environment.
Anti-intellectualism is getting worse. A report by the respected Union of Concerned Scientists, "Sidelining Science Since Day One," exposes a broad pattern of manipulation, denial and suppression of science during the Trump administration's first six months. It states that "there has been a new attack on science every four days on average." The president has appointed global warming skeptics to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, and a wealthy businessman with no scientific expertise to head the science-oriented National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He has left high-level science positions vacant; revoked key science-based safeguards such as drinking water standards and standards concerning harmful chemicals; weakened pollution standards against mercury, toxic chemicals and coal; altered the scientific content of EPA, Energy Department and State Department Web pages; made it more difficult for government scientists to speak publicly about their work; and created such a hostile environment for scientific staff that some speak only anonymously to the media, and some are afraid to utter the words "climate change."
Here are some good books about these matters: Shawn Otto's The War on Science; Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science; and Richard Hofstadter's 1962 classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.
America's center is not holding. We all need to believe less and think more.
Commentary on 12/12/2017
Print Headline: Believe less, think more