Friday, 11 June 2010 00:00
Decades after his death, George Orwell remains relevant because he understood that totalitarianism is not a form of government like that he depicted in 1984 but a state of mind characterized by the politicization of all aspects of life. In the title year of that famous book, I purchased a copy of Strahler & Strahler’s Modern Physical Geography (John Wiley & Sons, 1983), which contains a 233-word disclaimer in its preface apologizing profusely for any wording that might be construed as sexist - shades of Comrade Parsons attempting to expunge obsolete phraseology from the Newspeak Dictionary.
A few months later, I attended a fossil exhibit called “Ancestors” at the American Museum of Natural History which contained a disclaimer, added by the museum after the New York City Council threatened to withhold funding, assuring patrons that although many of the prehistoric bones on display were from South Africa, the exhibit was not intended as an endorsement of South Africa’s apartheid policies. It was around this time, too, that I read that some public schools were considering removing the standard world map from classrooms because, based on the 1569 Mercator projection developed as a navigational tool, it made European countries look larger in proportion to equatorial countries and was, consequently, a racist map. The PhD that thought of this evidently didn’t know that stretching the polar ends is necessary for representing the surface of a sphere on a flat rectangle; or maybe he didn’t know the Earth was a sphere.
Imagine volcanoes, river valleys, and ocean currents are sexist. Ancient bones are discriminatory. A map for sailors is racist. Hitherto attacks on science came from religious fundamentalists on the political right, assorted conspiracy theorists, and people who saw Bigfoot and Elvis everywhere they looked.
Since the 1980s, the attacks on science are coming from the secular political left. For example, researching genetic differences in human populations and the relationship between hormones and behavior is now deemed racist, sexist, and homophobic. Experimentation with animals is considered torture. Genetically engineering microbes is denounced as “unnatural”, as though cows, corn, and wheat were wildlife. A Playboy centerfold whose only knowledge in life is posing naked in front of a camera is now the leading spokesperson urging parents not to vaccinate their children against infectious diseases. Vegans claim that cattle ranching is harmful to the land, forgetting that a field of veggie-burger bound soybeans is not a natural ecosystem.
Science is fighting a war on a third front as well: the war for scientific literacy. Surveys indicate that there are tens of millions of Americans who don’t know that the Earth and planets revolve around the sun, why DNA is the basis for heredity, what physical evidence supports evolution, why the existence of alien spacecraft is absurdly improbable, or why we can predict that there will be a solar eclipse in Venezuela on July 16, 2186 but can’t be sure if it’ll rain two weeks from today.
This is not simply a science problem. Attacks upon science by religious fanatics, political radicals, and a culture of dumbing-down are being felt in history, art, music, and literature as well. That’s why it is absolutely essential that citizens join their local historical and preservationist societies, patronize science museums with their membership and financial support, join local educational organizations and foundations, and volunteer their time. The scientific, historical, and cultural legacy of our civilization is a considerable one that’s worth fighting for.