Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Bravo Nicolas Kristof

In today’s OpEd Nicolas Kristof skewers the right, and the left, for their scientific illiteracy.

As I’ve posted on before, the US will no longer maintain its title as the world leader in technological innovations. Why? First, with respect to higher (i.e. graduate education in the sciences), eastern countries such as India and China are catching up. I applaud their efforts. Second, scientific illiteracy and anti-intellectualism are rampant in the US. As Kristof puts it:

In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity - making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as
1066 or 1789 - but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people.

"The great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had," C. P. Snow wrote in his classic essay, "The Two Cultures."

So the dumb-dumbs in the west remain (or become) clueless, and scientific proficiency (and technical know-how) spreads in the east. What will the outcome be? There are many possibilities. And some of what I've speculated has started. As I’ve writen before, if trends continue ALL SCIENCE WILL BE SHIPPED ABROAD (infact it seems almost as if Kristof reads my blog).
This disregard for science already hurts us. The U.S. has bungled research on stem cells, perhaps partly because Mr. Bush didn't realize how restrictive his curb on research funds would be. And we're risking our planet's future because our leaders are frozen in the headlights of climate change.

But a science illiterate citizenry also is ill-equipped to deal with many current day issues.
Without some fluency in science and math, we'll simply be left behind in the same way that Ming Dynasty Chinese scholars were. Increasingly, we face public policy issues - avian flu, stem cells - that require some knowledge of scientific methods, yet the present Congress contains 218 lawyers, and just 12 doctors and 3 biologists. In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we're Shakespeare-quoting Philistines.
So what’s to be done – western society must realize that hubris (from all parts of the political spectrum) and anti-intellectualism (or ANTI-SCIENCE-ism) will hurt us in the long run.

Intellectuals have focused on the challenge from the right, which has led to a drop in the public acceptance of evolution in the U.S. over the last 20 years, to 40 percent from 45 percent. Jon Miller, a professor at the Northwestern University medical school who has tracked attitudes toward evolution in 34 countries, says Turkey is the only one with less support for evolution than the U.S.

It's true that antagonism to science seems peculiarly American. The European right, for example, frets about taxes and immigration, but not about evolution.
But there's an even larger challenge than anti-intellectualism. And that's the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That's the hubris of the humanities.

Will the US be selected against?