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A New Climate: The Clash of Science and Politics

2010 October 30

source: http://xkcd.com/

I discovered possibly the most bizarre relationship between religion and science this week in one of the oddest places: politics.  It seems there is a new trend, of not only entwining religion and politics but of rejecting an intersection of science and politics.  Really? Science and politics, you ask?

I had read a few weeks ago in the New York Times that many Tea Partiers doubt climate change, which didn’t surprise me much at all.  But this past Wednesday at Salon, I came across an article on an online poll posted by Scientific American.  Joe Romm, whom Andrew Leonard at Salon calls “climate activist extraordinaire,” expresses outrage in his own article that this poll even exists.  Writes Leonard, “Online polls are notoriously amenable to manipulation, and it seems pretty clear that climate skeptics organized in force to skew the results,”  I’m inclined to agree with him, having seen the results which Romm has included in his article:  “Like Romm, I have a hard time believing that anything close to 56.1 percent of Scientific American readers believe that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is ‘a corrupt organization, prone to groupthink, with a political agenda.’”  On the other hand, given the political climate, I’m more likely to believe that 42 percent chose “keeping science out of politics” as their desired policy option.

As a believer in the First Amendment, I firmly support the separation of Church and State as laid out by Establishment and Free Exercise clauses.  I recognize that a separation of faith and politics is not fully possibly, but that of religion and policy is.  The Founders wrote the Establishment Clause to protect the different churches from being meddled with by the government, allowing different denominations of Christianity originally and later all other world religions to go about their own business.  Today, as for much of American religious history in fact, religion tries to control the sway of politics in many ways through the legislation of morality and the conception of America as solely Christian nation.

Nowhere in the Constitution is there any measure (that I know of at least) preventing science and politics from influencing one another.  The Founders lived during a period of invention and scientific enlightenment and wished to foster the spirit of creativity and ingenuity, if Ben Franklin serves as an example.  For most of the modern scientific era, government has funded scientific advancement, with scientists relying on research grants.  Prior to this, scientists had to be either independently wealthy or earn the sponsorship of a wealthy patron to support their research.  Unfortunately, relying on government grants means a scientist must pitch their research to gain interest, and which is why research facilities with defense contracts have the most money.  Thus, the government could sway the direction of research and push America along during the Space Race and Cold War.

But we’ve seen a certain shift in the public idea of science with two fields lately: evolution and climate change.  Evolution goes against the Biblical sensibilities of fundamentalists (or creationism goes against the sensibilities of rationalism, if you prefer).  The debate between evolution and creationism/intelligent design isn’t anything new: since Darwin wrote Origin of Species, those who firmly believed in creationism wanted nothing to do with evolution and did not want it taught to their children (see: Scopes Monkey Trial).  The matter of climate change is something new, even if the idea behind it isn’t.

Climate change skepticism often comes from the first chapter of Genesis, where God grants man “dominion over the earth.”[1]  For generations, man has taken that to mean use the earth to his will, because God has given it to him.  In the NYTimes article, Norman Dennison, a 50-year-old electrician and founder of a local Tea Party Group, says of climate change, “It’s a flat-out lie.” Dennison based his views on Rush Limbaugh and scripture, adding, “I read my Bible. He made the earth for us to utilize.”  Lisa Deaton, a Tea Party supporter in Columbus, Ind., remarks, “They’re trying to use global warming against the people.  It takes away our liberty. … Being a strong Christian, I cannot help but believe the Lord placed a lot of minerals in our country and it’s not there to destroy us.”

The mistrust of science in the political realm also comes from the mistrust of the “elite.”  Almost by definition, a scientist has to be an elite because of the amount of training required.  You cannot be a scientist without being a critical thinker. [2]

As our country falls in science performance standings worldwide, we need to change our outlook towards science.  A more positive attitude towards the field will not only increase performance, but positively influence government matters.  I’m not suggesting we let Congress hear out every nutty scientist who claims to have built a time machine or worked out quantum teleportation or cold fusion.  But Congress and the people need to listen to new technological ideas for preserving the earth and minimizing emissions. If the state of the political climate with the contemporary rise of religious fanaticism wasn’t enough to scare me, this newfound desire to keep science out of politics leaves me panic-stricken for the future.

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[1] From a personal perspective, I’ve had problems with the word “dominion,” and I know that I’m not the only progressive Christian who has.  Nearly every year at the Easter Vigil, I read the story of creation in Genesis.  And nearly every year I’ve felt compelled to mix and match translations to find more palatable wording.  I’m ashamed to say I know no Hebrew, so I cannot give a linguistics lesson on the root word.

[2] Which is why creationism/intelligent design can never be taught as a science—there is no critical thought or scientific method involved.

One Response
  1. December 8, 2010

    The debate over evolution began when Charles grandfather, Erasmus, originally invented it. But at that time the majority dismissed it as nonsense, so Charles had to enlist the aid of the entire university establishment to build up hype for its relaunch.

    As far as “climate change”, I think very little of the skepticism is finds its origins in the Book of Genesis; this is a strawman argument. Most people questioning this concept are citing the ice core samples, which totally and irrefutably invalidate this nonsensical “theory” which is being forced on people by the governments of the world. The whole “climategate” scandal was a pretty big wake-up call as well. I am continually amazed that anyone still believes in this nonsense, but I suppose with a propaganda campaign on this scale, most people have a hard time even considering the facts surrounding the issue.

    And lastly, if the government wants to advance science, they should be looking into the work of Nikola Tesla. Sadly, the oil lobby is at present keeping any such thing from even being discussed, let alone funded through grants.

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