What We Think about Science and Scientists

Last year, Paul Broun, a congressman from Georgia, was the featured speaker at a Sportsman’s Banquet at a Baptist church. I’m not sure what the keynote speakers at those banquets usually talk about, but Broun used his time at the microphone to observe, infamously, that embryology, evolution, and the Big Bang Theory are “lies straight from the Pit of Hell.” Broun, a physician, is an advocate of Young Earth Creationism, the “science” that is based on the belief that the universe was created in six days and the Earth is 9,000 years old. He concluded his remarks on the blasphemous nature of modern science by asserting that Christian denominations that do not promote a literal reading of the Bible are “going to send their people to hell”–where, apparently, Satan delivers lectures on embryology, evolution, and astrophysics.

A footnote of more than passing interest is that, in a parallel to Rand Paul, who has established his own ophthalmology certification group, Broun’s abbreviated medical practice seems to have consisted entirely of his making house calls, and he apparently has never been licensed to practice medicine in any hospital in Georgia.

In any case, Broun was widely criticized for his comments, especially since he was a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Yet, in the immediate aftermath of the controversy, he was not removed from the Committee, but, instead, appointed as its Chair.

Very predictably, at every opportunity, Broun has proclaimed that climate change is a hoax—and that President Obama is a Hitler-like Marxist socialist and not so secretly a Muslim-sympathizer, if not a clandestine Muslim. I mention all of these positions in a single sentence because I am sure that Broun’s characterizations of Obama have served to enhance his credibility on other issues among many of his constituents.

Very predictably, at a community forum when a constituent asked when Broun expected Obama to be assassinated, he answered by agreeing that Obama was very unpopular, adding that there was a good likelihood that he would be defeated in the 2012 election. So I suppose one could infer that he was saying that assassination could be put off as an option at least until the election results were in.

To their credit, when Broun ran for re-election, 5,000 voters in his district voted for Charles Darwin as a write-in candidate.

Nonetheless, more recently, Broun has announced that he will be running for the Senate seat now held by Saxby Chambliss, who is not seeking another term.

So, why am I rehashing Congressman Broun’s dismal record of ridiculous pronouncements? Well, I just came across a news report that only 36% of Americans currently have a favorable view science and scientists.

Commissioned by the Huffington Post and YouGov, the survey shows that a “whopping 78 percent of Americans think that information reported in scientific studies is often (34 percent) or sometimes (44 percent) influenced by political ideology, compared to only 18 percent who said that happens rarely (15 percent) or never (3 percent). Similarly, 82 percent said that they think that scientific findings are often (43 percent) or sometimes (39 percent) influenced by the companies or organizations sponsoring them.”

Very predictably, and perhaps even more ironically, respondents who identify themselves as Republicans tend to be the most certain that the results of scientific studies are shaped by the political ideology of those either conducting, sponsoring, or reporting the studies. I suspect that the title of the article, “Americans have Little Faith in Scientists, Science Journalists, Poll Shows,” includes the word “faith” in an ironic nod to the seemingly endlessly recycled conflict between fundamentalist religious belief and basic science.

The increasingly widespread dismissal of science and scientists seems not only directly attributable to the Far Right’s almost continuous declarations that scientific theories are hoaxes and scientists are hucksters but also directly connected to the flagging interest in the STEM disciplines.

So, we have another one of these anomalies resulting from the contradictory positions advocated by different elements of the Far Right. The corporatizers of higher education are among the strongest advocates of increased enrollment in the STEM disciplines because they gauge the value of higher education largely by research-and-development measures and because they also have a deep ideological distrust of the humanities and social sciences. On the other hand, the religious fundamentalists value the STEM disciplines on a much more rudimentary level, reducing the disciplines to their vocational value while completely dismissing, if not denouncing, the value of more theoretical research.

So, on the one hand, the Far Right is promoting science as an engine of material prosperity, as a core element of an unwavering belief in capitalism, And, on the other hand, science is tolerated as a source of steady employment but something to be rejected whenever it seems to challenge fundamentalist religious beliefs and therefore to pose a threat to spiritual salvation.

Progressives are being challenged to react against both of these perspectives. But they have reacted much more strongly and effectively against the religious dismissal of science than they have reacted against the corporate appropriation of science and the broader commodification of higher education. That is, progressives are treating these two very reductive perspectives on the value of science—and by extension, on the value of higher education—as if they represent competing, if not almost opposite ideological positions, instead of incongruous projections of the same ideology.

A failure to appreciate the ideological connection between the positions seems one of the major explanations for why the Obama administration continues to fill important policy positions within the Department of Education with technocrats, rather than with experienced classroom teachers and university faculty.

But that is the topic for another post.

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