Creationism vs Evolution — The Denial of Reality by Adam Frank in The New York Times

Adam Frank, writ­ing an op ed piece in the NY Times, got me feel­ing out­raged.  Here’s his edi­to­r­i­al.

How is it that pub­lic atti­tudes have become so back­ward in the past 30 years?  Any ideas as to how to fight back against the anti-sci­ence mood of the coun­try?

Welcome to the Age of Denial


ROCHESTERIN 1982, polls showed that 44 per­cent of Amer­i­cans believed God had cre­at­ed human beings in their present form. Thir­ty years lat­er, the frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion who are cre­ation­ists is 46 per­cent.

In 1989, when “cli­mate change” had just entered the pub­lic lex­i­con, 63 per­cent of Amer­i­cans under­stood it was a prob­lem. Almost 25 years lat­er, that pro­por­tion is actu­al­ly a bit low­er, at 58 per­cent.

The time­line of these polls defines my career in sci­ence. In 1982 I was an under­grad­u­ate physics major. In 1989 I was a grad­u­ate stu­dent. My dream was that, in a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry, I would be a pro­fes­sor of astro­physics, intro­duc­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents to the pow­er­ful yet del­i­cate craft of sci­en­tif­ic research.

Much of that dream has come true. Yet instead of send­ing my stu­dents into a world that cel­e­brates the lat­est sci­ence has to offer, I am deliv­er­ing them into a soci­ety ambiva­lent, even skep­ti­cal, about the fruits of sci­ence.

This is not a world the sci­en­tists I trained with would rec­og­nize. Many of them served on the Man­hat­tan Project. After­ward, they helped cre­ate the tech­nolo­gies that drove America’s post­war pros­per­i­ty. In that era of the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, politi­cians were expect­ed to sup­port sci­ence finan­cial­ly but oth­er­wise leave it alone. The dis­as­ter of Lysenko­ism, in which Com­mu­nist ide­ol­o­gy dis­tort­ed sci­en­tif­ic truth and all but destroyed Russ­ian bio­log­i­cal sci­ence, was still a fresh mem­o­ry.

The tri­umph of West­ern sci­ence led most of my pro­fes­sors to believe that progress was inevitable. While the bar­gain between sci­ence and polit­i­cal cul­ture was at times chal­lenged — the nuclear pow­er debate of the 1970s, for exam­ple — the bat­tles were fought using sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence. Man­u­fac­tur­ing doubt remained firm­ly off-lim­its.

Today, how­ev­er, it is polit­i­cal­ly effec­tive, and social­ly accept­able, to deny sci­en­tif­ic fact. Nar­row­ly defined, “cre­ation­ism” was a minor cur­rent in Amer­i­can think­ing for much of the 20th cen­tu­ry. But in the years since I was a stu­dent, a well-fund­ed effort has skill­ful­ly rebrand­ed that ide­ol­o­gy as “cre­ation sci­ence” and pushed it into class­rooms across the coun­try. Though trans­par­ent­ly unsci­en­tif­ic, deny­ing evo­lu­tion has become a lit­mus test for some con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cians, even at the high­est lev­els.

Mean­while, cli­mate deniers, tak­ing pages from the cre­ation­ists’ PR play­book, have man­u­fac­tured doubt about fun­da­men­tal issues in cli­mate sci­ence that were decid­ed sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly decades ago. And anti-vac­cine cam­paign­ers bran­dish a few long-dis­cred­it­ed stud­ies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vac­ci­na­tion.

The list goes on. North Car­oli­na has banned state plan­ners from using cli­mate data in their pro­jec­tions of future sea lev­els. So many Ore­gon par­ents have refused vac­ci­na­tion that the state is revis­ing its school entry poli­cies. And all of this is hap­pen­ing in a cul­ture that is less engaged with sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy as intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits than at any point I can remem­ber.

Thus, even as our day-to-day expe­ri­ences have become depen­dent on tech­no­log­i­cal progress, many of our lead­ers have aban­doned the post­war bar­gain in favor of what the sci­en­tist Michael Mann calls the “sci­en­ti­za­tion of pol­i­tics.”

What do I tell my stu­dents? From one end of their edu­ca­tion­al tra­jec­to­ry to the oth­er, our soci­ety told these kids sci­ence was impor­tant. How con­fus­ing is it for them now, when sci­en­tists receive death threats for sim­ply doing hon­est research on our planet’s cli­mate his­to­ry?

Amer­i­cans always expect­ed their chil­dren to face a brighter eco­nom­ic future, and we sci­en­tists expect­ed our stu­dents to inher­it a world where sci­ence was embraced by an ever-larg­er frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion. This nev­er implied turn­ing sci­ence into a reli­gion or demand­ing slav­ish accep­tance of this year’s hot research trends. We face many daunt­ing chal­lenges as a soci­ety, and they won’t all be solved with more sci­ence and math edu­ca­tion. But what has been lost is an under­stand­ing that science’s open-end­ed, evi­dence-based process­es — rather than just its results — are essen­tial to meet­ing those chal­lenges.

My pro­fes­sors’ gen­er­a­tion could respond to silli­ness like cre­ation­ism with head-scratch­ing bemuse­ment. My stu­dents can­not afford that lux­u­ry. Instead they must become fierce cham­pi­ons of sci­ence in the mar­ket­place of ideas.

Dur­ing my under­grad­u­ate stud­ies I was shocked at the low opin­ion some of my pro­fes­sors had of the astronomer Carl Sagan. For me his efforts to pop­u­lar­ize sci­ence were an inspi­ra­tion, but for them such “out­reach” was a diver­sion. That view makes no sense today.

The enthu­si­asm and gen­er­ous spir­it that Mr. Sagan used to advo­cate for sci­ence now must inspire all of us. There are sci­ence Twit­ter feeds and blogs to run, city­wide sci­ence fes­ti­vals and high school sci­ence fairs that need input. For the civic-mind­ed non­sci­en­tists there are school board cur­ricu­lum meet­ings and long-term cli­mate response plans that cry out for the par­tic­i­pa­tion of informed cit­i­zens. And for every par­ent and grand­par­ent there is the oppor­tu­ni­ty to make a few more trips to the sci­ence muse­um with your chil­dren.

Behind the giant par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tors and space obser­va­to­ries, sci­ence is a way of behav­ing in the world. It is, sim­ply put, a tra­di­tion. And as we know from history’s dark­est moments, even the most enlight­ened tra­di­tions can be bro­ken and lost. Per­haps that is the most impor­tant les­son all life­long stu­dents of sci­ence must learn now.

Adam Frank, a pro­fes­sor of physics and astron­o­my at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rochester, is the author of “About Time: Cos­mol­o­gy and Cul­ture at the Twi­light of the Big Bang” and a founder of NPR’s 13.7 Cos­mos and Cul­ture blog.



About Aaron Bynen

Aaron is a health conscious individual living in the Pacific Northwest.

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One Response to Creationism vs Evolution — The Denial of Reality by Adam Frank in The New York Times

  1. Harriet says:

    Thanks. Upset­ting

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