Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Know Nothings

“It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”    
- Carl Sagan

In the mid-19th century in the United States, there was a political party that was called the Know Nothings. It was a movement that was based on nativism and xenophobia. Its adherents strove to curb immigration and naturalization, specifically of Irish and German Catholics. Its sentiment was virulently anti-Catholic. Membership was limited to white Protestant males. The movement was never particularly powerful and ultimately it fragmented over the issue of slavery.

The Know Nothing movement fragmented but it never really died in the United States. It has always existed as an undercurrent in American political life and, finally, in the 21st century, it seems to be coalescing and rearing its ugly head once again, but now the Know Nothingness has expanded into other areas of life than simply religious prejudice and fear and suspicion of foreigners. Now it seems to encompass a philosophy of knee-jerk rejection of science and learning that is utterly appalling.

Thus, we have a significant percentage of Americans in this Know Nothing political movement who absolutely reject the overwhelming evidence presented by science that the planet is heating up very quickly, that the heating is caused by human activity, and that if this activity is not modified, the planet may soon reach a point of no return for the continuance of the human race here. They rely upon the Bible as their science book and argue that the Earth is God's creation and that humans cannot affect it.

Essentially that same percentage of Americans rejects the whole idea of evolution as a factor in the development of the species that exist upon this planet today. Their philosophy allows no history or science that is not absolutely consistent with what they read in their Bibles - the planet and heavens were all created in six days by God and on the seventh day he rested when he saw that it was all good. All the creatures and plants in existence upon Earth were created by God in those six days, exactly as they appear today. Natural selection had nothing to do with it.

It probably should not surprise us then that there is a certain segment of the population that believes that modern medicine is a fraud and, specifically, that vaccinations are the cause of a whole panoply of problems, particularly autism in children. The anti-vaccination movement is strong in some areas of this country, fueled by the rantings of certain celebrities who did their research by Googling and decided that their findings have more weight than those of doctors and researchers who have spent fourteen years and more of their lives in study of how the body works and how to fight disease.

The influence of the anti-vaxxers is pernicious and potentially catastrophic for those who allow themselves to be misled. This is how we get the outbreak of diseases like measles that are easily prevented just about 100% by proper vaccination. These are not diseases to be disregarded. People can die from them or they can suffer long-term effects that will be with them for the rest of their lives. The anti-vaxxers have a lot to answer for.

But all the anti-science people have a lot to answer for. Through their refusal to accept the findings of science and to make its teaching in our schools of paramount importance, they have damaged our children's ability to think, contribute, and compete both today and in tomorrow's world. Our standing in the world as far as the teaching of science is really that of a Third World country. A survey last year ranked American students as 36th overall among the group of countries that participated. Certainly, there are many factors that contribute to that ranking, but the denigration of science among a significant part of our population does not help.

The anti-science crowd is currently obsessing over Neil deGrasse Tyson's reboot of Carl Sagan's long-ago classic series about the universe, Cosmos. Three episodes have aired so far and each one has been a winner. Concepts of how the universe works - physics, in other words - are addressed and explained in language that even I can understand. Tyson is a phenomenal communicator and a worthy successor to Sagan whose Cosmos series I watched and loved all those years ago. Anti-sciencers are freaking out and demanding equal time for their creationism concepts.

But this is not a debate and it is pointless to give "equal time" to concepts which have no basis in evidence or fact. It simply elevates such beliefs to the status of theories and concepts that have been tested and retested by thousands of scientists over literally hundreds of years. It gives them an importance which they do not deserve.

And speaking of undeserved importance, James Inhofe, the anti-science, non-believer in global warming senator from Oklahoma, has bragged that, after the mid-term elections this year which he expects the Republicans to win, he will be the chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee. Thus he believes he will be able to control the EPA and allow his oil and gas buddies to rape the Earth to extract their products, with no hindrance from government.  That is certainly one of the best arguments I know for doing everything possible to make sure that the Republicans do not win the mid-term elections.

Meantime, physics doesn't care about all this. It is what it is and its systems will continue to operate according to immutable principles whether or not James Inhofe and his ilk choose to believe in them. Know Nothings may screw up our political landscape and ultimately the physical landscape, but Earth and the cosmos will protect themselves. They will survive us. As George Carlin used to be fond of saying, "The Earth will shake us off like a bad case of fleas." And it will continue to turn.



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