By George B. Kauffman, Ph.D.
As our nation prepares to celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the entire world is preparing to celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin, who is ranked alongside our greatest scientists—Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein. Both emancipators share the same birthday, February 12, 1809. With his theory of evolution, Darwin liberated the human mind, while Lincoln liberated millions of human beings by helping to end slavery.
International Darwin Day (darwinday.org), a global celebration of the advancement of human knowledge and the achievements of science and reason, reminds us to improve our world through education and reasoned discourse and to reject today’s opposition to scientific knowledge and inquiry, the religious, superstitious, and mythological traditions that often feed such opposition, and the politicization and undermining of science by ideologues and zealots. By encouraging human beings to practice critical thinking and inspire them to wonder about the world they live in, it promotes an environment of learning that advances human development and fosters a sense of interest and respect for the natural world.
Although Theodosius Dobzhansky stated, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” a 2013 poll shows that, in contrast to most of the civilized world, a surprising number of Americans don’t believe in evolution—only 43% of Republicans and 67% of democrats believe in it (www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/30/evolution-survey_n_4519441.html).
We must make an important distinction between science and politics. While politicians cherry pick statements and deliberately take them out of context to “prove” their predetermined desiderata, scientists do the exact opposite; they try to find shortcomings in each others’ data to arrive at better explanations. As frustrating as it to seekers of certainty (and that includes me), science is always changing. Politicians cite such differences and changes as “proof” that scientists disagree with each other and that science cannot be trusted, unlike scripture and other immutable “truths.”
As a lifetime member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and as an AAAS Fellow, I regularly read Science, its flagstaff journal that features the most significant scientific articles. Although scientists may differ in details about climate change, none of them disputes its reality. Would you believe these “elite” (a term that the right uses with derision to accentuate its purported identification with the “common people”) authorities or eminent climatologists like Donald Trump or Representative Jim Imhofe (R-Oklahoma)? Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company and Koch Industries, which invested more than $50 million, have spent unlimited funds to advance the view that global warming is a “hoax” perpetuated by “liberal” scientists to promote their nefarious goals.
Why do politicians spout and repeat over and over these obvious lies. Simple. They work! But won’t these lies be discovered by the American people, in their infinite wisdom? Are you kidding me? Politicians cleverly depend on the inability of most people to concentrate on an issue for more than a nanosecond until the next scandale du jour replaces it. Rather than perform their own analysis and investigation of issues from the many sources of information that are readily available, these “ditto heads” prefer to rely on simple sound bites provided by Rush Limbaugh, the most listened to radio talk host in America and other of his ilk. Although I wasn’t surprised that CNN chief Jeff Zucker stated that Fox News is a propaganda front for the Republican Party (www.thewrap.com/cnn-jeff-zucker-fox-news-republican-party-front-roger-ailes-biography-confirms), I was dismayed to learn that it has been number one in total day and primetime for 47 consecutive quarters and 141 consecutive months with Bill O’Reilly as the reigning champ of the network(www.mediaite.com/tv/q3-2013-cable-news-ratings-fox-1-overall-msnbc-2-in-primetime-cnn-2-in-total-day).
What can we do? Two points are paramount.
First, Education. We can reach out to our fellow citizens and enlighten them about the true state of affairs. While my current health (open-heart surgery and a stroke) doesn’t permit me to march or demonstrate as many of you do, I take time from my scientific publishing (16 books and almost 2350 publications since 1955) to write for Community Alliance, our Valley’s progressive newspaper. I advise you to do likewise. Scientific aptitude is inarguably the key to global competitiveness, yet students in 22 countries posted better results in science than the United States, including Vietnam, Canada, and Poland (www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/us-students-lag-around-average-on-international-science-math-and-reading-test/2013/12/02/2e510f26-5b92-11e3-a49b-90a0e156254b_story.html). Hey, I thought we were Number One in everything! What are religious schools teaching our students in science? Catch this unbelievable story (www.dailykos.com/story/2013/04/26/1205102/-South-Carolina-Christian-School-Fourth-Grade-Science-Test?detail=email).
Second, Information Technology (IT). It’s easy to overcome apathy by using the social media that science has given us (Facebook, Twitter, Thunderclap, etc.). With a mere click or two you can sign and forward dozens of worthy petitions without stirring from your computer. I do it daily. Some work, some don’t, but at least you’re doing your part in the fight. Never give up!
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, as well as numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society.