There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
― Isaac Asimov
On Saturday I participated in the March for Science in downtown Albuquerque along with many other marches across the World. This was advertised as a non-partisan event, but to anyone there it was clearly and completely partisan and biased. Two things united the people at the march: a philosophy of progressive and liberalism and opposition to conservatism and Donald Trump. The election of a wealthy paragon of vulgarity and ignorance has done wonders for uniting the left wing of politics. Of course, the left wing in the United States is really a moderate wing, made to seem liberal by the extreme views of the right. Among the greater proponents of the left wing are science as an engine of knowledge and progress. The reason for this dichotomy is the right wing’s embrace of ignorance, fear and bigotry as its electoral tools. The right is really the party of money and the rich with fear, bigotry and ignorance wielded as tools to “inspire” enough of the people to vote against their best (long term) interests. Part of this embrace is a logical opposition to virtually every principle science holds dear.
The premise that a march for science should be non-partisan is utterly wrong on the face of it; science is and has always been a completely political thing. The reasoning for this is simple and persuasive. Politics is the way human beings settle their affairs, assign priorities and make decisions. Politics is an essential human endeavor. Science is equally human in its composition being a structured vehicle for societal curiosity leading to the creation of understanding and knowledge. When the political dynamic is arrayed in the manner we see today, science is absolutely and utterly political. We have two opposing views of the future, one consistent with science favoring knowledge and progress, with the other inconsistent with science favoring fear and ignorance. In such an environment science is completely partisan and political. To expect things to be different is foolish and naïve.
The essence of Conservatism is fear: fear of what is not understood, fear of change, fear of the new, fear of what’s different, fear of the other.
― Gene Pozniak
One of the key things to understand is that science has always been a political thing although the contrast has been turned up in recent years. The thing driving the political context is the rightward movement of the Republican, which has led to their embrace of extreme views including religiosity, ignorance and bigotry. Of course, these extreme views are not really the core of the GOP’s soul, money is, but the cult of ignorance and anti-science is useful in propelling their political interests. The Republican Party has embraced extremism in a virulent form because it pushes its supporters to unthinking devotion and obedience. They will support their party without regard for their own best interests. The republican voter base hurts their economic standing in favor of policies that empower their hatreds and bigotry while calming their fear. All forms of fact and truth have become utterly unimportant unless they support their world-view. The upshot is the rule of a political class hell bent on establishing a ruling class in the United States composed of the wealthy. Most of the people voting for the Republican candidates are simply duped by their support of extreme fear, hate and bigotry. The Democratic Party is only marginally better since they have been seduced by the same money leaving voters with no one to work for them. The rejection of science by the right will ultimately be the undoing of the Nation as other nations will eventually usurp the United States militarily and economically.
Increasingly science and progress are rejected because they invariantly upset the status quo. When the rich and powerful make the rules and have all the advantage, any perturbation in the balance of society must be resisted. The social structure and the system of laws are already setup in service to the ruling class. Any change is viewed as a danger. Science in all its forms is a threat to power. The only science that
is favored should serve the needs of the powerful. Increasingly the science supported by the ruling class is carefully controlled and obsessively applied in nature. Pure research and acquisition of knowledge is dangerous and feared because its results cannot be controlled. Pure research has the potential to upset the order the powerful have carefully established. This order is an engine to enrich them and further tap into the wealth of society for their own benefit. Science is political because it is an engine of progress, and progress is the enemy of the powerful.
The South, which is peopled with ardent and irascible beings, is becoming more irritated and alarmed.
― Alexis de Tocqueville
In a deep way the latest election is simply the culmination of forty years of political evolution (I can’t help but note the irony of using evolution to describe Republicans!). Corruption, hatred and abuse of power are a common thread for this entire time. The foundation of this change happened under Richard Nixon whose “Southern Strategy” allowed the GOP to embrace the toxic legacy of bigotry that defines the old Confederacy as its own brand. Along with the change of the GOP into the embodiment of Confederate values came a tidal wave of ignorance ushered in by Ronald Reagan whose generally unintellectual approach is revered by the Republicans almost as if he was a demi-God. In this way Donald Trump is almost the perfect Republican, corrupt and hateful to the core like Nixon, ignorant and uneducated like Reagan with the mantle of wealth their voters admire. We now see a political movement completely devoted to fear, hatred and ignorance as their brand. They wear these values with pride and attack the elite whosevalues of progress, love and knowledge are viewed as weakness. In this lens it is no wonder that science is rejected.
Ignorance is a progressive thinker’s enemy; acceptance, awareness, accountability and action are the tools of the informed; of people who want change and do all they can to achieve it.
― Carlos Wallace
The assault on science is based on its incompatibility with the values of modern extreme conservatism. Again and again knowledge and progress will challenge the conservative mind with truths they do not want to hear. The best way to avoid this problem is kill the knowledge before it is produced. We can find example after example of science being silenced because it is likely to produce results that do not match their view of the world. Among the key engines of the ignorance of conservatism is its alliance with extreme religious views. Historically religion and science are frequently at odds because the faith and truth are often incompatible. This isn’t necessarily all religious faith, but rather that stemming from a fundamentalist approach, which is usually grounded in old and antiquated notions (i.e., classically conservative and opposing anything looking like progress). Fervent religious belief cannot deal with truths that do not align with dictums. The best way to avoid this problem is get rid of the truth. When the government is controlled by extremists this translates to reducing and controlling
science to avoid such truths.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
― Dwight D. Eisenhower
With this background we can see how this imprints onto science rather clearly. Fear and money both like science that leads to National security and defense, so the right supports activities that either provide people with protection or allow us to kill more effectively and efficiently. The problem is that the right only supports this kind of work in its most naked and applied sense. The right doesnot support deeper research that forms the foundation allowing us to develop technology. As a result our ability to be the best at killing people is at risk in the long run. Eventually the foundation of science used to create all our weapons will run out, and we no longer will be the top dogs. The basic research used for weapons work today is largely a relic of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The wholesale diminishment in societal support for research during the 1980’s and onward will start to hurt us more obviously. In addition we have poisoned the research environment in a fairly bipartisan way leading to a huge drop in the effectiveness and efficiency of the fewer research dollars spent.
The right wing has become the enemy of intellectualism. Increasingly they have formed open opposition of educating citizens in anything beyond a rote traditional form of learning. They have systematically undermined a system that teaches people to think for themselves. Science is a form of high thinking that the right opposes for vehemently, and as such to be diminished as a threat to their agenda. At the apex of the educational system are universities. Universities are the factories for the elite they hate so much. The right wing has been engaged in an all out assault on universities in part because they view them as the center of left wing views. Attacking and contracting science is part of this assault. In addition to a systematic attack on universities is an increasing categorization of certain research as unlawful because its results will almost certainly oppose right wing views. Examples of this include drug research (e.g. marijuana in particular), anything sexual, climate research, health effects of firearms, evolution, and the list grows. The deepest wounds to science are more subtle. They have created an environment that poisons intellectual approaches and undermines the education of the population because educated intellectual people naturally oppose their ideas.
It is a well known fact that reality has liberal bias.
― Stephen Colbert
Let’s get to the core of science that the right opposes. One of the areas where science rubs the right wing the wrong way could broadly be characterized as ecological and environmental research. The archetype of this is climate research and the concept of climate change. In general, research in Earth sciences leads to conclusions that upset the status quo hurting the ability of traditional industry to make money (with the exception of geological work associated with energy and mining). Much of the ecological research has informed us how human activity is damaging the environment. Industry does not want to adopt practices that preserve the environment primarily due to greed. Moreover the religious extremism opposes ecological research because it opposes the dictums of their faith as chosen people who may exploit the Earth to the limits of their desire. Climate change is the single greatest research threat to the conservative worldview. The fact that mankind is a threat to the Earth is blasphemous to the right wing extremists either impacting their greed or the religious conviction. The denial of climate change is based primarily on religious faith and greed, the pillars of modern right wing extremism.
An area where science and public policy come into great conflict is public health. Americans love their firearms and possess them in great numbers. Americans also die in great numbers at the end of their firearms. While gun violence captures the attention and imagination, most gun deaths are self-inflicted, or accidental. It is a public health issue of great consequence. Science should be studying it, and yet it is not allowed by federal funding. The reason is the gun lobby (i.e., the NRA), which own the right wing. They don’t want the facts known and have made government funded research on the topic effectively illegal. They are worried that knowledge of the level of public health threat will result in a desire for regulation, and a public outcry. Instead of working with facts and knowledge, we simply suppress it.
Another huge area of intrusion of politics into science is a drug especially illegal ones. We have made research into certain drugs and their medical benefit illegal (i.e., marijuana). Several things are obvious to even the most casual observer, marijuana is not a particularly dangerous drug (definitely not “Schedule 1”), and it has medical benefits. The right (and a lot of the left) wing is opposed to adding science to the discussion. This is yet another example where facts and truth are excluded from the dialog. We have a number of purely political reasons for this. A huge one is the war on drugs, which is supported by law enforcement and prison lobbies (and the people enriched by these “industries”). These lobbies work to damage society as a whole, and enable the implicit bigotry in how laws are enforced and people are imprisoned ignoring the damage to society at large.
The impact of the drug laws has enabled the Jim Crow laws of the past to be enforced by a new mechanism. Again, the impact of the illegal nature of the drugs is ignored because their illegality serves conservative political interests. Their illegal nature is boon to criminal cartels that use them to generate huge incomes. Instead of cutting the cartels source of money out and defuse criminal violence, we keep it fully charged because law enforcement wants power, not a solution to the problem. A perverse fact of modern life is the greater threat to public health of legal drugs (i.e., the opioid crisis), and illegal drugs like marijuana could mitigate the legal drug crisis. We maintain a ridiculous perspective on these drugs by suppressing research. Other drugs like alcohol are legal while the public health impacts are obviously severe. We don’t have the ability to understand the benefits of these drugs from scientific research.
Fundamentalism isn’t about religion, it’s about power.
― Salman Rushdie
Medicine is not immune from the political aspects especially as the money associated with it becomes enormous. Increasingly the whole of medical research starts to run into issues associated with morality. This is true with both the beginning and the end of life. Genetics is fraught with moral implications that naturally drive political response. We already see huge issues on the left with the response to GMO’s. The left wing response to GMO’s is reactionary and Luddite in character. At the same time the right’s view of GMO is cavalier and geared toward money motives above all else. Properly managed GMO’s could be a boon for mankind if we can balance the risks and benefits. The increasingly destructive political dialog without compromise assures no good outcomes.
We are living in modern times throughout the world and yet are dominated by medieval minds.
― Eqbal Ahmad
In no place does politics become more poisonous than with sex (at least in the United States). Whether we are talking about reproductive rights, public health, or sexual education, science is ignored in favor of religious moralization delivered through politics. We have the power to make huge difference in people’s lives through giving them control over their reproduction, yet this progress is undermined by the right wing. Ultimately the right’s position is to criminalize sex by using reproduction as apunishment. This works to destroy people’s potential for economic advancement and burden the World with poor, unwanted children. Sex education for children is another example where ignorance is promoted as the societal response. Science could make the World far better and more prosperous, and the right wing stands in the way. It has everything to do with sex and nothing to do with reproduction.
The ludicrous idea of abstinence-based education is the rights approach even though it is utterly and completely ineffective and actually damages people. Those children are then spared the knowledge of their sexuality and their reproductive rights through an educational system that suppresses information. Rather than teach our children about sex in a way that honors their intelligence and arms them to deal with life, we send them out ignorant. This ignorance is yet another denial of reality and science by the right. The right wing does not want to seem like they are endorsing basic human instinct around reproduction and sex for pleasure. The result is to create more problems, more STD’s, more unwanted children, and more abortions. It gets worse because we also assure that a new generation of people will reach sexual maturity without the knowledge that could make their lives better. We know how to teach people to take charge of their reproductive decisions, sexual health and pleasure. Our government denies them this knowledge largely driven by antiquated moral and religious ideals, which only serve to give the right voters.
Take a stand for science, knowledge and progress by embracing politics. In today’s world nothing is more dangerous than truth and facts. People whose fundamental principles and philosophy are utterly opposed to the foundational principles of science govern us. Conflict between their approach to governance and science is inevitable. People who are completely terrified of reality increasingly rule us. Science is one of the key ways humans understand their reality. Science is a completely human thing and political to its core. We are rapidly moving to a world where it is radical to simply speak facts and the truth. Before long doing science may be an act of dissidence against the ruling class. As I noted above in many cases it already is.
If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal”, then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”
― John F. Kennedy