Thursday, March 31, 2005

Superstition or Reason

Another post at caught my eye, Robert Morris's "The End of Reason." Here Morris argues correctly, and amusingly, that since faith "renounces evidence" and superstition is "belief which is not based on human reason or scientific knowledge," the two words are essentially the same. Therefore people of faith shouldn't have a problem being called people of superstition. Playing the trickster, Morris replaces faith with superstition in the following statement from President Bush. Here's the result:
I believe in the power of superstition in people's lives. Our government should not fear programs that exist because a church or a synagogue or a mosque has decided to start one. We should not discriminate against programs based upon superstition in America. We should enable them to access federal money, because superstition-based programs can change people's lives, and America will be better off for it.
Morris is clever here, because who would want their tax dollars spent on superstition, especially a superstition that's not their own. What we've seen most acutely since President Bush assumed power is faith and belief superseding rationality and evidence. While the most cogent example is Iraq (WMD, troop levels, democracy), this has played out in the domestic culture as well. As Morris explains:
A few months ago, a dozen science centers, mostly in the South, refused to show Volcanoes, a science film funded in part by the National Science Foundation. The film was turned down because it very briefly raises the possibility that life on Earth may have originated at undersea steam vents.

Carol Murray, director of marketing for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, said that many people said the film was "blasphemous." Lisa Buzzelli, director of the Charleston Imax Theater in South Carolina, told The New York Times, "We have definitely a lot more creation public than evolution public."

Buzzelli's probably right. And that cannot bode well for America's future economic and technological leadership. A 1988 survey by researchers from the University of Texas found that one of four public school biology teachers thought that humans and dinosaurs might have inhabited the earth simultaneously. A recent survey by Gallup found that 35 percent of Americans believe the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of the Creator of the universe. Another 48 percent believe it is the "inspired" word of the same. Some 46 percent of Americans take a literalist view of creation; another 40 percent believe God has guided creation over the course of millions of years.
Why is this scary? Because our economic livelihood depends on American's ability to obey reason. It is due to our reliance on the scientific method that we are the world's most powerful nation - but it's not lasting. As my editor Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote in "Off Track" in last month's The Washington Monthly, America's inability to innovate could eventually undermine our economy. Deftly, he compared a talk by President Bush given to CEOs to another conference held by the Council of Competitiveness on the same day, in the same building:
The report [of the Council of Competitiveness] made a point of noting that the United States remains the world's dominant economy, the leader in fields ranging from biotechnology to computers to entertainment, but the CEOs nevertheless cited worrying evidence that this dominance might not last. For decades, the United States ranked first in the world in the percentage of its GDP devoted to scientific research; now, we've dropped behind Japan, Korea, Israel, Sweden, and Finland. The number of scientific papers published by Americans peaked in 1992 and has fallen 10 percent; a decade ago, the United States led the world in scientific publications, but now it trails Europe. For two centuries, a higher proportion of Americans had gone to university than have citizens of any other country; now several nations in Asia and Europe have caught up. “Those competitor countries…are not only wide awake,” said Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, “but they are running a marathon…and we tend to run sprints.”

While the president's talk focused almost exclusively on the need to free up capital for investment, these CEOs barely mentioned that as a problem. Instead, they stressed various below-the-radar government actions that they felt were undermining America's competitive edge: security arrangements that have crimped the supply of educated immigrants; recent cuts in science funding (the president's 2005 budget sliced money for research in 21 of 24 areas); and the reassigning of what research funding remains to applied research, most of it in homeland security and the military, and away from the basic scientific research that economists say is the essential engine of future economic growth. They also expressed concern about those policies Washington was not pursuing but should be: broadening access to patents; increasing research into alternative fuels; and bringing information technology into the health care market.
So while President Bush allows federal money to be spent on faith-based domestic programs, on a faith-based war, while cutting taxes on the faith it won't undermine the economy, he's also slashing federal funding to those R&D programs that will help us keep our economic edge. I don't know how or why faith, particularly of the Christian strain, has become so powerful, so quickly, but if people of reason don't come to the rescue soon, faith is all we're going to have left.